Many elections are portrayed as a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden is trying to make sure 2020 isn’t one of those.
Having watched President Trump squeak out a win last time, thanks in large part to voters’ dislike of Hillary Clinton, the Biden team is doing everything it can to avoid the same fate. Keeping Mr. Biden off the stump and using Republicans to argue that Mr. Trump is far out of bounds are part of the Democrats’ goal to make voters pick a side.
“There is no question that they are being kind of manicky about this: There is good and bad, and you have to choose one or the other,” said Wy Spano, a veteran Democratic Party strategist.
The lesser-of-two-evils argument did benefit Mr. Trump in the last presidential election.
Exit polls from 2016 showed roughly one-fifth of voters in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were not excited about either of the top contenders.
Mr. Trump ran up large margins against Mrs. Clinton among those disgruntled voters.
Mr. Biden appears to be on stronger footing.
Mr. Biden has a 20-point lead among registered voters and a 30-point lead among likely voters who aren’t thrilled with either candidate, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week.
“Biden continues to have a decisive edge among voters who still hold their noses about both candidates,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute.
Overall, the survey found 47% of registered voters view Mr. Biden in a positive light and 44% who don’t.
Mr. Trump’s favorability is upside down, with 40% of registered voters giving him a thumbs-up and 53% a thumbs-down.
Jon Cooper, a longtime Biden supporter, said surveys consistently show voters find Mr. Biden to be trustworthy and likable.
“To a large extent, that cuts across party lines,” he said. “Even those who disagree with Joe politically see him as a good and moral person. That’s one of his real strengths in this election.”
Alex Conant, a Republican Party strategist, said Mr. Biden is betting that he can define “himself as an affable leader who independent voters can trust.”
“In 2016, voters didn’t like Trump or Clinton — and that benefited Trump,” Mr. Conant said. “In 2020, Biden wants to make sure voters don’t see a similar choice.”
But the president may be narrowing the gap.
Although Mr. Biden is ahead among voters who dislike both choices in the Monmouth poll, his advantage has been cut nearly in half from the 38% lead he held in Monmouth’s previous poll on the subject.
A Republican Party strategist and adviser to Donald Trump Jr. said to expect more tightening as voters get a better look at Mr. Biden.
“Joe Biden, just like Hillary Clinton, is the physical embodiment of the Washington establishment,” the adviser said. “So if you are looking at both of them and you are like, ‘Well, I don’t like either of them,’ you are going to at least look at Donald Trump and say at least Donald Trump p–-s all the right people off.”
The Trump team also is counting on voters looking more at policy than personality.
“While Democrats are focused on Trump’s character, it is very clear that Trump is focused on Biden’s policy agenda — particularly his economic policy and views on law and order,” said the adviser, adding that the Biden team is making “literally the exact same mistake Hillary Clinton made in 2016” by arguing that Mr. Trump is too personally flawed to sit in the Oval Office.
The dueling approaches play out on the campaign trail, where Mr. Trump touts his economic record before the COVID-19 pandemic and then warns voters of the results of a Biden presidency.
“He wants to surrender our country to the violent left-wing mob, and you’re seeing it every night,” Mr. Trump said at a recent campaign rally in Michigan. “If Biden wins, China wins. If Biden wins, the mob wins. If Biden wins, the rioters, anarchists, arsonists and flag burners win.”
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has argued that Mr. Trump is sick and twisted and that his immoral nature has made the election this year a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
“Donald Trump, from the very moment he entered the race, knew that the only way he could win was by spreading hate and dividing the country based on racial and ethnic and political lines,” Mr. Biden said during a fundraiser.
Jane Lester, a nurse and registered Democrat in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said Mr. Biden’s superior character won her vote.
“He is a human being, and we have lost four years of our wonderful country because of the man up there right now,” said Ms. Lester, 62. Mr. Biden “is a healer. He is a real human being. He shows sympathy and empathy. … He cares about everyone. He is willing to listen and not to always speak.”
What’s more, it was Mr. Trump’s poor character that made Mr. Biden stand out by comparison.
“What’s not wrong with Trump? He lies constantly,” she said. “He has no morals. He has nothing. He is a vacuum. It is a very sad time in my life.”
⦁ S.A. Miller and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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