When Donald J. Trump left the White House, Democrats didn’t want to hear another word from him. President Biden dismissed him as “the former guy.” A party-wide consensus held that he was best left ignored.
Three years later, Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign and Democratic officials across the party’s spectrum have landed on a new solution to his political slump:
Criticizing the news media for giving Mr. Trump a platform is out. Quietly pining for major networks to again broadcast live coverage of Trump campaign rallies is in.
Behind the improbable longing for the former president to gobble up political oxygen again is Democrats’ yearslong dependence on the Trump outrage machine. Since his ascent, Mr. Trump has been a one-man Democratic turnout operation, uniting an otherwise fractured opposition and fueling victories in three straight election cycles.
Now, Democrats worry that the fever of Trump fatigue has passed, and that some voters are softening toward a man they once loathed. Many others may simply be paying little attention, as Mr. Trump’s share of the daily national conversation has diminished, despite the occasional interruption of campaign-trail pronouncements like his recent vow to “root out” political opponents like “vermin.”
Mr. Trump, who has never been called a shrinking violet, has nevertheless skipped the three Republican presidential debates and stayed away from the major social media platforms. He is expected to spend large parts of next year in criminal trials that, except for one in Georgia, will not be televised.
Cynthia Wallace, a co-founder of the New Rural Project, a progressive group in North Carolina, said she didn’t hear much about Mr. Trump these days from the rural Black and Hispanic voters her organization focuses on.
“I think it’s like a relationship,” she said. “There were a lot of bad things that happened, but the longer distance you get away from the bad things, you’re like, maybe the bad things weren’t that bad.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign, which has been slow to ramp up its operations, is betting that once voters view the election as a choice between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who remains highly polarizing, they will set aside their reservations about the president and fall in line behind him.
But while Mr. Trump is likely to rise in the public consciousness as November 2024 approaches, it is far from certain that he will sabotage himself politically. And it remains unclear whether his criminal trials will make him more toxic among moderate and swing voters, or whether weeks of courtroom appearances will keep his presence more muted than normal.
Other Biden efforts are meeting limited success. His campaign has little to show for a $40 million advertising push promoting his economic record. And approval of the president, according to polls released this month by The New York Times and Siena College, has fallen sharply among Black and Hispanic voters — demographics that strategists say are more likely to disregard Mr. Trump when he is not front and center in the news.
“Not having the day-to-day chaos of Donald Trump in people’s faces certainly has an impact on how people are measuring the urgency of the danger of another Trump administration,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an African American political organizing group. “It is important to remind people of what a total and absolute disaster Trump was.”
Mr. Biden and Democrats, of course, cannot control decisions that news organizations make or the topics that absorb voters in person and on social media. But the Biden campaign, which is aiming to make the 2024 election a referendum on whether Mr. Trump should return to the White House, can try to push the national discussion in his direction with its messaging.
One big challenge, however, is that many Americans who tuned out the former president when he left office show little interest in hearing more about him.
Several voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020 and are now leaning toward Mr. Trump said they had not followed the ins and outs of the former president’s post-White House activities and tended to discount and brush aside his past scandals.
“I know a lot of people get mad about what he said years ago about ‘grab them by whatever,’” said Treena Fortney, 51, a wholesaler from Covington, Ga., who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but now regrets it and is supporting Mr. Trump. “That was kind of aggravating. But, you know, that was years ago. And that’s how guys talk in a locker room. I don’t think he really would do that. I think he was just saying that.”
Arthur Taylor, a business owner from Mesa, Ariz., described himself as a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden and now says he will back Mr. Trump in 2024. He said that the business climate was better when Mr. Trump was president and that the 91 criminal charges against him might not be so bad.
“There’s so many things that President Trump does that’s just not ethical,” Mr. Taylor said. But he added that with the former president, “there’s a level of honesty and almost transparency, even in a way that we might cringe at it.”
Those sorts of sentiments have left the Biden campaign this past week to engage in its own media criticism, publicly urging news shows on network television to follow New York Times articles about Mr. Trump’s plans for immigration and deportation policies if he wins the election.
“The more the American people are confronted with who Donald Trump is — a dangerous, extreme and erratic man who only cares about using the power of the government to help himself and his friends — the more they reject him,” said Ammar Moussa, a Biden campaign spokesman. “We will continue to highlight for voters what’s at stake if Trump and his cronies are allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.”
Mr. Biden and most of his Democratic allies have adopted a collective vow of silence on what portends to be the biggest Trump-related story line over the next year — the four criminal trials he faces in Florida, Georgia, New York and Washington, D.C.
In August, 38 House Democrats wrote to the federal courts administrator asking that Mr. Trump’s federal trials be broadcast live on television. Mr. Trump himself last week asked that cameras be allowed in the courtroom for his trial in Washington — a request that federal prosecutors swiftly opposed.
“You see one of the court-artist sketches, and you look at that and you’re like, I’m not really sure which trial he’s on,” Senator John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said in an interview. “Is anyone paying attention to them?”
Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist, said Mr. Biden’s decision to stay quiet had allowed Mr. Trump to frame the cases against him as “a one-sided conversation.”
“We have not engaged on perhaps Donald Trump’s No. 1 Achilles’ heel, which is the 91 indictments,” she said. “We’ll see what happens when we do.”
Aside from the trials, Democrats are longing for the days when cable networks carried Mr. Trump’s rallies live. To watch a Trump rally live now, viewers need to find an online stream or a fringy far-right cable station like Newsmax.
On this, Mr. Trump and Democrats tend to be in agreement.
“The more people see and hear from Donald Trump and what he has planned for the country if he regains power, the better off Democrats will be up and down the ballot,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “Trump’s voracious need for attention works to Democrats’ advantage.”
Google search interest in Mr. Trump remains well below the level it was at when he was in office and running for re-election four years ago. The television ratings for Mr. Trump’s CNN town-hall event in May were strong, but well below what similar events in 2016 and 2020 drew.
Jessica Floyd, the executive director of the Hub Project, a progressive group, urged mainstream cable TV networks to “remind people exactly how bad these rallies are and how corrosive they are for our democracy.”
She added, “They should also show President Biden selling an absolutely historic level of investment in our economy.”
Jon Soltz, a co-founder and chairman of VoteVets, a liberal veterans group, cautioned Democrats to be patient.
“There’s a huge amount of the population right now that doesn’t realize that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for president,” he said. “When that happens, you will see a different response.”
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