How President Joe Biden and Donald Trump are trying to motivate apathetic voters

There’s one thing both Republicans and Democrats agree upon when it comes to the 2024 election: Voter apathy is real, and it’s a problem both campaigns are quickly trying to solve.

Voters seem increasingly tuned out of the election between two candidates they know well and a third party candidate who might not fit all of their needs. And there hasn’t yet been a major moment or news event to shake up the race, even as slices of the electorate are craving a surprise — and in some ways, a change. 

For starters, there are long-running concerns about President Biden’s age and mental acuity. And on the Republican side, voters are shying away from former President Trump’s bombastic nature and his string of criminal charges across several cases.

“It’s a race between the old guy, the crazy guy and the guy with the famous surname that doesn’t really add anything to the race except play spoiler. I don’t even feel as engaged and this is what I do for a living,” one Democratic strategist said, summarizing the state of the race and the enthusiasm around it. 

Biden has worries about supporter erosion

In recent days, Biden in particular has seen warning signs of erosion within his supporters in 2020.

A Washington Post/Ipsos poll out earlier this month showed that only 41 percent of Black voters between the ages of 18-39 said they were “absolutely certain to vote.”

It marked a sharp decrease in voters from four years ago, when 61 percent of voters said they would absolutely vote.  

The president faces a similar problem with young voters overall over inflation and the war in Gaza, resulting in a rash of demonstrations around college campuses. And he’s losing Hispanic voters, too, according to recent polls. 

Biden allies say they’re aware of the enthusiasm gap across the board but that it’s still early and the president and his campaign are taking the necessary steps to generate more enthusiasm. 

“It’s going to be close and it’s going to be decided by a handful of voters in swing states,” one Biden aide said, adding that it will require “an intense and aggressive amount of persuasion.” 

“We have to show up in different ways,” the aide said. 

Biden has been increasing his trips to key battleground states, like on Wednesday when he traveled to Wisconsin.

This week, he also launched a $14 million ad buy across battleground states aimed at reaching Black, Latino, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander voters. The ads —focusing on healthcare — will appear on TV, digital and radio — as part of a broader effort to appeal to minority groups. 

The Biden campaign has also been ramping up their outreach and grassroots efforts, including opening more than 150 offices in key states. They have also hired more than 400 staffers. Biden aides point out that Trump has very little battleground presence including staffers on the ground and efforts to reach key voters. The Trump campaign, they point out, has been completely dark on TV for months. 

Democratic strategist Tim Hogan said he was encouraged by the recent small dollar donor data, which showed an uptick in donations, a positive sign for enthusiasm.

“It’s a messaging balancing act that the Biden campaign has and must continue to execute: demonstrate the existential threat Trump poses, showcase the competence and results from the administration, and cut through a noisy media environment with a vision of the future that voters can rally behind,” Hogan said.  

Some strategists say the lack of enthusiasm bodes poorly for Biden. 

“It’s really important that he get those numbers up in his base because a narrative is starting to build with the poll numbers [within his base] not the head-to-head with Trump,” said Susan Del Percio, the veteran Republican strategist who does not support Trump. 

“He has the time and money. Now the direct voter contact is essential,” Del Percio said. “It’s really important to start firming up the base and also to make RFK Jr. irrelevant.” 

Kennedy leans into choice for voters

Kennedy supporters say they understand voter apathy better than anyone — that’s one of the reasons their candidate is running, to give people a choice between two unpopular candidates. 

This week, the Kennedy campaign launched an organizing app aimed at appealing to those who would like to join their campaign effort.

The app, campaign officials say, is a “digital mobile headquarters where volunteers can access campaign materials” and sign up for other grassroots efforts including petition drives and phone banking. 

“Our movement has long relied on digital innovation to connect volunteers working together for change,” Amaryllis Kennedy, Kennedy’s campaign manager wrote in a press release. “We’re thrilled to offer our volunteers this powerful new tool to take the campaign with them to the streets.”

Right now, Kennedy is seeking to get on the ballot in key states and campaign officials are continuing to collect signatures aimed at getting on the ballot.

Even in blue states like New York, they have thousands of volunteers across all 63 counties who are working on the effort. A Kennedy aide told The Hill that the the campaign will collect 45,000 verified signatures before the May 18th deadline. 

Trump sidelined by trial

On the Republican side, the former president has been all but sidelined from the campaign trail because of his hush-money criminal trial in New York, where he has spent most of his time. The trial itself is ginning up enthusiasm among his base because, as those close to the campaign say, it’s showing the legal process is flawed and inherently political. 

But Republicans say Trump can lure voters to his column simply by talking about Biden. 

“He can talk about all those issues where Biden is massively underwater [including] prices and the border,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

But Heye added, “He can get those voters. They just won’t be excited about it.” 

Asked how the Trump campaign could generate excitement beyond their base, Trump spokesperson Danielle Alvarez replied, “The premise of the question is false.”

“Poll after poll shows President Trump defeating Biden in every battleground state, winning among independents, and winning [and] making gains with Hispanic, Black, and young voters,” Alvarez said. “It’s Biden that has the enthusiasm problem and with his very base as evidenced by polls showing he is hemorrhaging support and by his campaign spending millions to shore up his base without success.”  

But a Republican strategist who supports Trump acknowledged a problem. “Our problem has always been how do we reach beyond our base? And we still have to prove that we can get people excited and turn them out.” 

To be sure, generating enthusiasm among apathetic voters will come down to more than just issues, political observers say. It will be a response to both candidates’ claims of “loss and threat,” said Basil Smikle, the director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College and the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party. 

“Both parties are using the theme of ‘threat’ to Americans in their strategies,” Smikle said. “For Biden it’s a threat to Democracy. For Trump it’s a threat to ethnic and economic nationalism.” 

Smikle acknowledged that this election is proving to be different from other cycles because, seemingly more than ever, voters are wanting to be “courted.”

“It’s a unique election,” he said. “And there’s this sense of … what are you going to do to support us? The coalitions are shifting dramatically and that’s why we’re having such a hard time trying to give out what kind of footing we’re on.” 

But Smikle and other political observers predicted that the apathy among voters will subside as the election draws closer. 

Hogan added that, “it’s no surprise that voters are tired.” 

“It’s the third time a coalition has had to rally to block the threat of Donald Trump from the White House,” he said. “But the beauty of our elections is that votes count the same regardless of enthusiasm involved.

“More than anything else, voters just need to understand the stakes,” he said. 

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