Updated Jun 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

From sleepy to senile: Inside the Trump campaign's effort to rebrand Biden

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump and his top advisers are trying to rebrand Joe Biden as a danger to America — with some aides admitting privately that the "Sleepy Joe" nickname will never gin up the visceral reaction they exploited against "Crooked Hillary" Clinton.

Driving the news: The emerging strategy is to claim Biden's mental faculties are diminished and say he can't rein in protesters' most controversial excesses, including toppling a Ulysses S. Grant statue, looting stores, burning buildings and vandalizing St. John's Church.

Why it matters: Trump is trailing in key states, and some of his advisers say they're running out of time to make suburban moms so scared of "Uncle Joe" that they'll vote for Trump.

  • A growing number of Trump's advisers say their best shot is to convince voters that the avuncular Biden won't really run the show if elected.

"We need to be demonizing him," said a Republican lawmaker who talks regularly to Trump. The lawmaker said "Sleepy Joe" sounds harmless, congenial and low key. "Sleepy probably sounds nice to a lot of people right now, with everything that's going on," he said.

  • In April's NBC/WSJ poll, only 25% of voters held a "very negative" view of Biden. In the NBC/WSJ poll of April 2016, meanwhile, 42% of voters held a "very negative" view of Hillary Clinton. Trump's figure is similar to Clinton's — around 43% of voters today say they hold a "very negative" view of him (53% were "very negative" on Trump in April 2016).
  • In recent days, Trump has sought to cast a more sinister light over Biden, replacing "Sleepy Joe" with "Corrupt Joe," the Washington Post first reported.

Behind the scenes: Trump's aides say it will be harder to make Biden widely despised than it was with Clinton, who was a conservative media target for decades.

  • "You're not going to make Joe Biden hated personally," said a source involved in the internal discussions. "You can't do it through personality."
  • So they will try to argue that he wouldn't really be in charge. "You've got to make it so that a vote for Joe Biden isn't a vote for Joe Biden, it's really a vote for his radical left-wing puppet masters," the source said.

Between the lines: Trump and some of his top advisers and surrogates have been testing variations on that theme.

  • Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller often sends out talking points to Trump insiders, which he calls "Quick Bites." Last Monday's talkers, reviewed by Axios, included this point: "The left-wing mob controlling Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party has gone too far. Statues of Teddy Roosevelt and defunding the police is just the beginning, and Joe Biden is too weak to make them stop."
  • In Thursday night's town hall with Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump didn't use the phrase "Sleepy Joe," according to the Fox transcripts.
  • He did say: "I don't think Biden's a radical left, but it doesn't matter because they're going to just do whatever they want to do. They'll take him over. ... Whether you like it or not, he's shot. The radical left is going to take him over."
  • Both Donald Trump Jr. and Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale have made versions of this pitch in recent days.

Yes, but: It's not at all clear that any of these new attacks will work.

  • Trump's advisers have long argued over the most effective way of attacking Biden, and in the most recent NYT/Siena College poll, more than 60% of voters disagreed with the notion that Biden was too old to be an effective president.
  • Biden is 77; Trump is 74.
  • It's also a bit of a head-scratcher as to how Biden can be both "Corrupt Joe" — which suggests a degree of agency — and totally incapacitated.

Biden campaign response: "During the entire clown car parade of shattered, failed, and recycled lies that is the Trump campaign, Donald Trump has never been able to stop telling on himself," Biden's director of rapid response, Andrew Bates, said in a statement.

  • Bates listed Trump vulnerabilities, including the coronavirus response, China and questions of mental acuity, noting how Trump mused about whether doctors could inject disinfectant into people to treat the virus.
  • "Whoever comes up with these attacks," Bates said, "we should honestly be paying them."
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