Elections are about trust, blame, and identity.  Here’s how to use that against Trump.

According to one well-known theory of electoral competition, voters care about policies, and candidates pick policies to maximize their appeal to voters.  This suggests that campaigns will try to appeal to the median voter. 

There is obviously something to this model, and this year, as always, it is a safe bet that each side will, at least to an extent, focus on issues that tend to draw in cross-pressured voters.  The Democrats will focus on abortion, the Republicans on inflation and the war in Gaza, etc. 

Here I want to sketch a different theory of voter choice, one that emphasizes the importance of trust and identity.  The trust model and the median voter model are not mutually exclusive.  Both can be true to some extent, along with other political models.  The world is a complicated place.  But the trust model is interesting because it helps to identify unifying themes or frames that Democrats can use to organize the way voters think about the upcoming election. 

A simple theory of trust, identity, and elections

1)  Elections are largely about trust and blame.  This is inevitable because voters generally do not know which policies will lead to outcomes they approve of, and even if a candidate endorses policies that a voter finds attractive, the voter has no assurance that the candidate will actually pursue these policies in office.  Furthermore, voters tend to believe that good outcomes are achievable if politicians are well-motivated (the so-called Green Lantern theory of the Presidency).  The upshot is that voters have a strong incentive to identify and vote for politicians who share their values. 

2) Trust is often based on some kind of ethnocentric identification, that is, on the feeling that a candidate or party will favor people like you on important policy issues because they identify with you or think that people like you have special moral importance or virtue (because you’re white, or a true American, or hardworking, etc.).  This is partly because most of us want to be patted on the head and told that we are morally special, and partly because we quite understandably fear being targeted by political elites who are hostile to our fundamental interests (on grounds of ethnicity, religion, race, sexual orientation, and so on).  At the end of the day, most of us won’t vote for politicians we don’t think have the interests of people like us at heart, even politicians who say stuff we like about policy.

3)  Concerns about competence also influence trust.  This is one explanation for retrospective voting; if the economy is doing poorly, voters (at least some marginal voters) will suspect that this reflects a lack of competence on the part of the incumbent President.  (If voters assume bad economic performance reflects a lack of public-spirited motivation, then retrospective voting is based on an inference about the values of the President rather than an inference about competence.) 

Deciding to trust politicians is often based more on hope than experience.  When voters are in a hopeful mood, they may choose which candidate to support based on the candidate’s policy positions, or at least broadly defined policy goals.  This kind of reasoning – in which people decide to trust the candidate who tells them what they want to hear about policy – is unlikely to play a big role in an election between two well-known and largely unpopular candidates.  2024 will not be a “hope and change” election.  For the voters who are up for grabs and will determine the outcome, it’s likely a “who do I distrust least” election. 

I want to use this framework to propose two frames that Biden and the Democrats should emphasize in 2024.  The first frame aims to undermine voter trust in Trump and the Republican party.  The second tries to give voters an affirmative reason to support Biden by influencing identification.

Frame 1:  believe them

Believe them:  for years, the Republicans told us they wanted to make abortion illegal.  When they finally had the chance, they did it.  They have also been telling us for years that they want to slash Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.  If we give them the chance, they will do it. 

Republicans have been staking out some pretty radical ideas for a long time – ideas that are so unpopular that it is easy to dismiss them as idle chatter.  Abortion changes that.  Americans really need to worry that Republicans mean what they say – about everything.  We need to take them seriously and literally. 

This basic theme can be extended in different directions.  Trump has tried to move a bit towards the center on abortion.  It’s not clear he will keep this up, but even if he does, why should we believe him?  Let’s say Biden challenges Trump to promise that he will not allow enforcement of the Comstock Act to suppress abortion access, that he will veto any federal law limiting access to abortion or contraception or IVF, and that he will only appoint people to positions with authority over abortion access who have a clear record of support for choice.  I doubt Trump would make any of these promises in a clear and unequivocal way.  In this case, the response is clear:  “Donald, you’re hedging.  Why won’t you just come out and say that you will veto any federal law limiting access to abortion and fire any executive branch appointee who tries to restrict abortion rights?”  And if Trump does promise to oppose federal limits on abortion access, the rejoinder is obvious:  given what you have already said and done, why should anyone believe you?

This rhetorical strategy can be extended to other issues.  To give one example, Biden can point to the fact that if Trump is elected, Republicans will give away trillions of dollars to the rich in tax cuts.  And then when deficits predictably rise they will turn around and demand cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and to the Affordable Care Act subsidies. 

Trump will deny that he intends to cut these programs, he’ll say he intends to make them better.  But he said this in 2016.  He was lying.  He didn’t improve Social Security.  He tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act without offering any alternative to people who rely on it.  Why should we believe him now?

Frame 2:  regional economic development

The second theme I would hit on is the need for regional economic development.  Biden can appeal to many swing state voters – and even lay the groundwork for an eventual Democratic resurgence in some reddish states – by emphasizing that economic growth has disproportionately benefited some regions of the country while many other areas have been left behind, and that he wants to extend economic opportunity to all Americans.

Providing fair economic opportunity to areas that are struggling is a politically powerful framing for Democrats.  People who live in areas without much economic opportunity want to be told that their lack of economic success is not their fault.  (Which, to be clear, it isn’t – there are people who make bad choices all over the country, but on average people do much better in some places than others.)  Furthermore, regional identity is important to people, and focusing on regional development will give people in many swing states a reason to feel that the Democrats are on their side.  If people feel that the Democrats are on their side it will be harder for Republicans to use other, more divisive identity-based appeals – to race, christian nationalism, sexism, etc. – effectively against the Democrats.

Biden actually has a decent record on regional economic development.  Unfortunately, regional equity and development was often treated as an appetizer or side dish in policy debates during Biden’s first two years, rather than the main course (which was mostly a large rhetorical helping of climate policy mixed with some talk about infrastructure and controlling inflation).  This was a miss, but it should be easy to fix.  Trump’s record on economic development couldn’t be any worse if he had deliberately set out to light huge piles of money on fire (see, e.g., the Foxconn fiasco in Wisconsin and the Lordstown plant debacle in Ohio). 

Biden needs to emphasize that restoring economic opportunity in areas that have seen stagnation or hardship is not a quick or easy task, and that what he has done in his first term is just a down payment.  America’s political elites stood by for decades as prosperity concentrated in a handful of states.  Economic forces are powerful and imbalances that took years to develop cannot be corrected overnight.  But fortunately there are lots of policy proposals floating around that Biden’s team can draw on to flesh out a full-throated regional economic development strategy. 

To give one example, allowing states or counties to decide whether to take immigrants – through some version of a “heartland visa” program – is a promising idea that could help revitalize distressed areas and lower the temperature of our immigration wars.  Under current policy, communities that are skeptical of immigrants feel that immigrants are being forced on the country by distant, unresponsive elites.  Under a heartland visa program, people in areas that are experiencing population decline would be allowed to decide to encourage in-migration because it will benefit their communities.  We can certainly debate the policy and political merits of this approach; my point is that there is a lot of room for creativity and constructive proposals once we focus on bringing opportunity to areas that are struggling.