The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s campaign is in a death spiral. He’s only making things worse.

President Trump outside the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The latest in a string of very bad polls for President Trump comes from the Pew Research Center, a massive survey (nearly 12,000 respondents) that shows Joe Biden leading by 10 points. Which is right where poll averages have the race as well.

Meanwhile, Trump is losing ground with one key group after another, from suburban voters to seniors. And there is not a single swing state where he leads in the polls (though he’s hanging on by the skin of his teeth in Texas). As the New York Times reports:

He is trailing not just in must-win battlegrounds but according to private G.O.P. surveys, he is repelling independents to the point where Mr. Biden has drawn closer in solidly red states.

Which is why you’d expect to see the president and his campaign, as they try to stave off panic, ready to try almost anything to turn this race around. They’d be examining his areas of greatest weakness, looking to address the bad feelings voters have about him, coming up with plans to not just seize attention but to do so in ways that will persuade people to vote for him. With time running out, they’d be desperate.

Long a conservative bastion, Texas is turning purple, and it’s happening in suburbs like those between Dallas and Fort Worth. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yet the president is quite plainly not willing to try almost anything. His answer to his current political predicament is to do exactly what he’s been doing, only more. It seems clear that as Election Day approaches, he’ll be caught in an insane cycle in which he thinks the way to pull victory from the jaws of defeat is to double down on everything that’s driving voters away from him.

Any sane adviser would tell Trump to do a couple of things right now. Use the fact that he contracted covid-19 to show empathy with the millions of American families that have been affected by the virus. Do something, anything, to convince voters that he won’t be such a force for discord and division. (That Pew poll found Biden ahead by 20 points on the question of whether each candidate could bring the country together.)

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And those advisers would tell him to find the most high-profile way to do those things, to reach the whole electorate. So think about how bizarre it is that Trump has rejected the idea of participating in a virtual debate with Biden.

If there are no more debates, that would be perfectly fine with the Biden campaign. But Trump is the one who needs something dramatic to happen in the race’s closing days; a debate is one of the best opportunities to make it happen. Yet according to reporting by The Post:

Some aides have struggled to get Trump to understand that a debate, which is likely to draw more than 60 million viewers, is far more impactful than a rally that airs exclusively to a Fox News audience of less than 4 million.

So Trump is spending his time calling in to Fox programs, rage-tweeting madly, berating members of his own cabinet, and trying to convince people that Hillary Clinton framed him for the Russia scandal in 2016. He’ll be holding a “virtual rally” on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program Friday, then that evening he will go on Tucker Carlson’s show to get an on-air “medical evaluation” from a Fox News “doctor” best known for spreading misinformation on the pandemic.

How many swing voters do you think Trump is going to find that way?

It’s as though he’s doing everything possible to push away wavering voters and reassure his most rabid supporters that they should still love him.

The best explanation for all this is that Trump might have learned the lesson of his unlikely 2016 victory too well.

A more experienced politician who had been through many races might have thought more expansively about strategies that could work at a time like this. But Trump only ran for office once. His formula in that race was to capture the nomination by appealing to the ugliest impulses within his party, then win the general election by continuing to play on fear and resentment. Instead of working to win voters across the center, he found a latent Trump vote to activate.

Despite the extraordinary confluence of coincidences that allowed him to win with that strategy — and despite the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes — Trump obviously believes that his 2016 strategy not only was perfect in its brilliance, but also is the only way for him to win. The very idea of persuading people who don’t already support him seems beyond his ability to consider. So even as evidence mounts that the strategy is failing, he can’t think of anything else to do.

And as his day of reckoning grows closer, Trump will probably become angrier and more erratic, his decision-making less and less rational. His aides will plead with him to try something different. And he’ll say, “You know what I think I’ll do? Send out some tweets about Hillary, call Kamala Harris ‘a monster’ again, then do another interview on Hannity.”

It might work — anything is possible, and the future is always hard to predict with certainty. But even Trump’s supporters might be starting to doubt that he has it in him to win.

Read more:

George Will: Republicans, are you tired of winning yet?

Jennifer Rubin: Women are pummeling Trump as time is running out

Greg Sargent: On Hannity’s show, Trump reveals his corrupt, panicky endgame

Editorial Board: Texas Republicans’ successful campaign to make voting more difficult

Max Boot: Trump is desperate, so ‘Obamagate’ is back. But it still makes no sense.