Presidential campaigns often are waged on whether or not the country is ready to “turn the page.” President Joe Biden wants his reelection bid to hinge on whether or not there is a page to turn.
The president’s team has made the issue of book banning a surprisingly central element of his campaign’s opening salvos. He referred to GOP efforts to restrict curriculum — Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was the third most banned title in America last year — in his first two campaign videos. He presents himself in each video as the defender of the country’s core values, a bulwark against an extreme Republican Party rolling back America’s freedoms.
The campaign’s first TV ad, a 90-second spot running in seven states over the next two weeks as part of a seven-figure buy, warns Republicans “seek to overturn elections, ban books and eliminate a woman’s right to choose.” Biden followed up with a tweet hitting “MAGA extremists … telling you what books should be in your kids’ schools.” That followed the explicit reference to book bans in Biden’s launch announcement video Tuesday.
The early focus on book banning is part of the campaign’s attempt to reinforce a broader message, said one Democratic adviser involved in the effort: Biden is the only one standing between the American people and a Republican Party determined to roll back rights and limit freedoms.
“People just don’t understand why we should ban books from libraries,” said the adviser, who spoke with candor about the campaign’s strategy on the condition of anonymity. “So it’s a measure of extremism and another thing [Republicans] are trying to take away.”
Biden’s message is based on mounds of research by Democratic pollsters over the last several months, as the president’s advisers and the Democratic National Committee have expanded the constellation of pollsters and data analysts tracking voter attitudes and the effectiveness of certain messages.
The potency of book bans, along with issues like abortion and gun safety, is quite clear, according to multiple people familiar with the campaign’s data.
“Book banning tests off the charts,” said Celinda Lake, one of the Democratic pollsters who tested the issue for Democrats. “People are adamantly opposed to it and, unlike some other issues that are newer, voters already have an adopted schema around book banning. They associate it with really authoritarian regimes, Nazi Germany.”
The campaign’s private research aligns with public polling on the issue. A CBS News/YouGov poll in February found that more than 8 in 10 Americans opposed GOP efforts to ban books that focus on slavery, the civil rights movement and an unsanitized version of American history. And a Fox News survey this week found that 60 percent of Americans — including 48 percent of Republicans — find book bans problematic.
Republicans led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears likely to run for president, have leaned into the culture wars by leading efforts to bar those books, and others about LGBTQ topics. They’ve framed the push as an effort to protect social indoctrination via school curriculum. Lake sees it as a political gift to Biden.
“You’ll see Democrats up and down the ticket running on this,” she said.
But book bans don’t just rankle parents of children under 18, who account for just less than 30 percent of the electorate. Some of the strongest responses in focus groups to GOP book bans came from Baby Boomers.
The Biden campaign has leaned hard into the contrast of “more freedom or less freedom,” as the president put it in his announcement video, co-opting a quintessentially American idea and a political theme more traditionally emphasized by Republicans.
In the TV spot pushed out Wednesday, Biden pointed to GOP restrictions in many areas — abortion rights, voting rights — election denialism and the party’s inaction on gun safety all under the umbrella of freedom. But polling and focus group research found that the messaging around book bans appealed in particular to moderates and swing voters who may have nuanced views on gender and identity but are far more clear-eyed about being told what books they can or can’t read.
Those voters — which include moderate Republicans, suburban voters and college-educated white people — are among the demographics that Biden’s team believes will be critical to win. They are also more likely to live in areas where conservatives have sought to impose restrictions on libraries and school boards.
“Americans have a libertarian streak about them, and this is an absolute affront to that tendency,” the adviser said. “This is much more about reassembling the coalition from 2020.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist prominent within her party’s more outspoken cadre of Never Trump activists, said that book bans have occasionally come up in her focus groups with voters.
“When we talk about them, usually in the context of DeSantis, these are the things that play very poorly with educated suburban voters,” she said, surmising that the campaign’s emphasis on book bans is at least partly about laying the groundwork for a general election match-up with DeSantis.
“They are positioning themselves to take on any candidate and to fight for those swing voters who put them over the top in 2020 and who are uncomfortable with some of the more extreme positions DeSantis and others are embracing,” Longwell said.