The dynamics of the 2020 presidential race have been quite stable since the spring, with Joe Biden holding a significant lead over President Donald Trump in the states that decided the 2016 election. He has also been expanding the map by being competitive in states that Republicans did not expect to be in play, such as Ohio, Iowa and even Texas. Yet Biden’s stable lead has rightly been seen as far from ensuring victory, both because Trump could win the Electoral College even while losing the popular vote by up to 3% or more, and because questions remain about the composition of polling samples, just as the race is tightening somewhat in key states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.
Nevertheless, it is clear who the leader is, and the Trump camp was counting on the first debate, on September 30 in Cleveland, Ohio, to spark a comeback that would bring the President within striking distance by Election Day. It did not happen.
Trump shot himself in the foot by being rude and unruly while also focusing on side issues that, despite being popular on television and social media, are actually of little importance to the future of the country.
Trump failed on two fronts: First, if he wanted to show that Biden is getting senile, he should have let him talk more, rather than bailing him out with incessant interruptions. Second, he seems to have forgotten what got him to the White House in the first place: Despite the fixation of many commentators and media outlets on Trump’s brash style and so-called “dog whistles” to prejudiced voters, the reality is that his controversial, non-politically correct style only worked in 2016 because it was linked to the underlying discontent among much of the population regarding the policies of economic globalization and permanent war that dominated US policymaking for years. In the first debate, Trump seemed so intent on flustering and criticizing Biden that he failed to link his attacks to this broader narrative; the result was an image of negativity divorced from its raison d’etre, the need to reverse the policies of a political establishment that has ignored the troubles of the middle class for decades.
For the first few minutes of the Cleveland debate, it seemed that Biden might actually prove Trump right about his age and diminishing mental acuity. He looked old and tired (a more colorful tie could have helped) and his initial responses were a bit confused. There are plenty of areas where Trump could have put Biden on the defensive, forcing him to answer for his long career in Washington supporting the policies that much of the American public recognizes as tied to an encrusted and out-of-touch establishment. He did this effectively in 2016 against Hillary Clinton: Along with his antics aimed at flustering her on a personal level, he hammered away on issues such as trade and manufacturing job losses that are very important to some parts of the country. Clinton offered no answer, and her campaign strategy reflected the assumption that identity politics would win out over such “populist” appeals.
Ironically, it is President Trump – despite his simple slogans, short attention span, and alleged aversion to reading – who has an advantage on content. Trump has actually changed the direction of the country, and perhaps the world: Gone is the denial of the need for an industrial policy and protectionist measures on the part of the state, and gone is the illusion of the spread of democracy through free trade; not to mention the goals of regime change that led the US into numerous failed military interventions. Yes, the immediate results are limited, and there is plenty to criticize this administration about in both domestic and foreign policy, but there is no denying that on both economics and diplomacy, Democrats and Republicans alike are now riding the same underlying currents.
These winds of change were already blowing before the Covid-19 pandemic, and are now getting even stronger. Yet apart from some brief references to the virus from China, the President seemed unable to link current events to the broader changes he has been promoting for years. Rather, Trump is falling into the typical trap for incumbents, boasting about how great he has done and getting testy in response to any criticism of the current state of the country; a pretty hard sell during a period of dramatic health, economic and social crisis.
We have seen this movie before: politicians convinced that voters would be more supportive if they just read the macroeconomic statistics and realized how good things are – or in Trump’s case, at least how good they were until a few months ago. The economy is essentially the only issue where the public trusts Trump more than Biden, but it is more than a bit exaggerated to see this as confirmation of “the greatest economy ever”. For the middle and lower class, wages are still low, living costs high, and working conditions very precarious. The President would do well to remind people of his plan to make America great again by rebuilding the productive economy, instead of merely tooting his own horn and expecting voters to follow him.
The dominant issue in the 2020 campaign is undoubtedly the Covid-19 pandemic. A majority of Americans think that President Trump has done very poorly on this front, and many find his lack of stability and empathy in managing the crisis to be disqualifying.
The only way for the President to overcome this problem is if some unexpected good news comes up regarding the health emergency. His other hope is that Biden will fall apart, with gaffes and moments of confusion that can drive up doubts about his fitness to be president. In the first debate, Trump’s aggressiveness worked to his disadvantage though, allowing Biden to stay afloat simply by responding coherently to the President’s attacks, while limiting the difficult task of speaking simultaneously to the various constituencies of the Democratic Party.
There are two more debates coming, but time is short: People are already voting in many states, and impressions seem to be fairly locked in, with fewer undecided voters than four years ago and less appetite for scandals and sideshows in the midst of a set of historic crises. Without a surprise that shakes up the race in the last month, it seems that Trump will focus on raising doubts about mail-in voting, and preparing legal challenges that could draw the process out well beyond November 3, as he has repeatedly made clear in recent weeks.