Democrats’ Unproven Plan to Close Biden’s Enthusiasm Gap

On Indivisible’s website, the first words you’ll find—in large font and all caps—are “Defeat MAGA. Save democracy.” The progressive organizing group, formed shortly after Donald Trump’s 2016 win, sees the stakes of this fall’s presidential election as enormous, even existential. Yet when it deploys more than 2,000 volunteers to canvass neighborhoods in Arizona over the next seven months, the presidential race is the last topic it plans to bring up.

“We’re not going to be knocking on doors trying to convince people to vote for Joe Biden,” Indivisible’s co-founder Ezra Levin told me. Instead, its volunteers will be trying to turn out voters for just about every other Democrat on the ballot—including the party’s nominees for U.S. Senate and House seats and its candidates for the Republican-controlled state legislature—as well as a referendum that could restore abortion rights in Arizona.

The message isn’t meant as a snub of Biden, whom Indivisible desperately wants to win—it’s an acknowledgment that the president may be too unpopular to spur enough turnout by himself. Groups like Indivisible believe that although many Democrats are unenthusiastic about Biden, they’ll vote for him if they can just be persuaded to go to the polls. “If you get people out for the reproductive-rights amendment,” Levin said, “they’re not going to vote for the guy who overturned Roe.”

Democrats are betting that they can reverse long-held conventional wisdom on voting behavior. Support is generally thought to flow from the top of the ticket down: State and local candidates “ride the coattails” of the presidential nominee, and parties sink or swim on the strength of their standard-bearers. Not this year, Levin told me. “A large part of the theory of victory is the reverse coattails,” he said.

The strategy is a gamble. Although Democrats have had plenty of down-ballot success in recent years, particularly since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision striking down Roe v. Wade, previous elections offer scant evidence of a reverse-coattails effect. Even today, polls indicate that support for abortion access isn’t translating into support for Biden, who has often run well behind state-level Democratic candidates.

Nevertheless, faith in the reverse-coattails effect is fueling Democratic investments in down-ballot races and referenda. In North Carolina, for example, party officials hope that a favorable matchup in the governor’s race—Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein is facing Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, who has referred to homosexuality as “filth” and compared abortion to slavery—could help Biden carry a state that Trump narrowly won twice. Democrats are also trying to break a Republican supermajority in the legislature, where they are contesting nearly all 170 districts. “The bottom of the ticket is absolutely driving engagement and will for all levels of the ballot,” Heather Williams, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me.

Meanwhile, in key states across the country, Democrats and their allies are planting ballot initiatives both to protect reproductive rights where they are under threat and to turn out voters in presidential and congressional battlegrounds. They’ve already placed an abortion measure on the ballot in Florida, where the state Supreme Court upheld one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on the procedure, and they plan to in Arizona, whose highest court recently ruled that the state could enforce an abortion ban first enacted during the Civil War. Democrats are also collecting signatures for abortion-rights measures in Montana, home to a marquee Senate race, and in Nevada, a presidential swing state that has a competitive Senate matchup this year.

The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee are endorsing these ballot measures even as they dispute the suggestion that the president will need help from down-ballot races to win. “Just like they did in 2020, 2022, 2023, and 2024, voters across the country will reject Trump and MAGA Republicans’ extreme plans to drag our country backwards and side with President Biden and Democrats’ unified and positive agenda of protecting our rights and freedoms this November,” Rhyan Lake, a DNC spokesperson, said in a statement.

The theory of the reverse-coattails effect isn’t new, and its history isn’t encouraging for Democrats. An article in Time from September 1956 reported on the launch of “Operation Reverse Coattails” by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign manager to help the Democratic nominee defeat President Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection bid. Two months later, Eisenhower beat Stevenson by 15 points and nearly 400 electoral votes. A 2009 study of national elections over a 50-year period found that popular congressional incumbents offer no electoral benefit to their party’s presidential nominee.

Campaigns and parties have also frequently used ballot measures to try to juice turnout. In 2004, President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign backed amendments banning same-sex marriage that went before voters in 11 states and which Republicans hoped would motivate evangelicals to go to the polls. Bush won the election, and the amendments passed everywhere they were on the ballot, but a study by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz found that the referenda “had no discernible impact on either voter turnout or support” for Bush.

“It would be unusual,” Abramowitz told me, for a ballot measure to increase the number of people who vote in a presidential election year. “Generally it’s the presidential election that drives turnout.” A quick look at just about any state’s results helps explain why. The number of votes for president, at the top of the ballot, typically exceeds the total for any other race further down; referenda usually appear at the end of a multipage ballot.

But there are reasons to think that dynamic could change this year. Polls show that voters are unexcited about the Biden-Trump rematch, and since 2022, when Roe was overturned, abortion-related ballot measures have produced stronger-than-expected turnout just about everywhere, including during midsummer special elections in red states such as Kansas and Ohio. “If there’s any issue that has the potential to drive turnout above and beyond the presidential turnout, it might be the abortion issue,” Abramowitz said.

Increased turnout alone, however, might not be in the Biden campaign’s best interest. Democrats have been doing well in low-turnout elections decided by politically engaged voters, but the much larger electorate expected to vote in November will likely include millions of infrequent voters, a group that now tends to favor Trump. In a NORC/University of Pennsylvania poll conducted earlier this year, Biden was beating Trump 50–39 among people who had participated in each of the federal elections since 2018. Among people who voted in just one or none, Trump was ahead by double digits.

And turnout, of course, is only half of the equation. In swing states such as Arizona and Nevada, Democrats will need voters who show up to support abortion rights to also cast their ballot for Biden. That’s no sure thing. In Kansas and Ohio, abortion-rights referenda passed easily but didn’t produce a groundswell for Democratic candidates. The same has been true with other policy areas; a majority of voters, for example, have repeatedly voted to increase state minimum wages on the same ballot in which Republican candidates who opposed lifting the wage have won election.

“I’m not sure that it’s going to have more than a marginal effect on the politicians whose issue stances are associated with those ballot initiatives,” John LaBombard, a Democratic consultant who has advised Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana, told me. “There’s just not quite as much intersection on those questions as some of us in D.C. like to think.”

Democrats are trying to prove that analysis wrong. They point out that, unlike in some presidential-election years, their candidates up and down the ballot are running on a unified message on issues such as abortion, which could strengthen the connection that voters make between the policy and the nominees running on it. Indivisible is also hoping that a new strategy built around “relational organizing” will attract votes for both abortion rights and Biden. Rather than sending out volunteers to knock on the doors of people they’ve never met, the group will ask those volunteers to contact members of their own community with whom they already have some ties. The Biden campaign and other Democratic groups also plan on incorporating it into their ground games this fall.

To Indivisible’s Levin, this approach could give Democrats an edge in persuading the most sought-after Americans in this year’s election—those who haven’t decided whether they’re going to vote for Biden or Trump, or if they’re going to vote at all. All they know is they don’t particularly like either candidate, and they’ve tuned them both out. “How do you reach these voters?” Levin asked. You talk to them, he said, answering his own question, and figure out what issues resonate with them and which down-ballot candidates might get them excited to vote. “The folks who should be talking to them about these things are their neighbors,” Levin said, “because they’re going to be the most persuasive messengers.”

The key is to get these people out to vote. Once they’re inside the polling booth, the first name they’ll see is Biden. They might not like him all that much, but Democrats are betting they’ll vote for him all the same.

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