Donald Trump did not lose the election because he ran a bad campaign. On the contrary, he ran a prototypical one, that produced tremendous turnout on election day. President Trump maintained the voter enthusiasm that has come to define his political career, as evidenced by his ability to fill stadiums and market merchandise. Donald Trump lost, however, because enthusiasm mattered little in this unique election.
In an election where voting early and by mail was the norm, the effect of voter and base enthusiasm was diminished, because it simply does not take much enthusiasm to drop a ballot in the mail. It is for that reason that the president lost despite turning out record numbers on election day. Indeed, many, if not most, of Joe Biden’s supporters voted in a non-traditional manner.
Still, though, keen observers must wonder if there were moves the Trump campaign could’ve made to prevent people from mailing in a ballot in Biden’s favor.
Late in the campaign, the president seemed laser focused on Hunter Biden, and apparently for good reason. Since the election, more information of Hunter’s potential wrongdoing have come to light, and an investigation into it has been launched.
Still, despite the good cause with which President Trump brought up the Hunter Biden scandals (as he often did during the debates, for example,) it simply wasn’t good politics for two reasons.
First, because the scandal is inside baseball. Nobody outside the realm of politics could state affirmatively what Hunter allegedly did wrong. Even if they could, they likely wouldn’t care. Frankly, it’s the expectation of the populace that politicians (and people with money and power, generally) leverage their positions for increased opportunity. It’s not surprising; it’s not jaw-dropping.
More importantly, it’s not overtly clear to the American people what Hunter did wrong. Following the Hunter allegations requires nuance and careful scrutiny. It requires regularly reading the news and going out of the way to search for outlets that were covering it. Most Americans with jobs and families extending beyond politics can’t be expected to take that degree of effort to follow the story. For that reason, though President Trump repeatedly brought the issue up at the debate, and though it perhaps made people feel icky, it likely didn’t move them because they didn’t truly know what he was talking about.
The second reason that hunting for Hunter was bad politics is perhaps an even stronger reason the Trump campaign should not have relied so heavily on this story.
I distinctly remember, when I was younger, my father once told me that – even if wronged by a person – you should never cause friction between a man and his children. Despite the Left’s relentless attack on the nuclear family, the American ethos still support a loving family unit (look, for example, how difficult it was for people to separate from their loved ones during this holiday season.) Family, togetherness, love, and support are still ideals Americans hold dear. For that reason, pitting Joe against Hunter, using a man’s son against him, leaves a foul taste in the mouths, hearts, and minds of voters.
This effect is even greater when it comes to a man like Joe Biden, who has experienced great familial tragedy. The most emotionally-stirring part of the debates was when President Biden referenced his son, only for Trump to ask which son Biden was referring to. Biden said he was talking about his deceased son Beau, and not Hunter. It seemed as though the president was gearing up to attack Hunter, only for Beau to be brought up. The best the president could muster in response was, “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter,” ignoring Biden’s painful tragedy. When a family experiences the tragedy the Biden family has, America doesn’t want to turn Biden’s last remaining son against him, they want to ensure that Biden’s family could regroup whatever remains of it. President Trump – known for his love of his children – should have recognized that.
Perhaps Trump has recognized it, as he tweeted this, apparently expressing sympathy for Hunter:
Even if so, however, it is obviously too little too late insofar as electoral politics go.
If President Trump were to read this, he’d probably retort about the apparent lack of fairness. He would reasonably argue that the left-wing extremists and their cohorts in the media have regularly and disgracefully attacked each one of his children from Don Jr. all the way down to Barron. He’d be justified in his grievance. But this column isn’t about fairness, it’s about good politics. Centering his campaign around Hunter Biden was not good politics. And for what it’s worth, many abhorred the attacks on Barron. While both Hunter and Don Jr. should not be immune to scrutiny as grown men, only Hunter comes with the aforementioned emotional backstory.
None of this is to say that President Trump should’ve stuck exclusively to policy and not attack Joe Biden personally. Hunter was the forbidden fruit, but other attacks were available. Most obviously, and perplexingly not oft cited by the president in the home stretch of the campaign, was Joe Biden’s strange practice of sniffing the hair of young girls. During the Democratic primary this was an issue that went viral on social media platforms and one that had a presence in the news cycle. It stuck. Detractors might respond that taking aim at Biden’s creepy behavior toward women would have opened the door to attacking Trump for his behavior toward the same demographic. But this argument fails because Trump’s past women-centric controversies are already a well-established sunk cost. Nothing Biden could say on the topic would outdo the infamous 2016 Access Hollywood tape. When Americans voted for Trump that year, they at least implicitly implied that Trump’s actions there were not prohibitive toward him holding the office. Against Joe Biden, the candidate who preached a return to normalcy, however, an attack centered around unambiguously abnormal behavior would have been effective. This attack was established, effective, and most importantly simple for the American people to understand (in contrast to the Hunter story) and yet, it was bewilderingly absent from the president’s attack arsenal.
Would a better attack have necessarily saved the president from his ultimate defeat in an election that gave the challenger a mail-in advantage? That is impossible to know. But what is certain is that a Presidential campaign the size of the one Trump ran never should have made this gaping an error, so late in the game, with so much hanging in the balance.
Elliot Fuchs is a political consultant, commentator, and writer. He is also a student at the Georgetown University Law Center. Follow him on twitter @Elliot_Fuchs.