PRESIDENT Donald Trump goes into a televised ‘town hall’ meeting with voters in Florida this evening which could well decide whether he spends four more years in the White House or returns to Trump Tower in New York a defeated man.
The race is now squarely a referendum on Trump, which Democrats always saw as their pathway to victory.
The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, will appear at a town hall in Philadelphia on a different television channel, at the same time (8pm EST, 1am Friday in Britain), still under pressure of his own to prove his fitness for the presidency.
The two men were supposed to duel with each other on the same debate stage but the event was called off after Trump tested positive this month for Covid, of which his doctors say he is now free after a short stay in hospital.
Trump has a lot of negatives to conquer. With less than two weeks till the November 3 election, he’s lagging behind Biden in every major poll, gets a relentlessly hostile press and is paying the price with middle America for his reputation as a bullying tweeter.
This election is less about policy differences between the Republican and Democratic parties – although these are substantial and important – than personality. Even some Republicans find Trump’s excesses grating despite a solid record in office in both domestic and foreign policy.
Sean Trende of the RealClearPolitics website summed it up this way: Americans ‘want a president who acts like their vision of a president. Trump doesn’t. And that, more than the issues, more than whether voters are better off than they were four years ago, might be the deciding factor in 2020.’
Can Trump turn it around this evening? His meeting with Florida voters will be moderated by Savannah Guthrie of NBC. He will need to be gracious, charming and project gravitas to efface the disastrous impression he made at the only head-to-head debate he had with Biden.
The two men shouted over and interrupted each other, and the partisan media blamed Trump for a fiasco which caused some public disgust and from which Americans learned nothing worthwhile in policy terms.
If there has been a pivotal moment in the campaign so far, the debate was it.
After that debacle the air seemed to start leaking from the Trump balloon and Biden moved further ahead in the polls, which he’s led all along. Testing positive for Covid didn’t help Trump’s image. The guy responsible for protecting Americans caught the bug himself. How could that happen?
But where there’s life, there’s hope, right? Literally no one thought Hillary would lose in 2016. History could repeat itself. Some conservatives comfort themselves that voters are lying to the pollsters in numbers sufficient to let Trump spring back like Lazarus.
These are nail-biting times and since the 2016 upset, all are wary of clambering too far out on the branch of prediction. However, the polls point consistently to Biden; there may even be a poll out there that claims he’s ahead by 110 per cent which would include the famous voter from the grave. This is not entirely facetious. Voter fraud is expected to be a controversial issue if the election result is contested.
Respected conservative commentators admit the polls are correct. The Democrats’ man and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, have a lead that is healthy beyond the margin of error. The runes as of now say he’ll win.
Little can be asserted with confidence about this strangest of elections. Trump, always jovial, doesn’t have the glow that winners project despite the fact that his fans are enthusiastic when he appears in public. It’s an impression that could be wrong, stemming from his almost uniformly negative media.
Biden’s buoyancy in the polls isn’t reflected in the numbers willing to turn out to see him at open air meetings. He’s been so little visible it could almost be said he’s been a spectator at his own election campaign. It’s unlikely he’ll encounter much animosity at his town hall moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House.
Some of Trump’s statistics belie his poor polls and confirm that the election is all about him personally.
For instance, at the end of September, 56 per cent of Americans said that despite Covid’s disruption of the economy, they were better off than they were under low-growth Obama to whom Biden was vice president. His job approval rating is 45 per cent which is only slightly lower than some previous incumbents had at election day and still won.
There’s a recent parallel for Trump’s predicament. When Gaullist Nicholas Sarkozy won the French presidency in 2007, he was hounded by the media for ‘unpresidential behaviour’ that culminated with a divorce and quick remarriage to a singer. This last proved too much for the Catholic haute bourgeoisie who are the last true custodians of the Gaullist flame.
They let it be known they wouldn’t vote for Sarkozy’s re-election. They didn’t. He lost. Like Trump, he failed to learn the lesson of Icarus.