The Biden campaign is trying to keep Jan. 6 top of mind with voters. Will it work?

UniqueThis 21 Apr 15

When Vice President Kamala Harris dropped by a campaign office in Madison, Wisconsin, in March, those who attended were handed some poster board and asked to write down why they're supporting President Joe Biden's reelection.

Democratic voter Frank Pohlkamp wrote, "because democracy matters."

"There was quite a bit of planning [from Trump's side] that went into the idea of the transfer of power," Pohlkamp said of the period between the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol. "That is concerning to me. The rule of law and democracy matters to the United States."

Former President Donald Trump has placed Jan. 6 at the center of his presidential campaign, as both he and other Republicans downplay the severity of the attack and the baseless claims of election fraud that inspired it.

Mr. Biden believes reminding voters again about this rhetoric from Trump, and painting him as a "threat" to democracy is a crucial contrast to highlight. It's a variation on the theme of his 2020 campaign, which he referred to as a fight for the "soul of the nation," and one that he returned to during the 2022 midterm elections.

But beyond Democratic base voters like Pohlkamp, it remains to be seen whether a focus on Jan. 6 is an effective argument in the rematch against Trump, since voters may be facing more immediate concerns, such as the economy and cost of living.

"Absolutely we have to focus on pocketbook issues," said Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is running for reelection in the battleground state of Wisconsin. "But if you don't have your democracy, those may pale in comparison at some point in the future." 

Trump has said one of his "first acts" if elected this November would be to free January 6 "hostages." At a March rally in Ohio, he saluted a rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" performed by a choir of men imprisoned for their alleged involvement on Jan. 6. He has said if he doesn't win in November, he doesn't think there will be "another election in this country."

Last Friday, Trump held a press conference with GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson at his Florida Mar-a-Lago residence to announce a new "election integrity" bill that would require proof of citizenship to register to vote, though it has been illegal for non-citizens to vote in federal elections for decades. 

While a CBS News January poll showed Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the attacks on Jan. 6, polling reveals a mixed picture of who voters think would be "better" for democracy, despite Trump's role in creating and spreading election denialism.

In a March CBS News poll of voters in the battleground state of Georgia, where Trump is being investigated for alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election, more people thought Trump would make democracy stronger (48%) than Biden (43%). An April New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters found that 46% believed Mr. Trump is "bad for democracy" while 39% said the same about Mr. Biden.

Congressional Democrats urge Biden to emphasize democracy, Jan. 6 on campaign trail

"You gotta tie it in with other challenges," New Jersey Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, who was pictured cleaning up debris in the Capitol after Jan. 6, said about how the Biden campaign should campaign on democracy. 

Abortion has been the biggest contrast issue for the Biden campaign, which has directed its political muscle and considerable cash at highlighting how Trump's appointment of Supreme Court justices led to the overturning of the federal right to an abortion and in the wake of that, to more restrictive abortion bans in Republican-led states. 

But Jan. 6 has its role in the president's reelection effort, too. For Mr. Biden, it's a testament to character and a marker of the binary choice between him and Trump. 

"Are there challenges that we deal with every day, whether it be the challenges of inflation that we're still battling or the challenges of global conflict? Absolutely. But those will pale in comparison to the great challenges that we will face as a crumbling America, should Trump be elected," said Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Biden campaign co-chair.

"Whether democracy is still America's sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time. And it's what the 2024 election is all about," Mr. Biden said in Blue Bell, Pa., in January, on the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots. 

In April, the Biden campaign held a press conference with two police officers who were at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 assault. Former Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilno Gonell argued voters should be worried about threats to democracy because "if you don't have democracy, then your job is probably gonna go; your liberties are probably gonna go."

"As President Biden said, Donald Trump's campaign is obsessed with the past, not the future. He's willing to sacrifice our democracy to put himself in power," said Biden campaign spokesperson James Singer. "Our campaign will continue to underscore the choice in this election and defend the truth against Donald Trump's Big Lie." 

Now less than seven months out from Election Day, Trump's baggage from Jan.6 — and the Biden campaign's tactic of highlighting it — isn't going away. 

"Their entire narrative is a lie, and Americans know that Joe Biden is the true threat to democracy as he continues to allow an invasion of our borders, his weakness is leading our country straight into World War III, and he weaponizes our justice system," said Trump campaign press secretary Karoline Leavitt.

Yet some Republicans don't appear to be worried. Asked by CBS News if Jan. 6 is a vulnerability for Trump on the campaign trail, Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley said, "That issue's been so litigated, and I think people have made up their minds about it completely." 

"What is there left to say that hasn't been said? And what political advantage is there left to wring from it that Democrats have shamelessly not yet attempted to wring," said Hawley, who was among more than 100 Republicans in Congress who objected to certifying Biden's win in two swing states after the attack. 

California Rep. Mike Garcia, a battleground district Republican whose seat will likely be critical as the GOP tries to hold its tiny majority this fall, said he didn't like what happened on Jan. 6 — and neither do voters. At the same time, he dismissed it as an ineffective campaign issue for Mr. Biden. 

"If this president is trying to resurrect that issue and run on that – then it's an indication that he's failed to accomplish things in the last three and a half years of his presidency," argued Garcia, who voted against certifying Mr. Biden's win in two battleground states in the hours after the attack.

There are practical contradictions in Trump's campaign rhetoric, though. He has attempted to champion police and the need for law and order. But on Jan. 6, a mob of his supporters clashed with police and injured over 100 people in law enforcement. 

The Department of Justice announced recently on its website that close to 500 people "have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees, including approximately 129 individuals who have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer." 

That violence doesn't get much attention from Trump and his most ardent allies. 

Still, there are some who are clearly uncomfortable with the friendly tenor Trump is taking with people who attempted to upset the peaceful transfer of power over three years ago. 

"Jan. 6 is not going to be a good selling point to the American public long term," South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds said. 

Jacob Rosen contributed to this report. 

Aaron Navarro

Aaron Navarro is a CBS News digital reporter covering Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign and the 2024 election. He was previously an associate producer for the CBS News political unit in the 2021 and 2022 election cycles.