Donald Trump is trailing Joe Biden by 8.5 points nationally — the biggest polling deficit that any incumbent president has ever faced this late in a campaign. One major cause of Trump’s woes is his collapsing standing with self-described “moderate” voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won this group by 12 points; some recent polls have Biden winning it by roughly four times that margin.
But the president has a plan for expanding his coalition: He will reassure moderate skeptics by putting greater emphasis on his indifference to public health, contempt for democracy, and support for political violence.
Or at least, this is what Trump’s messaging might lead one to think. Over the past 24 hours, the president has vowed to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, praised a caravan of Trump supporters that surrounded a Biden campaign bus in Texas and nearly ran it off the road, and argued that voters whose ballots aren’t counted on Election Night deserve to be disenfranchised.
Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, boasts a 64 percent job-approval rating, according to a recent Morning Consult survey. By contrast, approval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus sits at just 39 percent.
And yet, at a rally in South Florida last night, when Trump’s die-hard supporters broke into a “Fire Fauci” chant, the president replied, “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election.” This statement implies both that Trump intends to fire a widely trusted public-health official in the middle of a pandemic and that the only reason he hasn’t done so yet is that he does not want pro-Fauci voters to know his true intentions before they cast their ballots.
Although there is little polling on the subject, it seems safe to say that most Americans believe it is wrong for politicians to try to win elections by (1) declaring victory before all votes are counted, and then (2) asking partisan judges to throw out the remaining ballots. Nevertheless, Trump told reporters Monday, “I think it’s terrible when we can’t know the results of an election [on] the night of the election, in a modern-day age of computer,” going on to say that his campaign would “go in the night of [the election], as soon as that election is over” and attempt to halt the counting of absentee mail ballots.
In interviews with the New York Times, Trump advisers made his campaign’s intentions even more explicit:
Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.
The president’s confidantes told the same story (with a bit more elaboration) to Axios:
Behind the scenes: Trump has privately talked through this scenario in some detail in the last few weeks, describing plans to walk up to a podium on election night and declare he has won.
For this to happen, his allies expect he would need to either win or have commanding leads in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona and Georgia.
Why it matters: Trump’s team is preparing to falsely claim that mail-in ballots counted after Nov. 3 — a legitimate count expected to favor Democrats — are evidence of election fraud.
Trump’s plan to exploit a partisan discrepancy in voting methods (with Democrats being more likely to cast mail-in ballots that are counted last in some key swing states) has long been clear: Over and over, the president has insinuated that he will declare himself the winner on Election Night if he is leading in partial returns — and then fight in court to halt the counting of further ballots. What is new, however, is the president and his advisers openly copping to this strategy. Further, in his remarks Monday, Trump didn’t just baselessly assert that mail ballots were rife with fraud; he also made the less factually problematic — but more openly anti-democratic — argument that last-minute mail ballots shouldn’t be counted because procrastinators don’t deserve to have their voices heard, saying, “If people wanted to get their ballots in, they should have gotten their ballots in long before that.”
Finally, on Friday, a bevy of trucks bearing Trump flags surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus in Texas Friday, with one vehicle pulling in front of the bus and then stopping in the middle of the highway, apparently trying to force the bus to halt, or pull off to the side of the road. This led the Biden campaign to cancel two events out of fear of political violence. The FBI has opened an investigation into the incident.
According to a new USA Today–Suffolk University Poll, three-fourths of Americans are worried about violence on Election Day. In surveys of which candidate the public trusts to better handle public safety, Biden has consistently held the advantage, with many voters apparently buying the Democratic nominee’s argument that Trump fans the flames of division and unrest.
And yet, on Sunday night, Trump said of those who nearly forced a Democratic campaign bus off the road in Texas, “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong. Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities and hurting our people!”
This is not the message you broadcast if you are trying to expand your minority coalition. No sane political strategist would advise a candidate to close by emphasizing his opposition to democracy, support for political violence targeting his rivals, and contempt for popular public-health officials. The fact that Trump’s advisers have told reporters that they intend to lie to the American public on Election Night — and then block the counting of votes thereafter — is even more puzzling. Perhaps they are trying to undermine the plan by discussing it on record; or perhaps they simply have no more impulse control than the president, and just felt like gabbing. Either way, to the extent that there is any strategy behind Trump’s statements, it is a strategy for retaining power through political violence and judicial malfeasance, not one for winning a free and fair election.