“Let’s be clear: This election is not a referendum,” he told a Democratic National Committee rally in Maryland. “It’s a choice. It’s a choice between two very different visions of America.”
If there is a single big-picture reason Biden was able to help Democrats stay afloat in what for weeks looked like it could be a massive red wave, it was this argument. Republicans understandably wanted the election to be about Biden and his performance in office, especially judged from the perspective of an inflation-ridden economy. Biden desperately wanted the election to be about almost anything else.
Why? Because Biden knew he could not win a referendum on his presidency. He was polling in the mid-40s at best, and the upper 30s at the worst. History suggested Democrats were in for a major beating. The exit polls found majorities unhappy with Biden’s stewardship and hopeful he would not run again.
Joe Biden had reason to believe this might work. Why? He had just won an election that was about Donald Trump two years earlier. But therein also lay the rub.
Trump, throughout 2020, tried furiously to do the same thing Joe Biden was doing in 2022: change the subject. Biden wanted the road to the White House to be a referendum on Trump, his tweets, the lockdown-addled economy, and above all else the pandemic. Trump wanted it to be a binary choice between not just himself and “Sleepy Joe,” but also between Republicans and the most controversial policies of the Democratic Party, including those of the radical Left that Biden either disavowed or embraced with questionable sincerity.
Trump was not without success. He was able to move some votes, even among the more conservative-leaning nonwhite Democrats, by branding Democrats as the party of defund the police despite Biden’s best efforts to distance them from the left-wing movement. Trump was similarly able to cast them as advocates of socialism, although Biden seldom tired of pointing out that he beat Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.
The 45th president wasn’t just running against an aged liberal former vice president from Delaware, his predecessor Barack Obama had pulled from the trash heap. Trump was campaigning against the open-borders, abortion-on-demand, pro-crime, anti-gun, woke socialist mobs Biden would be too weak to restrain.
It almost worked. A blue wave was averted. Republicans actually gained seats in the House, a net pickup of 14. The Electoral College, and therefore the entire presidential election, came down to 43,000 votes in three battleground states. Unified GOP control of the federal government wasn’t much further off. The Senate majority came down to a pair of Georgia runoffs.
Yet Biden won, largely because the race was still mainly a referendum on Trump and issues like his handling of COVID-19. The binary could only do so much damage to Democratic chances.
What didn’t work for Trump worked for Biden in no small part because of one critical difference: Trump helped.
As Joe Biden and his White House subordinates used babytalk-like phrases such as Mega MAGA to keep the focus on the former president, Trump kept putting himself out there. His handpicked Senate candidates too often underperformed. He encouraged rumors he would declare his presidential candidacy before the midterms, perhaps even at a rally for someone else, as Republicans fretted.
Trump relented, but the story was out there. He went so far as to use his campaign swings for other Republican candidates to take shots at a potential rival who was up for reelection this year. (That rival was unharmed.)
In the end, Joe Biden beat Trump in 2020. Stop the steal protestations aside, he effectively beat him again in 2022. But, importantly, Biden beat Trump at his own game.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and Editor of the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?