“There is an adage in politics,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota. “When your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, don’t take his gun away.”
As the presidential election campaign begins in earnest, Donald Trump should have an inbuilt advantage. Social distancing rules mean that his
Democratic rival Joe Biden has largely been confined to doing low-key events from the basement of his Delaware home.
Untroubled by such public health niceties, Mr Trump has begun a series of rallies designed to demonstrate the ironclad support of his base — while boosting the spirits of the president.
Instead, the first rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma just reinforced the very problem Mr Trump had wanted to escape: his rising unpopularity.
Over the past two months, Mr Trump’s approval ratings have nosedived, first because of his heavily-criticised response to the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, his reaction to the antiracism protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Although most developing countries have succeeded in bringing down sharply the number of cases, the US on Thursday saw its biggest one-day total of new coronavirus infections as the pandemic spreads in southern states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona.
Donald Trump flanked by riot police, who had cleared antiracism protesters so that the president could attend a photo shoot © Tom Brenner/Reuters
At the same time, the president has been castigated for making racist comments and sowing division. He was skewered for trying to send the military into the streets to face down protesters. Former presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W Bush have directly or indirectly rebuked him. And both his former defence secretary Jim Mattis and former national security adviser John Bolton stated that he was unfit to be commander-in-chief.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Mark Esper, defence secretary, even apologised after Mr Trump roped them into a photo opportunity at a church that involved using tear gas on protesters to clear the way for him to leave the White House.
Earlier this year, after he was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial and as the economy roared ahead, Mr Trump appeared to have a clear path towards re-election.
But he now finds that Mr Biden, who only four months ago was desperately trying to save his own presidential campaign in the Democratic primary, has a double-digit lead in the polls despite having done relatively little campaigning.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden, the ‘safe, cuddly, warm Democrat’, according to one strategist © Matt Slocum/AP
A recent New York Times/Siena poll gave Mr Biden a 14-point edge. Surveys in the swing states that are key to winning the electoral college also look ominous. In 2016, Mr Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin with razor-thin margins, but now trails by between six and nine points. He lags by seven points in Florida and four in Arizona, both of which he won. And Mr Biden is on his heels in Texas, which has not gone to the Democrats since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Landing back at the White House in the early hours of Sunday, Mr Trump seemed deflated, his tie drooped around his neck as he carried his Make America Great Again cap. Only 6,200 people had shown up in Tulsa, for his first rally since the pandemic struck — even though his campaign had boasted that 1m fans wanted tickets.
“States that were not in play in 2016 are clearly in play today,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “If the election were held today, it is pretty obvious that Joe Biden would be elected president, comfortably.”
‘Biden blunders will be exposed’
Can Mr Trump recover? After the shock of his 2016 victory, no one in politics is willing to count him out just yet. Mr Ayres points out that things could change again as quickly as they did over the past few months with the emergence of the pandemic and anti-racism protests. “Four months is a couple of light years in political terms.”
By keeping a low profile Mr Biden is succeeding in making the election a referendum on the president. But some Trump supporters believe that he will struggle to maintain that strategy all the way through to November.
In recent months Donald Trump’s ratings have nosedived, in part because of his reaction to the antiracism protests following the killing of George Floyd © AFP via Getty Images
“Biden is still in the bunker,” says John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming. “He can’t hide forever. Once he is out, the Biden blunders will be exposed, and people will see the real choice.”
Mr Barrasso says there is plenty of time for Mr Trump to recover. He says the election will be heavily influenced by how quickly the economy rebounds from the shutdowns. He also points out that while the Tulsa crowd was small, Fox News, which broadcast the rally, had a record audience for a Saturday night.
Polls show that Mr Trump has lost support among women, including critically those without college degrees. He has also suffered with older voters, a key group for him four years ago, because of concerns about the pandemic.
But one factor that plays in his favour is that voters still appear more confident in his ability to steer the economy than Mr Biden, even though the jobless rate has risen from a low of 3.5 per cent in February to 13.3 per cent.
In Phoenix, Arizona this week for another rally, Mr Trump declared that the economy would roar back in the third quarter — just in time for the election. “That’s hopefully a sign from up there,” he quipped, looking up at the sky.
Heidi Heitkamp at Uffda Parade in Rutland, North Dakota, in 2018 © Demetri Sevastopulo
But there are big questions about the pace of recovery, particularly as states such as Texas and Florida that were quicker to reopen have witnessed a serious spike in cases — which could lead to new lockdown measures being imposed.
As Mr Biden started to emerge from lockdown this week, he slammed Mr Trump for saying in Tulsa that he ordered his team to “slow the testing down”. The president later tried to claim that he had been joking but was met with widespread disbelief.
“He thinks finding out that more Americans are sick will make him look bad,” Mr Biden said in a speech in Pennsylvania on Thursday.
Another area where Mr Trump is stronger is enthusiasm. Polls show his base is more passionate about him than Democrats are about their former vice-president. One Republican lawmaker says Mr Trump had recently brought those numbers to a lunch with GOP senators to assuage their concerns.
Mr Trump seems to be gambling that a version of his “law and order” playbook from four years ago — replacing Mexican immigrants with the antiracism protesters — will propel him to victory by maintaining that enthusiasm. But while Mr Trump derides the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, polls show that a majority of Americans now believe that white police officers are more likely to use excessive force on black men.
“His message today is almost exactly the same as 2016,” says Mr Ayres. “The country has changed but his message has not.”
Several Republicans have suggested that Mr Trump needs to change his tone to win independents. Even Mr Barrasso suggests that Mr Trump needs to change tack. “You need to excite your own base. But politics is about addition and multiplication, the more people you can attract and activate. You need to do both.”
Ms Heitkamp says the pandemic is hurting Mr Trump by preventing him from being able to gauge voter sentiment. “Without rallies to test some of his messages, he really is at a loss. He has lost the most critical piece of research.”
Joe Biden is on Donald Trump’s heels in polls in Texas, a traditionally Republican-voting state which has seen a spike in coronavirus cases this week © Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters
The perfect antidote?
But Democrats also have concerns. Some worry that Mr Biden is struggling to excite the Obama coalition of the young and people of colour. He has vowed to pick a woman for his running mate, and the odds are high he will pick a black woman. But Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that promotes women of colour in politics, says he must do more to appeal to black voters, who are a core part of the Democrats’ support base.
“Some might come to the mistaken conclusion that Biden has locked in the votes [of black women]. That’s just not the case,” she says.
The president is trying to amplify concerns about Mr Biden’s age and his mental agility. Mr Trump has mocked the 77-year-old for seemingly being unable to remember words — even if the president faces similar claims about his health. “He can’t put two sentences together,” Mr Trump said this week. “And he’s going to be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”
During the Democratic primary, Mr Biden argued that his scrappy working-class background and earthy demeanour would win back some of the Democrats and independents who backed Mr Trump in 2016. His rivals countered that he was an old-school, establishment politician who was out of touch with his party. As the election approaches, many Democrats are now coalescing around the view that he is a decent man who is the perfect antidote to Mr Trump.
John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, says: ‘Biden is still in the bunker . . . Once he is out, the Biden blunders will be exposed’ © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg
Joe DiSano, a Democratic strategist, says independents are more likely to vote for Mr Biden than Hillary Clinton, who Republicans had portrayed as a crook for 25 years. “He’s the safe, cuddly, warm Democrat,” he says. “People are looking for comfort food. The Oval Office is more like a discotheque right now.”
While some Democrats giddily view the polls as evidence that Mr DiSano is correct, others call for a dose of caution. “We can’t be complacent or smug,” former president Barack Obama said this week. “Look, he won once.”
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Tim Miller, a former aide to Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush, warns that Mr Trump could still win more support from white voters without college degrees in swing states. “Many of the Republicans expressing concern about the president this spring might not feel that way come November,” says Mr Miller, who is involved in one of several groups of disillusioned Republicans who are trying to defeat Mr Trump.
Patti Solis Doyle, former chief of staff to Mr Biden and Mrs Clinton’s presidential campaign manager in 2008, said Democrats should remember that the election will be decided in just a few counties in six or seven swing states.
“For any Democrat who doesn’t believe this will be a close race, let them go back to November 8, 2016 when shock turned to horror,” says Ms Solis Doyle. “The best thing we can do is keep our heads down, drive home our message and get our vote out. Ignore the polls no matter how exhilarating they may be today.”