Did the Biden visit to Portland help Tina Kotek’s bid for governor?

When races are close, they’re most likely to be decided by a hot-button issue and get-out-the-vote campaigns

October 21, 2022 5:30 am

President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at the East Portland Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2022. (Jacob Fischler/States Newsroom)

A rule of thumb in election politics: When all indicators – such as polls – show a close race, then the side with the best organization and get-out-the-vote efforts, or whoever has a hot issue on their side, usually has the edge. 

That thought may have been a reason for last week’s visit by President Joe Biden to Portland, which also raises a related point that state Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, put this way: “We’re surprised anyone would want to be seen with the president who with the help of his Democrat colleagues caused the highest gas prices in Oregon history.”

Putting aside the merits of that specific issue, the question about linking with a low-popularity president during a tight election campaign – as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek did – is valid as a matter of campaign tactics. You could point out that Biden didn’t circulate much among the public generally; he mainly attended events for and organized by fellow Democrats. 

So was the Biden visit a mistake? Or a good idea? Or doesn’t it matter?

It was a good idea, overall, though we won’t have much of a clear indicator until the votes are counted how much good it may have done.

Less than a month out from the Nov. 8 election, Oregon has an unusually large number of top-line races polling as close, more than in any recent election cycle. There’s the governor, the 4th, 5th and 6th congressional districts and probably a half-dozen legislative races as well as local races of note (some of which are effectively partisan even if formally not). 

When races are close – near or within statistical margins of error – they’re most likely to be decided by one or both of two often-related factors: a hot issue that motivates many voters, and superior organization and get-out-the-vote efforts on one side or the other. 

Enter Biden, who spent a couple of days, an eternity in presidential scheduling terms, in Oregon on his longest campaign trip of this year. 

The mere presence of the president here isn’t likely to be a decisive element in the election. Since Biden himself isn’t polling very well, and hasn’t for many months (though his numbers have improved somewhat from in his weakest stretches), he hasn’t been asked to campaign in many of the hottest battleground areas around the country. Jill Biden, rather than her husband in recent days, has been putting in appearances in such states as Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania, all featuring red-hot major campaigns.

But the president has been on the road in other places, and in some of them not primarily for fundraising (though that’s always a part of the mix). National Public Radio said in one story, “There are places where Biden can help the Democrats on the ballot: places where Democrats have a strong advantage in voter registration.” One prime example that article cited was Colorado, home to an energetic Senate race and a state Biden won two years ago by 13.5%. Another, a state in some ways politically similar, was Oregon (where he won by 15.2%). 

More important than Biden’s personal support is the importance of voter registration. In the last generation in Oregon, Democratic organization and vote-raising efforts persistently have ourun their Republican competitors, and those voter drives can provide the extra edge when the race is close. Biden’s presence was intended as an encouragement to that effort, most explicitly when he showed up with donuts at a boiler room and then spent 20 minutes or so working the phones himself to generate votes. 

There is a second point to Biden’s visit, tied to the issue many Democrats hope will turn into a secret weapon for them: abortion. Reproductive rights were an extremely hot topic in late summer and early fall, but polling and public visibility have led to suggestions there’s been some cooling since. Whether that ultimately means it’s no longer such a big voting motivator as it once seemed, or remains a big force but simply is less visible, is unclear in the polling and other indicators. 

But Democrats surely have benefited from efforts to fan the issue. And Biden could and did help with that. On his recent campaigning travels he has highlighted reproductive rights and, on his return to Washington, spotlighted them in a political event where he promised to sign a bill codifying the terms of Roe v. Wade (if Democrats win enough seats in Congress). 

Will those pushes to drive organized Democratic voter turnout, and draw attention to the abortion issue, be enough to help push Democrats over the top next month?

That we won’t know for some weeks to come. But it probably was an effort with a practical, realistic goal. 


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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.