The Weak Horse
What follows was posted yesterday on The Boston Globe’s website, which is paywall protected. Leaping over paywalls is always a pain, so with the Globe’s permission, I’ve reprinted the column below.
This is the first in what will be a series of Political Notes about the 2020 presidential general election.
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A month or so ago, the notion that President Trump would win reelection was dismissed as delusional.
Reality resided in the data. Trump won seniors by 9 percent in the 2016 election; he trailed by 5–9 percent in the July/early August 2020 survey research. Support for Trump among suburban women had collapsed. His approval and “re-elect” numbers remained (and still remain) stubbornly low (low 40s). Two-thirds of the electorate think the country is on “the wrong track.” No way he wins, given all that.
And that’s right. There is no way Trump “wins.” He will lose the national popular vote by somewhere between 5 million and 7 million votes. His reelection campaign hasn’t just given up on trying to win the popular vote; they never thought it was possible in the first place.
Former vice president Joe Biden, however, is fully capable of losing enough states to lose the election in the Electoral College. If the last three weeks are any indication, he’s well on his way to doing just that.
You can feel the change in the press coverage. The tone of the commentary and analysis has gone from up-tempo to downbeat. “Biden’s doing well” has been replaced by “Biden’s in trouble.”
Last Thursday put a punctuation mark on the shift. A Change Research poll was posted at CNBC.com. The top-line national number had Biden comfortably ahead. But in the six “battleground states,” Biden’s lead, statistically speaking, had evaporated.
What all the pros know is that the president “under-polls.” Trump is usually 2 percent stronger than he “performs” in any given published poll. “People don’t want to admit they’re voting for Trump,” says one pollster with long experience in national politics. Bloomberg News recently ran a story saying the same thing.
If Trump “under-polling” is a matter of fact, then the races in the six battleground states, the ones that will decide the outcome in November, are dead heats. That’s a long way from where the president stood a month ago.
Three issues (to date) constitute the “landscape” of the 2020 presidential campaign: the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, and social discord/disorder. There is, of course, a fourth issue — an elephant-in-the-room issue — which is the president himself.
The Biden campaign’s theory is that the election is a referendum on Trump — nothing more, nothing less. The president is despised by half of the electorate. The economy is in shambles. The president has mishandled the pandemic. He’s exacerbating social discord, making it worse, not better. All that combined begets a Biden victory.
For many weeks, this was the rationale behind Biden’s confinement to his basement in his home in Delaware. The idea being that you stand aside when your opponent is busy self-destructing.
The Biden campaign’s theory is incorrect. Here’s a more realistic assessment of where things stand:
▪ There will probably be a coronavirus vaccine by the middle of October, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to extend the Emergency Use Authorization. The FDA may extend the authorization if there is an urgent public health crisis that can or might be alleviated (or mitigated) by novel medications. An authorization eliminates the requirement of Phase 3 trials and enables a medication to (much) more quickly come to market.
Trump will be quick to take credit when the announcement is made. And what has been a losing issue for him may no longer be one.
▪ The economy will probably be in tatters by mid-October. The president will blame this on Democrats in Congress, saying they refused to compromise on a second stimulus bill and thus cratered consumer demand that was keeping the economy afloat. He will also say that the pandemic will eventually be brought to heel via a vaccine or herd immunity. And that voters should consider whether Biden or Trump is best equipped to revive the economy, jump-start employment, and restore confidence. At present, Trump “wins” on the economy (in poll after poll) by roughly 10 percentage points. Biden will be hard-pressed to make up the difference.
▪ Social discord/disorder has emerged as the unexpected issue of the 2020 campaign due to protests over police brutality and racism. It is playing out with demonstrations across the country; parts of Kenosha, Wis., (for instance) look like a war zone. What began as peaceful protests against incidences of lethal police misconduct has devolved into vandalism, arson, and mayhem. Trump, incongruously but so far effectively, has cast himself as the protector in chief of social order. The Biden campaign has seemed paralyzed by the issue and said little about it until last week.
Looming over the landscape of the fall campaign is the elephant in the room: Trump. As noted above, his approval number hovers at 43–45percent (adjusted for the “shy” Trump supporter). His “hard” disapproval number is set in concrete at 50 percent.
The Biden campaign’s novenas to these two numbers are incessant. They are misguided. One of the central tenets of politics was captured years ago by Osama bin Laden. He said: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.” Biden, throughout this phase of the general election campaign, has been the weak horse. Whatever else it did, the Republican National Convention projected Trump as the strong horse. Nowhere is it written that voters have to like Trump to vote for him.