To know some history, to comprehend the story of the past, is the invaluable guide in understanding the political present.
For example, if I had a pound for every time it has been printed that the upcoming 2020 US presidential campaign is unprecedented, I’d be rich. I confess my first thoughts were also along these precise lines.
But the more I have deeply thought about this, the more wrong I think this initial take is. Instead, by knowing some American political history of 125 years ago, we can get at what is going on now.
Mark Hanna was America’s first modern political operative. Rich, shrewd, tough, intellectually penetrating, in 1896 he made it his mission to put his good friend and fellow Ohioan, William McKinley, in the White House. The governor was tested, solid, steady, but no one’s idea of inspiring. Hanna and McKinley found themselves facing William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, a fearsome populist orator, whose controversial positions inspired loyalty and revulsion in equal measure.
To combat such a dangerous opponent, Hanna came upon the idea of making a strength of McKinley’s oratorical shortcomings. Running what came to be known as “The front porch campaign”, Hanna literally had people brought in by train in small numbers right up to McKinley’s pleasant and ample front porch (I’ve seen it), where Hanna could control the message, the crowd, and the candidate, even as Bryan staged a series of large, tentpole rallies throughout the country.
While Bryan was inspiring and terrifying his audience in equal measure with his populist message, Hanna and McKinley maintained their solid lead, doing nothing to endanger victory and making no mistakes. By polling day, it wasn’t even close. Hanna had thrust himself into American political lore and McKinley had won a thumping victory.
Far from being a relic of the past, the Hanna playbook is precisely what has guided Joe Biden into a steady lead over the incumbent, Donald Trump. The Democratic nominee’s tactics also explain why he picked senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate this past week.
For Biden has turned the quarantine lockdown into a front porch opportunity. Aware that the 2020 election has become far more a referendum about the colourful Trump than anything else, Biden is also cognizant of the fact that such a contest favours him.
Uniquely in modern American political history, the Trump populist revolution, though real, has never enjoyed even one day of majority support in terms of the President’s approval ratings; it remains a minority political movement.
As such, the race remains Biden’s to lose due to his highly divisive opponent, as was true for Hanna and McKinley over a century ago. Last week, the Real Clear Politics aggregate of polls had Biden up comfortably seven points nationally over the President at 49-42 per cent, and up just outside the margin of error (48-44 per cent) in the major battleground states. All this evidence means the election is Biden’s to lose.
And in his front porch strategy and the choosing of Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee, like a tortoise in his shell, is exposing himself to the absolute minimum of dangers. Quarantined in his basement studio in his Wilmington home, Biden — a self-confessed “human gaffe machine” — has had far more control of the topics covered, the questions answered, and even the nature of his audience than would ever have been the case in a more normal political year.
By transforming his basement into Hanna’s front porch, the nominee has stepped out of the way, allowing Trump to enrage his many enemies and scare enough independent voters away to maintain Biden’s lead.
Likewise, in choosing the California senator, Biden has kept to the first rule of both medicine and politics: do no harm. For Harris checks many boxes. The Democratic nominee had promised to pick a woman. After the roiling George Floyd controversy, he was under pressure to pick a black vice presidential candidate. In a time of crisis and given Biden’s age, someone experienced was necessary.
In terms of the campaign, the vice presidential nominee has to help with the White House’s twin charges that the Democratic Party has lurched far to the social democratic left, and given in to violent rioters over the George Floyd protests. Harris, as an Obama-style moderate (though just saying this does show how far leftwards the Democrats have drifted) and as a former district attorney and California attorney general helps deflect both these attacks. Given Biden’s tortoise shell strategy, Harris is the perfect pick.
So history does point the way here, explaining the seemingly inexplicable 2020 race. In following Hanna’s front porch campaign lead, as was true for William McKinley more than a century ago, Joe Biden, more likely than not, will find himself president of the United States.
Main image credit: Getty