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US Presidential Campaign Will Be a War of Competing Messages

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President Joe Biden followed up a raucous State of the Union Speech Thursday night with a campaign visit to Pennsylvania on Friday, while Donald Trump plans one of his signature rallies in Georgia on Saturday.

Both men will be on the campaign trail with few breaks for the next eight months while simultaneously dealing with other responsibilities – Biden the duties of a president, and Trump as the focus on multiple criminal and civil lawsuits.

It promises to be a highly personal battle. Biden spent much of his televised address on Thursday describing the man he only referred to as ‘my predecessor’ as an existential threat to American democracy.

For his part, Trump appeared to follow the speech in real time, posting dozens of comments on Truth Social, his social media platform, harshly criticizing the length of time Biden took to walk down the aisle of the House floor, his hairstyle, his tone of voice and his policy positions.

The coming eight months also promise to be a battle of messaging, during which Biden and his surrogates will do their best to stress the strong economic numbers that have characterized the past year, and to remind voters why Trump left office with the highest final disapproval rating of any president since the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a watch party event to mark the Super Tuesday primary elections at his Mar-a-Lago property, in Palm Beach, Fla., March 5, 2024. Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a watch party event to mark the Super Tuesday primary elections at his Mar-a-Lago property, in Palm Beach, Fla., March 5, 2024.

Meanwhile, Trump will continue to hammer on the fact that consumer prices have increased by about 20% since Biden took office, to draw attention to the migration crisis at the southern border, to remind voters of Biden’s age and to claim that global crises that emerged during Biden’s term, including the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, would have been averted if Trump had been in office.

Messaging challenges for both

‘We’ve seen what both of the candidates would ideally like the campaign to be about going forward,’ said Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. ‘I think that we’ll see them try to stick to that message as closely as possible – as world circumstances and evidence from their own internal polls will permit.’

Neiheisel told VOA that both candidates will face real challenges in imposing their preferred narrative on the election, even absent active efforts by the opposing campaigns to undermine them.

‘Trump obviously wants this campaign to be about, ‘Remember the good days, the time pre-COVID when the economy was going gangbusters. I want you to associate that kind of thing with me,” he said.

‘The problem that encounters is that he’s effectively an incumbent in many respects, and people remember not just those times, but they also remember the COVID times. And so, I think he’s going to have a difficult time with that message.’

Biden, he said, appears to be placing a lot of faith in the idea that campaigning as a defender of democracy is a formula for winning the election.

‘I don’t know how mobilizing the defense of democracy is an issue,’ Neiheisel said. ‘I certainly think it is for high-information voters, but I’m not sure how well that resonates across the spectrum.’

Talking about the economy

Both candidates are certain to spend much of the campaign trying to shape voters’ views of the economy, a contest that played out very publicly Thursday night.

In Washington, Biden repeatedly returned to the theme of the country’s economic progress during his tenure, calling it the ‘greatest comeback story never told.’

‘Folks, I inherited an economy that was on the brink,’ Biden said. ‘Now our economy is literally the envy of the world. Fifteen million new jobs in just three years – a record, a record. Unemployment at 50-year lows.’

At the same time, Trump was active on social media, writing, ‘INFLATION UNDER BIDEN IS KILLING AMERICA!’

The former president followed up with several memes highlighting price increases that Americans have experienced over the past three years, including for gasoline, food, rent, mortgages and electricity.

Hard to break through

Caroline Fohlin, a professor of economics at Emory University and an expert on public perceptions of the economy, said it will be difficult for either Trump or Biden to influence voters’ feelings about the economy through rhetoric alone.

‘There will definitely be a massive amount of credit-taking and blame-shifting, even for things that are really not the result of anything either candidate did,’ she told VOA. But such claims are typically outweighed by kitchen-table economics.

‘We can tell people all the numbers we want, and yet, what they make decisions on is mostly what’s in front of them,’ Fohlin said. ‘So, people who are doing well have a positive view, people who are struggling have a negative view.’

Fohlin said that Biden has been having difficulty persuading the American public to take a brighter view of the economy. Despite the fact that wages have been growing at a rate higher than that of inflation, she said, people still see bills that are significantly higher than they were in 2020, and associate the change with the president who was in office at the time.

However, she said, public perceptions could well improve before November and take some of the sting out of the former president’s attacks.

‘If we’re still in declining inflation rates, and employment is still very good, and the stock market’s still doing really well, it’s very hard for Trump to tell a story that Biden has ruined the economy.’

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