At the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall campaign, the race remains former vice president Joe Biden’s to lose — which of course could still happen. Trump has tried many things over the past months in an effort to avoid becoming a one-term president. So far, nothing has proved to be the magic potion the president seems to believe is out there.
Trump has claimed Biden is mentally challenged. He has gone after Biden’s son Hunter as corrupt. The president has accused Biden of being a radical leftist, a socialist. He says the former vice president is weak. He says his challenger is soft on China. He has said Biden supports violent protesters and doesn’t support the police. Oh, he’s also said Biden’s 1994 crime bill was too tough on crime (and by implication, therefore, on the side of the police).
He is now preaching law and order, seizing on months of nightly protests in Portland, Ore., which often have turned violent, along with the protests and violence that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. He claims the nation’s cities are ablaze and that a Biden presidency would destroy the suburbs. The rhetoric aimed at suburban voters is grounded in racism.
It is premature to say the law and order message isn’t working, though there’s been minimal movement in the polls since the conventions ended. What is left in the Trump tool kit if this message fails to do what Trump hopes it will do?
Trump’s mistakes, record and history plague his candidacy. He paints his record in glorious superlatives: “The greatest economy in history.” Or, “No one has done more for (fill in the blank) than I have.” The reality is something else, and it shows in how people continue to view him: negatively in terms of his job approval and distrustful of what he says about the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic is far worse and more deadly because of how he handled it in the early stages and how he is still handling it. He speaks about it as if it is almost history. He mocks Biden for wearing a mask. He predicts the readiness of a vaccine by late October, a scenario that he obviously sees as a lifeline to his political resurrection. This rosy outlook runs contrary to the assessments of medical experts. Meanwhile, one forecast of the covid 19 death toll by early next year has been revised upward to 410,000.
Friday’s unemployment report offered some hopeful news. But Trump’s claims about a recovering economy overlook how many people are still out of work, how many small businesses will never come back and how many families are teetering on the edge. Jobs are being restored as people go back to work, but the economy is being changed by the pandemic in ways that could be long-lasting, especially for those at the lower end of the economic scale. Still, he leads Biden when people are asked who would do a better job on the economy. That is another potential lifeline.
Late in the week, Trump was confronting a damning story by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic. The report, based on multiple but anonymous sources, said Trump had referred to U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in action as “losers” and “suckers.” Other news organizations, including The Washington Post, confirmed the essence of the story. And the language was consistent with things the president has said in the past, particularly about the late senator John McCain of Arizona.
Trump vehemently denied the report, as did many of his political and personal advisers. Others who might be able to confirm or refute the report were silent, including former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, whom Trump attacked during a Friday news conference as a man “eaten up” by the job.
Biden said if the report is accurate, it is “disgusting.”
In danger of losing the election, Trump casts doubt on the integrity of the vote. He rails against voting by mail, even though he will cast an absentee ballot this fall as he has done in the past. In a country divided and on edge, a country where political debate and differences risk turning violent, he sows mistrust ahead of the election and potential chaos in its aftermath.
The race for president has tightened a bit since early summer, when Biden enjoyed a lead, based on a national average of polls in the range of nine-plus percentage points. It, however, has not tightened noticeably since mid-August, just before the two national conventions. Before the Democratic convention, the FiveThirtyEight.com numbers showed Biden with a lead nationally of between seven and eight points. His lead after the Republican convention stands at between seven and eight points.
National polls and the national popular vote do not elect presidents. Biden could roll up bigger margins than Hillary Clinton in states like California, Massachusetts, Maryland and some other deep-blue states. He could run better than Clinton or former president Barack Obama in states like Texas and Georgia and Arizona, which are moving away from the Republicans but are not yet in the Democrats’ column. But winning the states that will likely decide the electoral college — like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida — is where the campaign is being waged.
State polls will tell the story of the campaign, and the battleground margins overall are a bit tighter than the current national numbers, which is to be expected. However, national polls are not irrelevant. They were accurate within the margin of error in predicting the popular vote in 2016. What will be important will be the gap between Biden and Trump in those national surveys.
It would be remarkable, if not a miracle, for Trump to win an electoral college majority while still losing the popular vote by his current deficit of about seven points. Only one election in this century was decided by a margin that large, which was in 2008.
Based on that, it would be imprudent to assume Biden can beat Trump by that kind of margin. Even most Democrats assume the race will tighten. Trump, however, would have difficulty winning an electoral college majority if he loses the popular vote by five points, and perhaps even four points.
Mike Donilon, Biden’s chief strategist, said the lack of movement since the conventions is notable. “It was imperative for him [Trump] to move the election at this time and it didn’t happen,” he told reporters on Friday.
If Trump’s law and order message doesn’t work as planned, his chances will likely rest on whether perceptions of the pandemic — and his erratic leadership in fighting it — change and change rather rapidly, and also whether perceptions of Trump as an economic manager will somehow override attitudes about the virus. His other avenue is to dominate Biden in the presidential debates, especially the first one on Sept. 29.
The odds still favor Biden — a roughly 7-in-10 chance according to the FiveThirtyEight model. But that gives the president a 3-in-10 chance. As Democrats learned in 2016, underdogs sometimes overcome odds like that; something that must give Trump hope, despite the hole he continues to dig.