“I’m not a member of any organized political party – I am a Democrat.”
Will Rogers, 1930
By most every current measure, Donald Trump has his back against a wall.
The coronavirus pandemic, which seemed to be in retreat six weeks ago, rages anew across the United States with public health officials questioning whether it’s too late to rein it in even if the White House could somehow muster the leadership it has thus far failed to exert. Rather, Trump’s response has been to undermine his expert advisors and agencies and politically weaponize the wearing of face coverings – an act of common courtesy and basic hygiene – in his reckless conceit that he can vanquish the virus as part of his culture war.
Racial and social unrest that exploded after the police killing of George Floyd still simmers as Trump – far from calming the discord – panders to White grievance, baits those calling for reform and threatens an iron-fisted military response against Americans who protest.
Independent public polling shows him trailing Joe Biden by double digits nationally and in key battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, traditional Democratic redoubts where Trump stunned Hillary Clinton in his 2016 upset victory. They also show Biden with a clear lead in Florida and a slight lead or an edge within the margin of error in North Carolina and Georgia. Even historically ruby red Texas appears to be in play.
There is anecdotal evidence that many Republicans have wearied of the mercurial president’s unhinged antics. The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump are two organizations offering a home to disaffected GOP voters.
Hardly. The Democratic Party never met a sure thing it could not squander – just ask would-be Presidents Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – and the 106 days until Election Day provides the perfect opportunity in the warp-speed world of modern politics.
Several factors could still turn mid-July’s seeming blue wave into a crimson tide come November.
Biden being Biden: Never underestimate the damage Uncle Joe’s own tongue can do. Insulated from the chaos, fatigue and surprises of traditional campaigning by a pandemic-driven stay-at-home tactic that has served him well, Biden has mitigated his penchant for malapropisms. Even so, he managed to step in a steaming pile of controversy near the end of a contentious May interview on “The Breakfast Club” when he told host Charlamagne tha God, who is Black, that “if you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Prone to occasional stumbles, lapses in focus and unrestrained glibness, Biden must eventually re-emerge into the full-time helter-skelter swelter of retail politics where hot mics are ubiquitous, distractions are constant and handlers can’t disconnect a live press corps like a Zoom call. Ultimately, Biden will share a debate stage with Trump, a fellow septuagenarian who has shown an unprecedented immunity to countless gaffes, deliberate insults and profanities, and outright misstatements or lies that would have doomed other candidates many times over.
The debates also could be unprecedented in that they become a forum for determining which geriatric candidate suffers the worst cognitive impairment.
His own party’s hard-left lurch: Biden’s in a tight spot. He’s a centrist in a party whose emotional center has moved strongly and unashamedly leftward the past four years. Now he must chart a narrow course in which he harnesses the energy of his party’s youthful, diverse and outspoken cultural left without alienating Democratic moderates who rallied to him in the primaries and without whom he cannot win.
That task got harder since Floyd’s death on May 25. Anger over it and other Black people who died at the hands of police along with new viral video daily of harsh law-enforcement responses to protests nationally gave rise to a new movement on the left: “defund the police.” The branding gave Republicans an unearned gift.
The strident term notwithstanding, it rarely means shutting down whole police departments but, rather, reorganizing and refocusing them on core law-enforcement duties while social workers, substance abuse and behavioral health professionals and welfare agencies, among others, deal with a community’s non-criminal problems we now ask police to handle. None of that is reflected in a term that repulses many moderate voters.
“It’s a horrible slogan. It evokes a very unfavorable reaction in middle America,” said Mark Rozell, a veteran political science professor at George Mason University and dean of its Schar School of Policy and Government. “Along with that, Trump can show video of people carrying signs saying ‘F’ the police. Most Americans don’t think their police are bad people.”
While Biden has rejected the notion of “defunding,” he has yet to fully articulate criminal justice reform proposals that can satisfy, if not unify, his party.
“The Democratic Left is so full of energy and is pushing so hard on culturally divisive issues that they risk pushing moderate voters into a corner where they feel like they have no choice but to vote for Trump,” Rozell said.
Biden’s biggest test is the imminent selection of a running mate. She (he’s already promised to select a woman) will have to connect him with the party’s youthful energy without alienating its moderates.
The “hidden” Trump vote: If polls determined the outcome four years ago, there would be no Trump presidency. Final polls had Clinton comfortably ahead on Election Day, but Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin went off-script. Each of those states had supported Democrats in the preceding four presidential elections, and averages of all public statewide polls gave Clinton the edge in all three.
What happened? Two things: some people distrust and lie to pollsters; and polls generally do a lousy job gauging voter intensity.
In the 1960s and again in the ’80s, some who voted for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his presidential bid and, later, for President Ronald Reagan would lie about it fearing scorn from others, Rozell said.
While overall sentiment may now favor Biden, a Washington Post and ABC News poll in late May found Trump’s voters are significantly more resolute. Eighty-seven percent of Trump supporters said they were enthusiastic about their vote compared with 74 percent of Biden voters.
Messaging: To date, the essence of Biden’s argument has been “I’m not Trump.” Biden benefits from the fact that no incumbent in modern U.S. history has been as viscerally reviled by so much of the populace as this one.
When Democrats succeed, however, they’ve given voters an affirmative alternative, a reason to vote for the challenger, not just against the GOP president. One example was Bill Clinton’s forward-looking vision in 1992 of ending a dozen years of GOP “trickle-down economics” and the economic swoon it caused late in President George H.W. Bush’s only term. Clinton’s campaign song captured it all: “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).”
Maybe previous scripts no longer apply, Rozell said.
“He (Biden) is the anti-Trump vote right now, and maybe this year that’s good enough.”
Intangibles: Sometimes, campaigns turn on things that can’t be scripted. If the pandemic worsens apace, it’s difficult to see a second Trump term. But suppose a coronavirus vaccine hits the market well ahead of schedule and, paradoxically, medical science rescues a president who has spent months denying and dismissing it.
“Combine a very strong third-quarter economic report with news of a vaccine right around the corner,” Rozell said. “Everything changes.”