RIDING a growing economy, sticking to an America First foreign policy and overcoming impeachment, for a while all made President Donald Trump’s second term in office look a walkover. However, that picture then came to look less certain.
Events over the course of the coronavirus crisis have greatly affected Trump’s re-election chances. His administration’s handling of the outbreak has brought down heavy criticism on him.
This has been reflected in his personal polling numbers and has also affected overall the election chances of Republican candidates across competitive national and local races. Despite this, current poll numbers show worrying signs for the Democrats, who need to wake up before they sleepwalk into another shocking defeat at the hands of Trump.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden had been enjoying a bit of a honeymoon. To his advantage, much of the media’s focus was on the pandemic and on Trump’s aggressive and sometimes confused response to it, and less on their respective electoral campaigns.
But now the party conventions, albeit in virtual form, have changed all that. By contrast with the Democrats’ shaky opening – a pre-recorded Michelle Obama speech – and Biden’s lacklustre performance, the Republican convention has got off to a flying start for the president.
Despite the Democrats’ badmouthing, Trump’s ‘culture wars’ pitch, as the saviour of Western civilisation, looks as though it could win through.
Now, after the conventions, we can expect the real political battle to begin.
To date, poll after poll has shown Biden with a substantial lead nationally and often with promising winning numbers in key battleground states. This, though nominally a good place to be, should not be any sort of consolation for the Biden campaign, as several factors (even without Trump’s bold fightback) are hampering his chances.
First is the sheer power of incumbency that historically benefits the sitting president – only ten presidents have failed to win re-election. The last to do so was George H W Bush in 1992, who found himself up against the last competitive third-party candidate in Ross Perot, though it is still debatable whether Perot’s candidacy did cost him that election.
Couple this electoral trend with an incumbent who dominates his office and it provides a natural advantage over any opponent.
The second factor is Biden himself. The former vice-president’s campaign is lacklustre and devoid of the enthusiasm needed for a successful run. Trump supporters are more enthusiastic about their candidate than Biden supporters are about theirs.
It’s reflected in the energy evident at Trump campaign rallies – voters appear more excited, invigorated, and passionate for his re-election. Some of this is simply a reflection of Biden’s personality, or lack of it. But it is also down to the growing rift in Democratic sensibilities and politics over the course of the primaries.
Biden represents the more centrist part of the Democrats against the Leftist Bernie Sanders and the even further Left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortz and her sisterhood. Reconciling these divides is a challenge for his campaign, and was bound to be from the beginning. His appointment of Kamala Harris as his running mate may go some way to mitigating it.
But that does not solve Biden’s next problem – the core message he offers voters, essentially reduced to ‘Vote for me because I am not Trump.’
This is markedly different and weaker than historical electoral platitudes of recent times, especially the winning ones. It pales by comparison to Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ message of change, or Trump’s powerful, though potentially now somewhat exhausted, ‘Make America Great Again’.
The third factor is the war chest, the money available for both campaigns for the upcoming election. Although this has narrowed considerably in the past few months, Trump’s ability to fundraise creates a disadvantage for Biden. Though having considerable campaign finances does not necessarily translate to victory – just ask Steve Forbes or Jeb Bush (the latter spent over $130 million on his failed 2016 bid) – in the case of Trump it could help substantially to narrow the race.
Finally, what should worry the Democrats most are the polls themselves. While the ABC News and Washington Post polls showed Biden an apparently comfortable 12 points in the lead, a CNN YouGov poll showed him up only a tenuous 4 points at the end of the convention. All that media coverage and exposure had not translated into the hoped-for Biden bounce.
Despite the poll discrepancies, the race is narrowing. Given Trump’s volatile ability to draw news coverage and attention, it could narrow further. And that should worry the Democrats.
The phenomenon dubbed the shy Trump voter (mirroring the shy Tory factor of Britain and based on the premise that Right-of-centre sympathies are more taboo to publicly declare) may be less of a myth than some would like to believe. In the current climate, many Americans feel that declaring you intend to vote for the president is treated by some as amounting to a cardinal sin.
Yet is it a dynamic that could come to haunt Biden’s team. The electoral machine built by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign is reflected in a significant rise in new voters registering as Republicans in key battleground states and making small inroads in Biden’s lead with minority voters. This was dramatically demonstrated by Vernon Jordan’s intervention and the Trump campaign’sown push for African-American voters.
Together, these factors suggest Trump is far from out of the race. He faces an uphill battle to stay in the White House, but so does his opponent in preventing him from doing so. Biden’s campaign will need more than ‘Never Trump’ supporters and ‘I’m Not Donald Trump’ messaging to secure his win. He’ll need a platform of positive and identifiable politics so far yet to be seen.
For the Democrats, signs are surfacing, as they were in 2016, that they are complacently sleepwalking into another defeat. As things stand, Donald Trump will continue to be commander-in-chief.
President Donald Trump’s approval rating has risen in six swing states over the last two weeks as voter concerns about the coronavirus have waned, according to the latest polling.