Being cautious by nature and having been seared by what happened four years ago, I’m not ready to predict a Joe Biden presidential win — particularly since I still fear, if it’s at all close on Election Night, that Trump could try to steal an election he would otherwise lose.
But a week from November 3 and many months into the strangest general-election campaign ever, with both debates over and all the messages sent or set in stone, it’s not too early to make one important judgment: Donald J. Trump has failed to make this contest “about” Biden (or the “socialist Democrat” party), rather than about his own performance as president. To put it in strategic terms, Team Trump’s efforts to turn a “referendum” election into a “choice” election have not only failed but arguably backfired: To the extent that persuadable voters look at the candidates instead of at Trump’s record, the comparison is working against him.
It’s a truism of political science that presidential reelection bids turn on perceptions of the incumbent’s performance above all else. With extremely rare exceptions, presidents with positive job-approval ratings (Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012) get reelected, while those with negative ratings (Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992) don’t. Trump’s approval ratings in 2020 (generally in the low-to-mid 40s) haven’t been that far below W.’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2012, but to an extraordinary extent, Trump’s numbers have been inelastic. So it’s not surprising that in looking forward to 2020 the Trump reelection strategy focused on turning polarization to the candidate’s favor rather than reducing it to broaden his coalition. The idea was to pursue the president’s time-tested divisive themes of cultural and partisan grievances to rev up his base while pressing swing voters to choose between the status quo and a caricature of the opposition.
At the beginning of 2020, it looked as though it could all work out for Trump. The economy was improving steadily enough to boost his job-approval numbers to near their historic ceiling. The failed Democratic drive to remove him from office via impeachment had solidified his base, focused his supporters on vengeance, and contributed to his campaign’s depiction of Democrats as a gang of extremists bent on a coup d’état. The occasionally fractious Democratic presidential nominating contest encouraged Team Trump that it might be able to batten on the opposition party’s divisions, and/or might face a nominee who was vulnerable to “socialism” charges.
But then two things happened almost simultaneously: Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and the coronavirus became a pandemic that Trump instantly and irrevocably mishandled. The former development made it more difficult to caricature the opposition party as extremist, while the latter put a firm cap on Trump’s popularity and closed off any alternative strategy.
The trajectory of the campaign has made it clear that Trump’s efforts to demonize Joe Biden and his party have failed. The claim that Biden is senile was essential to the twin charges that he is dangerously incompetent and a puppet of the “radical left” of the Democratic Party (or perhaps the front man for the “communist” and “monster” Kamala Harris). In the two debates, however (the most salient opportunities for comparing the two septuagenarians), Biden was, on balance, the more coherent and self-possessed of the two. And while Trump did score some points in the final debates concerning Biden’s record on criminal-justice reform, the former vice-president easily parried the “socialist” attack line by calmly pointing out that Trump must be confusing his platform with those of the progressive rivals he vanquished.
The major strategic adjustment Trump made since Biden’s nomination has been to depict him as Hillary Clinton Redux, a creature of the same bipartisan Establishment that Trump campaigned against in 2016. A corollary of this dubious effort to regain an outsider position has been the president’s tedious attacks on the looters and murderers of “Democrat cities,” who are apparently itching to cross the invisible barricades erected by Trump to sack and pillage the pristine suburbs. More broadly, the “China virus,” Black Lives Matter activists, antifa “thugs,” and Fake Media traitors are alien forces that have somehow taken control of Great-Again America with only the besieged president willing to rescue her. But as Tim Alberta notes at Politico, this just doesn’t work for an incumbent:
Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Had Trump focused his reelection campaign on rebuilding his approval rating via (a) a pivot toward accepting responsibility and articulating a national strategy on COVID-19 and (b) making a credible case that the economy will come roaring back after the pandemic has subsided, not through some forced “reopening,” he might have lifted his approval rating and come closer to victory in a referendum election. At the same time, he might have done a better job of winning a “choice” election had he focused relentlessly on weak points of Biden’s agenda and Biden’s own record rather than trying to force him into an “extremist” template that just doesn’t fit him. A more disciplined and realistic comparative campaign might also have avoided the absurd effort by the most consistently incoherent and mendacious politician in American history to accuse Joe Biden of incoherence and lies.
As it is, the president’s campaign seems to have fallen between two stools: He hasn’t made a convincing case that he deserves a second term, and he has barely laid a glove on Biden. His very slim hopes for reelection now depend on an outsize turnout among the voters who have been with him from the beginning.