Why the Biden campaign finally decided to whack Trump on his New York verdict

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President Joe Biden’s campaign had been restrained in its attacks on Donald Trump’s New York criminal conviction for weeks until the campaign said internal polling and focus groups showed the verdict turned off voters.

The result, hitting TV sets across the country on Monday, was the campaign’s unleashing of its sharpest attack ad yet, depicting Trump as a “convicted criminal who’s only out for himself.” And the campaign says it’s just the start. Biden advisers say they plan to hammer Trump over the coming weeks — aiming to both set up a favorable narrative ahead of next week’s debate and keep Trump’s felony conviction top-of-mind for voters who haven’t yet fully tuned into the election.

“We’ve seen in polling since the conviction that the more the conviction is front and center in voters’ attention, the worse it is for Trump,” said a Biden campaign pollster granted anonymity to describe internal polling because they were not authorized to do so publicly.

The pollster said their research concluded that Trump’s conviction could effectively be used in a broader depiction of Trump as being self-centered and unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.

“Trump has dug his own hole deeper on the convictions,” the pollster said, “and we’re seeing him pay the price for that in the polling.”

The shift in approach from Biden is significant, coming just ahead of the first debate and after some Democrats had criticized the campaign for not doing more to capitalize on Trump’s conviction.

Cheering the sharper tone of the ad and Biden’s recent remarks, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) said she was “glad that the campaign is intensifying the contrast between Biden and Trump,” as “this election goes way beyond policies, it’s about the basics that all Americans can understand — whether you respect the law and if you’re a true public servant or not.”

Inside the Biden campaign, officials cast the ad, part of a $50 million June ad buy in battleground states, as part of an ongoing effort to frame the election around a character contrast between the two candidates. Trump’s felony convictions, they argue, are proof of their larger message that he is out for himself, a theme they’ve hit repeatedly since Trump clinched the nomination earlier this spring. They also pointed to the latter half of the ad, when they contrasted Biden as “working” for voters to lower health care costs.

“It all comes back to the harm that he’s going to inflict on people because he’s looking out, fighting for one person, and that’s Donald Trump,” Biden communications director Michael Tyler said. “That’s true of the criminal convictions and that’s true of everything that he wants to do [in a second term] … That is the connective tissue that we’re building as we approach the debate.”

The Biden campaign’s internal research mirrors recent public polling, which has shown Biden regaining some ground with voters in the aftermath of Trump’s New York trial. A New York Times/Siena College poll found Biden gaining 2 percentage points in a national poll, narrowing Trump’s lead to 1 point. And a POLITICO/Ipsos poll found 21 percent of independents said Trump’s conviction made them less likely to support him and that it would be an important factor in how they decide to vote.

Testing how Trump’s conviction would resonate with voters was nearly impossible until it happened, Biden campaign officials said, as voters' preferences often change once an issue is no longer abstract. A second Biden campaign pollster, also granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, noted that since, “almost universally, voters know this happened,” it’s now important for the campaign to “keep it in the bloodstream and not let it fade from voters’ minds.”

Trump was found guilty of falsifying business records in connection with a payoff to a porn star, and he faces a July 11 sentencing hearing.

The Trump campaign pushed back on the ad in a memo to reporters, arguing that it “essentially admits, again, that the Biden sham trials are about election interference.” The campaign shared a polling memo by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio that said “voters in our key target states have already made up their minds on this trial. Most voters … believe the case is politically motivated.”

The Biden campaign’s forceful posture on Trump’s conviction marks a shift from the immediate aftermath of the verdict.

At first, Biden aides downplayed the political significance of the conviction, arguing that the electorate didn’t need to be reminded of Trump’s personal drama. In fact, they emphasized it could be counter productive, bogging Biden down with an issue that they did not think at the time would move voters.

But even then, Biden aides privately noted they could always readjust their hands-off strategy if the ruling served to be more damaging down the road.

In the days and weeks following the verdict, and with some Democrats urging the reelection campaign to be more aggressive, the Biden team slowly embraced a more direct line of attack. At a private fundraiser in Connecticut a few days after the guilty verdict, Biden called Trump a “convicted felon” who “snapped.” Campaign aides started peppering social media posts with references to the conviction, and they began weaving the phrase “convicted felon” into official press releases.

Now, even Democrats who had initially discouraged the president from directly addressing the outcome of the trial have come around in the face of post-verdict polling.

“What the polling clearly shows is there is a group of voters for whom the convictions matter and … it is the voters who are going to decide the election,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left group Third Way. “A lot of us were skeptical that it would. But I think it’s clear that these voters were shaken by the idea of a convicted felon becoming president. It’s a pretty potent argument to make for voters who are on the fence.”

Some Democrats worried opening the door to attacks on Trump's criminal conviction would also give Republicans reason to attack the president over his son, who was convicted last week in a felony gun case. But Democratic strategists dismissed that political risk as "minimal."

“Hunter Biden isn’t running for president. Donald Trump is,” said Jim Demers, a New Hampshire-based Democratic strategist. Republicans have struggled to land on a cohesive strategy for messaging about the Hunter Biden verdict themselves, making it potentially less potent.

But even as Democrats embraced the Biden campaign’s increased aggression toward Trump, some aren’t relishing that it comes in response to the fact he could be the first convicted felon to occupy the White House. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said that Biden is simply doing what is “necessary.”

“Trump’s conviction is something American voters should understand. And the sad reality is that many don’t,” Moulton said in an interview. “I wish [Biden] didn’t have to address it. But it’s a reality of having Trump in the race.”

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.