So what is foam, and what is sea in the presidential campaign of 2020?
As a candidate in 2016 and as president ever since, Donald Trump has shown himself to be among the strongest foam-stirring storms in U.S. political history. Evidence of his hurricane is blown across every newscast and newspaper; every controversy and conversation, every morning and every night.
But for all the froth spread over social media and television, the permanent sea — the slow rise and fall of public opinion — has told one story relentlessly. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of countless polls going back for a year — long before the start of the pandemic — tolls the knell of Trump. Even in January, when the stock market blazed to new records and unemployment fell to rare depths; when the Democratic impeachment project was in shambles and Trump looked triumphant — even then, if one ignored the foam and studied only the sea of public opinion, one saw that Trump was four percentage points behind.
People say: Wait! Remember that Trump won in 2016 while losing the popular vote. He’s a magician whose dark arts can’t be measured in conventional ways.
Perhaps. But Trump has never won like this. Not from four points behind, six points behind, eight points behind, 10 points behind. That’s where he has been, without exception, according to RealClearPolitics, for more than a year. Never fewer than four points back, sometimes trailing by double-digits.
Trump’s unconventional convention in August was a bold attempt to reverse the tide. Having posed before Mount Rushmore during Fourth of July celebrations (without stirring a wave), the president scoured the national capital region for additional patriotic backdrops for his nomination speech, including Fort McHenry of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame and the White House itself. Across four nights of television, every stumble and humiliation of the Trump presidency was recast with an alternative history. Trump’s pandemic response has been masterful. He has a special knack for bringing people together. He has a secret plan for law and order. The sea just shrugged. Polling averages remained essentially unchanged, with Trump trailing by five to seven percentage points.
With fewer than 40 days remaining in the race, the president is down to his last chances to stir a sea change. If his daily havoc just blows weightlessly down the beach, and if his grand spectacles fail to make waves, what’s left?
The debates, especially the first one on Tuesday, could close the gap. Trump supporters are hoping desperately that Democratic nominee Joe Biden will lapse into a senior moment under the glare of the nation’s scrutiny, or that he will somehow reveal himself to be the puppet of the same left-wing that he trounced in winning the Democratic nomination.
Biden could blow the debates. He is not an especially strong candidate. I’ve been watching him run for president since 1987 — a year in which the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” topped the charts. He hasn’t delivered a single great debate performance.
More likely than disaster, though, is a series of draws. The former vice president will surely be well prepared, ready to parry Trump’s haymakers with jabs at Trump’s own vulnerabilities: on health care, on Social Security funding, on management style. The president will be tempted to deliver his usual performance borrowed from pro wrestling and “reality” TV: blustery, aggressive, exaggerated, taunting. It will delight his base, which is already delighted, while annoying the larger public that is plumb tired of the chaos.
In other words, more foam.
Millions of early votes will be cast by the time the third and last debate concludes on Oct. 22. If the tide of public opinion hasn’t turned in Trump’s favor by then, his last chance to alter the outcome will come through the voter-turnout competitions already underway.
Democrats enjoy a distinct advantage — if they can avoid the lax overconfidence that doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. That deep sea of public opinion has Biden well-positioned in a long list of states won by Trump last time: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona. Polls suggest that he’s in striking distance in Republican strongholds such as Georgia, Iowa and even Texas. Biden has a dozen ways to win if his team puts in the work. Trump must go to the same states that elected him and win nearly all of them again.
He’s running out of time.
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