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With Trump as presumptive nominee, Biden's reelection campaign has parallels to 2012

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After disappointing Super Tuesday returns for Nikki Haley, she went home to South Carolina to announce that she is suspending her campaign. She made it official just a few minutes ago, and she used her remarks to highlight some of her differences with the former president, in whose administration she served. And she called on him to reach out beyond his base.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him, and I hope he does that.

MARTIN: Trump claimed victory in every other state, making him the presumptive Republican nominee and challenger to President Biden's reelection bid. He spoke last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We're going to win this election because we have no choice. If we lose the election, we're not going to have a country left.

MARTIN: Although every election is unique, we have seen something of this scenario before. 2012 was the last time a Democrat was trying to fend off a Republican return to the White House. Just before the election, pollsters handed Barack Obama's campaign the news that a comfortable lead had evaporated. And now the incumbent president was neck and neck with Mitt Romney. Jim Messina ran Obama's successful reelection campaign. So let's ask him if there are parallels to this year's race. He's on the line now from San Francisco. Good morning.

JIM MESSINA: Good morning, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm good. So I take it you've seen this movie before and you like the ending?

MESSINA: I love the ending, but, boy, it's a bumpy ride. You know, incumbent reelection campaigns in modern-day American politics are very difficult. And President Biden's reelection is proving to be no easier.

MARTIN: How do you read Biden's vote yesterday? You know, obviously, I'm specifically thinking about the number of people in Minnesota who voted uncommitted. That was, like, some 46,000 people. And it's similar to Michigan, where 100,000 people voted - or chose uncommitted rather than vote for the president. How do you read it?

MESSINA: It's about the same. I went and looked back at the numbers. About the same as President Obama got. You know, there's a joke about the Democratic Party that we couldn't even agree on free beer. And so the fact is that, you know, huge percentages of the party are with him. I think they understand they have to continue to talk to their base. They're doing that. And they're, you know, in this close of an election, Michel, you just can't assume anything. So I think they're going to be happy they have the nomination, happy that it's Trump, but very focused on making sure that they get every Democrat to be with them.

MARTIN: But does Joe Biden have the kind of enthusiastic support that Barack Obama enjoyed? I mean, I guess the question is, does Joe Biden have the same kind of base that Obama had?

MESSINA: Boy, I think so, and in part because of who he's running against, right? And let's be very clear, Donald Trump has been the Democrat's best get out the vote machine since 2016. Democrats understand that, you know, he's anathema to everything we stand for, and then in part, you know, Biden has not gotten enough credit by normal voters, but by Democrats, people understand he's gotten a historic amount of things done. So I do think there's more enthusiasm out there than people think.

And you see this 'cause he had, you know, a member of Congress challenging him in the primary. He's getting huge percentages all over the place. That doesn't mean they can assume that they'll get the same turnout as they did last time. Part of what I learned in a reelection campaign is the second campaign is always harder than the first, and I think they understand that, and they're building a campaign to be ready for that.

MARTIN: What's it like - if I could just as - briefly ask you to remember - what is it like in a campaign when you're ahead and then all of a sudden, you're behind and you get those kinds of numbers? What's that - what does that do?

MESSINA: Oh, there's just sheer panic, Michel. Like, you know, less in the campaign, but more in the whole democratic world. You know, when Barack Obama lost the first debate to Mitt Romney, we - our entire lead went away. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the leaders of the both House and Senate Democrats, called me at midnight and said, get on a plane, get to Washington and convince our members that it's going to be OK. The entire world erupts. Every reporter wants to talk to you, and there's just panic. I remember my mother calling me at 6 a.m. to ask how screwed we were, and I'm like, Mom, I...

MARTIN: Mom, wow.

MESSINA: ...Don't need it from you, too.

MARTIN: I could imagine. So what does the - I mean, I assume you're talking to people in the administration. What do they do to navigate this period?

MESSINA: They take a deep breath and carry on. Like, they have a plan, and they've been really underrated. They've been counted out in 2020. 2022, everyone thought there was going to be this red wave, and they had a theory, and we did much better than people expected. You know, part of what they believe, and I think this is right, is the polls are a bit misleading right now because 71% of Americans don't think it's going to be Biden versus Trump. And this morning, Michel, a lot of people are waking up to you and Steve telling them that it is going to be Biden versus Trump, and they're going to have to start to think through that. And so driving that choice is incredibly important. I used to say to President Obama, if it's a referendum on you, we'll lose, but if it's a choice between you and your opponent, we'll win. And I think that's what the Biden campaign believes, as well.

MARTIN: And very, very briefly, the State of the Union is tomorrow night. Is there something specific you think that the president should do to take advantage of that moment?

MESSINA: It's one of the two free moments he has in politics. He just needs to look at the American public and tell them where he's going to take them in the next four years. If he does that, we'll have a good night.

MARTIN: That is political strategist and former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. Mr. Messina, thank you so much for sharing these insights.

MESSINA: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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