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Do nice guys finish last in presidential races? Joe Biden hopes not

By Francesca Chambers and Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON - Joe Biden's campaign has taken pains to describe the Democratic nominee as a caring and altogether decent man.

President Donald Trump's team doesn't spend a second portraying its candidate as warm and fuzzy.

In an election weighted with historical significance, do voters care how nice of a guy a candidate for president is?

The Biden campaign says the character-focused effort - evident in their TV ads and high-profile speeches - is an essential part of an overall strategy to make voters feel more comfortable with a former vice president whose life story was still relatively unknown before the race began. Only then, Democrats say, will voters be convinced about his pledges to take on the big issues of the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery.

"There is a relative dearth of knowledge about him, both who he is and what he plans to do," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "So you have to fill in both parts."

In Trumpworld, it's an approach that misses the point entirely in a race in which voters are preoccupied with fears about their wealth, health and safety.

"We're electing a president. We're not electing a guy who you want to go hang out and drink beers with," said Rick Gorka, the spokesman for the Republican National Committee's joint effort with Trump's campaign.

The president's all-caps tweets and tendency to launch personal attacks against his critics often chafe members of his own party. But rather than deny that Trump can be abrasive, his campaign has incorporated his conduct into its messaging on the president's efforts to renegotiate international trade deals and repeated clashes he's had with foreign leaders.

"Nice guys don't get those things done," Gorka said. "Nice guys allow those things to happen, because they're trying to place nice in the sandbox."

Biden's team has leaned into painting the candidate as a moral and empathetic person in the final stretch of the 2020 race. At last month's Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker - including some Republicans - testified to Biden's character, including a video highlighting his friendship with the late Sen. John McCain.

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Key parts of Biden's biography have also been on display, including the grief he felt after the deaths of multiple family members, his working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and even the closeness of his relationship with his grandchildren and fondness for ice cream.

Those messages have made their way into Biden's speeches, in which he compares his background to Trump's, and TV ads, which highlight the Democrat's experience with tragedy and the way in which it underscored to him the importance of health care.

Biden officials say the point of their messaging isn't to make the candidate seem like a nice guy and leave it at that. Instead, it's part of a concerted effort to convince voters that his commitment to his policy agenda, whether fighting the coronavirus or defending protections for pre-existing conditions, is genuine.

"We're doing it this way because it gives credibility and a layer of texture to the issue areas in which we're playing," said Patrick Bonsignore, the Biden campaign's director of paid media.

The Biden strategy so far appears to be paying off. He holds a broad and consistent lead over Trump in national and battleground state polls, and among voters, many surveys show he's much more well-liked.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released this month, for instance, showed that an even share of likely voters saw Biden favorably and unfavorably, 45% each. Meanwhile, Trump was deeply underwater: just 41% of likely voters saw him favorably, compared to 55% who didn't.

Perceptions of how likable a candidate is have played a key role in each of the last two presidential elections. In 2012, polls consistently showed that voters liked Obama more than they approved of his job performance, an edge that eventually helped him win re-election.

Four years later, Hillary Clinton wasn't able to overcome that a majority of voters viewed her unfavorably.

"They successfully branded her as evil and mean," said Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. "And so that contrast of Donald Trump being mean and Hillary Clinton being nice wasn't a set up that was going to work for Hillary Clinton."

Trump has acknowledged twice on recent occasions that Biden is better liked than his previous opponent.

 

"Clinton is much smarter, but not a likable person. Joe is not nearly as smart, but he's more likable," Trump said during an August speech. "So, you know, I don't know, maybe I'd rather have the smarter person. Who cares about personality, right? But that's the difference."

Philippe Reines, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton, said that Trump has largely stayed away from character attacks on Biden that could highlight his own personal flaws.

"When you attack someone in this context you have to not be guilty of the thing you are attacking someone of," he said. "And even though Donald Trump enjoys this double standard, people are wiser to it than they were four years ago."

Trump's uncouth comments have drawn the most consistent criticism of Republicans throughout his tenure in office. But his campaign has in turn argued that directness is one of his greatest assets.

Last fall, the Trump campaign employed the unusual tactic of running an expensive World Series advertisement that proudly stated, "he's no Mr. Nice Guy." The commercial ended with the boast, "but sometimes it takes Donald Trump to change Washington."

Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and a senior adviser to the campaign, acknowledged that many people don't always love the way the president delivers every message, but added that they still believe he is doing what is necessary for the nation.

"Sometimes it takes someone like Donald Trump to step in. Somebody that's not going to be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows all the time but is going to be tough and direct and aggressive and make sure that the right thing happens for America," Lara Trump said. "And I think that that was generally the message of that ad, and I think that there are probably a lot of people who feel that way."

Trump's supporters see the message as core to his ability to retain the support of blue-collar voters who could decide the outcome of the election in battleground states.

"Part of Trump's angle has got to be, 'Hey, I am unconventional. This isn't a likability contest. This is about who is going to shake things up," former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said. "That's his best argument with swing voters."

Biden in recent days has played up his working-class roots to undercut Trump's popularity with those voters, including noting that he did not attend an Ivy League college unlike most recent presidents.

"You close the door on me because you think I'm not good enough, guess what? Like all you guys, I'm going to bust down that door. My guess is a lot of you feel the same way about a lot of slights you've had because of our standing," Biden said during a speech in Manitowoc, Wis., last week. "I say it's about time that a state school president sat in the Oval Office because you know what? If I'm sitting there, you're going to be sitting there too."

Kellyanne Conway, who was until recently a senior counselor to the president at the White House, said that Biden's everyman argument would be more effective if he had not spent more than four decades in Washington.

"If likability is a personal attribute, the professional attribute is competence and delivery and production and he lacks that. That's why they're saying he's a nice guy - because he hasn't been a very effective one," Conway said.

Trump has also spent considerable time making the argument to suburban voters that they "will not be safe in Joe Biden's America" because the Democrat would allow violent demonstrators and anarchists to run roughshod.

"They've also realized that to the extent that he has a plausible path to victory, it is through fear," Reines said of Trump's approach to Biden.

But voters are seeking a candidate who will feel their pain, as former President Bill Clinton once put it, amid a health crisis and racial unrest, GOP pollster Frank Luntz said.

All but six% of voters have already made up their minds based on the issues, the pollster assessed, and for the remaining undecided voters, the perception of the candidates and their personalities will be the only differentiating factor.

Luntz said the upcoming presidential debate will provide voters with an important opportunity to directly contrast the two candidates.

"The polling is accurate, Joe Biden is winning right now, but Trump is not out of it," he said.

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