Voters are more stressed than ever before and Democrats are responding to that by promising one thing: If we win the presidency in November, you won’t have to think about us every day.
The latest example of this is an ad from the Biden campaign that opens with a direct question: “Remember when you didn’t have to think about the President every single day?”
“And instead there was someone in that office who thought about you,” a narrator continues in the ad, which is part of a national cable ad campaign targeting black voters as part the campaign’s $26 million investment around the Republican convention. “He will bring back that: Joe Biden.”
But the message extends beyond just this ad, with both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris pledging less anxiety if they are elected. Biden, in an interview with CNN on Thursday, said, “We’ve got to calm this whole situation down. … The American people aren’t buying this.”
The message, while possibly potent, is unconventional, and signals how unique Donald Trump’s presidency has been for both stressed out Democrats and disillusioned Republicans.
Studies and polls conducted since Trump was elected have shown that anxiety levels in the United States have gone up, leading psychologists to coin terms like “Trump Anxiety Disorder” and worry about the impact that constant dour headlines were having on America’s collective mental health.
And those same studies have found that the 2020 election is a source of that stress. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2019 found that for 56% of Americans, the upcoming election is a stressor, ticking up from the 52% who reported the same in 2016.
The Democratic messaging is a knock against Trump’s erratic behavior, and forces voters to think about how their concerns about the White House would go away if Trump was no longer in power.
“That line captures how a lot of people feel,” said a Biden aide. “You want to be able to pick up your phone in the morning and not be outraged or scared, you want a government that works.”
The argument is not a policy one. It instead rests on the exhaustion and anxiety that many Americans have felt during the last four years.
And many Democratic operatives – including some who worked on campaigns against Biden this year – believe it resonates not only with suburban voters, a key group that Trump is targeting this election, but also with Republicans who are stressed about the President.
Michael Halle, a former top aide to former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said Republicans – even those who support Trump – make the case for creating a campaign and administration that makes people less anxious when they complain about Trump’s tweeting.
“It is effective and it is highly resonant with a lot of voters, especially the suburban college-educated group that Trump must make inroads with,” said Halle, who argued that the desire for there to be less chaos and controversy around the presidency is bipartisan. “Even Republicans will say ‘I wish he would tweet less’ and that is code for they want less controversy.”
The Biden ad, along with other messaging from the campaign, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from these stressed out voters, especially Democrats. But Biden is far from the first Democrat to attempt this strategy.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a candidate who found no traction in the Democratic primary race, often joked about how – compared to Trump – he was boring.
“If you elect me president,” Bennet tweeted last year. “I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time.
Not much worked for Bennet during the campaign, but this tweet garnered nearly 6,000 retweets – a substantially larger reaction than anything the Colorado Democrat did during the campaign.
Buttigieg, who won the Iowa caucuses, also regularly made a similar case on the campaign trail.
“Picture a presidency where when you turn on the news and you see the White House,” Buttigieg said in Iowa last year, “your blood pressure goes down a little bit instead of up a little bit.”
And there is some indication that Republicans – including the Trump campaign – know voters are seeking out this kind of calm.
Speakers throughout the Republican National Convention sought to cast the President as a deliberate leader – almost a calming force in a chaotic world. That is a persona that most voters don’t associate with Trump, and one that is significantly at odds with what the President himself shows in front of the cameras.
“Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic,” said First Lady Melania Trump in her closely watched speech.
And when the Trump campaign released their second term agenda in August, one bullet about the coronavirus included the pledge to “return to normal in 2021,” a notable addition considering that Republicans are the party in power.
It’s all an acknowledgment that the last year – with the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and a heated presidential election – has not been normal, something voters are longing for.
The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.
Democrats contend, however, that chaos is Trump’s normal and any promises of normalcy are hollow.
“When Trump’s campaign says they want to return to normal, they are trying to pretend that they haven’t actively and continuously made things worse,” said Christina Reynolds, a top operative at Emily’s List and a veteran of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “What the Democrats want is not a return to where things were, but a hope that when people think of the White House and their government, they won’t have to worry that their actions will harm the people they care about.”
But the strategy of promising normalcy is not without risks.
Voters rejected Hillary Clinton, the perceived status-quo candidate in 2016, and instead gravitated towards the exciting, albeit unpredictable, Trump. A great deal has changed in four years – and voters now know what a Trump presidency would look like – but top Democrats with the Biden campaign are arguing that promises of lowing the anxiety in the country does not mean a return to total normalcy.
“We are in a crisis moment in this country,” Kate Bedingfield, a top Biden operative, said this month. “This is a time to meet that moment, to put forward big ideas, to put forward ideas that are going to ensure that when we come out of this crisis, we’re not just going back to the old normal.”
CNN’s Sarah Mucha contributed to this report