Since well before my days in Washington, I have been both involved in and fascinated by the workings of the American political system. One of the great experiences of my life was, just out of college, doing political work in the heat of the pivotal New Hampshire primary for the presidency in 1992. The late-night strategy sessions, media plans, knocking on doors, managing other political operatives and truly getting to know the people of the small town my friends and I were working in gave me a genuine sense of how US politics works at the micro level.
Given all this, the easiest thing that I can say about the 2020 election is that it amounts to an electoral contest like no other I have ever seen. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no mass knocking on doors, no small-town strategies, no week-long party conventions, and not even many major campaign events — President Donald Trump’s favorite forum — with supporters shouting from the rafters. The trappings and traditional form of US campaigning itself has been radically altered by the virus, just as it has shaken up so many other social traditions. That makes calling an already wildly unpredictable presidential race even more difficult.
However, with less than 100 days to go until the vote, there are at least three basic political facts we do know about the campaign. First, Joe Biden, long languishing in his basement in Delaware, has unconventionally stormed into a clear lead over the president. According to last week’s RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls, Biden leads Trump nationally by 51 percent to 41.
But, of course, the US does not elect presidents nationally; rather, it is done through the Electoral College, in what amounts to 50 state contests that are then added together. But, even by this more accurate token, the president is well behind his challenger. The RealClearPolitics average had, as of last week, Biden with 352 electoral votes (if the election were held now) to Donald Trump’s 186.
Biden is ahead outside the margin of error in pivotal Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania. Ominously for the White House, the former vice president even bests Trump in bellwether Ohio; no Republican candidate for president has ever been elected without winning that key state. So there is no doubting the challenger has surged ahead of the incumbent president.
Second, the two key issues that explain Biden’s edge are his successful criticism of Trump’s erratic handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the stunning appearance on the scene of the largest civil rights protests in a generation following the murder of George Floyd.
On the former, Trump’s stubborn refusal to seem to take the virus seriously enough — a July 20 Washington Post poll found that only 39 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis, while fully 60 percent disapproved — has recently given way to a more emollient tone, as he has at last encouraged the wearing of face masks. The president, in an abrupt shift of tone, grimly noted that the virus continues to rage through the country, rather than over-optimistically saying that the US has already been through the worst of the pandemic.
While tacking toward the center on this first issue where Biden has an edge, the president has instead directly steered into further controversy over the second. Hoping to emulate Richard Nixon’s law and order strategy in 1968, Trump has sharply criticized the present civil rights movement, noting that there has been violence and riots in its wake, and strongly condemning the most radical protesters’ demands to “defund the police.”
Here it would seem that Trump is on more stable political ground. An ABC News poll of June 12 discovered a strong 64 percent of Americans questioned opposed the defund the police movement. Biden, sensing the political danger to his campaign, while being consistently rhetorically sympathetic to the protests, has made it a clear point not to endorse this radical demand.
Trump, aware that Biden has yet to tumble into his political trap, has instead changed tack, charging that the Democratic nominee is too weak to hold back the far-left tendencies of his base. So, while the law and order strategy has yet to bear fruit, Trump has doubled down on it, convinced that, over time, he can tie the moderate Biden to his more leftish supporters in an effort to scare moderate independent voters who are presently favorably disposed to Biden.
This leads us to the third political fact that we know about the utterly unique 2020 campaign: Even this late in the day, a lot of the major political narratives can still change. The economy could begin to do better. There could be further acts of violence in upcoming civil rights protests, which would vindicate Trump’s law and order strategy. The pandemic could further subside in America. Biden, who ruefully describes himself as “a human gaffe machine,” could make a major mistake at one of the three upcoming presidential debates. In other words, Trump is down, but he is not yet out of the 2020 presidential contest.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.
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