Ben Roback: Trump’s facing an uphill battle to convince voters he’s the man to bring the US out of the pandemic

29 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are now fewer than 100 days to go until the November 3rd election. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will invariably describe it as the most important election in a generation, in the same way that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This time around, the candidates might be right. The challenges facing the next leader of the free world are stark.

A global health pandemic that continues to ravage the United States; a rampant China and a resurgent Russia; domestic social and racial unrest that is bubbling over now after decades of suppression; an increasingly angry population split more than ever by political anger and culture wars over age-old issues like abortion and LGBT rights and newer dividing lines like monuments and masks.

In that respect, whilst the job for the next President of the United States is daunting, the opportunities are vast. To try and bring the country together is the immediate task for the victor come November. To rally the nation behind a domestic and international strategy for the four years that follow is the great challenge.

With under 100 days until the election, there are three major trends to look out for:

A ‘new Trump’ or the same old ways?

The President is facing an uphill battle to convince voters that he is the man to bring the United States out of the Coronavirus pandemic – evidenced by the firing of Brad Parscale, the President’s election campaign manager. In simpler terms, you don’t sack Jurgen Klopp if his side are top of the Premier League. It was the first major recognition from the White House that their re-election campaign was stuttering. Instead, Bill Stepien, a field director for the 2016 Trump campaign, is tasked with plotting a path to re-election.

Since Stepien’s tenure began, we have seen hints of a different side to the President on COVID-19. Political commentators have flocked to describe the President’s ‘new tone’. They have evidence. Trump has described wearing masks as “patriotic” having previously refrained from doing so in public resolutely. On the resumption of the daily White House COVID-19 press briefings, the President warned the virus may “get worse before it gets better”. His message discipline at the Presidential podium has seemed tighter, with fewer musings seemingly offered at random.

But will it last?

Only yesterday, the President returned to the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to prevent Coronavirus, contradicting the consistent advice of his own public health officials. Social media posts shared by the President and his son advocating the drug were removed by Facebook and Twitter on the grounds of misinformation. After a period of détente, Dr Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has returned as the subject of the President’s indignation. A presidential retweet criticising Fauci for having “misled the public on many issues” remains visible for his 84 million followers. Trump yesterday raged that his approval rating did not match Fauci’s. That ‘new tone’? It might be short-lived.

This is not a president who likes to be controlled or shaped by dictatorial advisers. Sean Spicer learned that the hard way when he was despatched to lie to the press about the size of the Presidential inauguration crowd. Push back against the President and you will be fired. If the polling picture does not improve for the President – and fast – then Stepien might be the next former Trump 2020 campaign manager.

What appears evident is that, unless the White House can be seen to get a tighter grip of case numbers in the United States, the President’s chances of re-election will falter.

Why the Democratic VP pick matters more than normal

What motivates the choice of a running mate? Age. Diversity. Experience. Geographical balance. Popularity. It differs in each election. Although the lack of journalistic rigour at the time makes it hard to verify, VP John Nance Garner is reported to have once famously said that the office of the vice president “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” This time around it matters more.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has confirmed that he will announce his running mate in the first week in August before the Democratic convention (August 17-20). Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate and his team has been vetting four African American women understood to be Senator Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and Reps. Val Demings and Karen Bass.

At 77 years old and – 78 by the time he might assume office – Joe Biden is, respectfully, no spring chicken. For the Biden campaign, his choice of running mate matters more because voters could well be choosing an imminent successor to the President at any given moment. When Barack Obama became president at age 47, voters were not concerned that his age could become a hindrance to his tenure. On that basis, he selected Joe Biden, a political veteran with decades of experience.

Further, mental acuity has become a wedge issue this election. The President has bragged in an interview of his stellar performance in a cognitive test, recalling ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ in the correct order. Similarly, the Trump campaign has spent advertising money portraying Joe Biden as forgetful and in poor control of the facts. For these reasons, Biden’s choice of running mate is a hugely significant moment in the election campaign.

Keep one eye on the polls and the other on the map

The polling industry has taken a battering ever since it got – for the majority – Brexit and the 2016 presidential election wrong. But just as night follows day, we all return to the polls as the most reliable reference point for how elections might pan out. There is no proven better alternative.

As such, with fewer than 100 days to go, one eye should be kept on the polls. The Real Clear Politics average (Biden +9) paints a useful national picture, but swing state polling is more important in the electoral college system that operates on a state-by-state basis. What becomes crucial is swing states moving from ‘toss up’ to likely Trump/Biden, as was the case with Florida this week when the Cook Political Report moved it to ‘lean Democrat’.

With one eye on the polls, the other should be focussed on planes, trains and automobiles. Look closely where the Trump and Biden campaigns are going to rally and fundraise (within the current limitations of COVID-19). A defensive strategy by the President suggests he will seek to only defend his 2016 map and not expand on it by focussing on the 2016 swing states that went to Hillary Clinton by five points or fewer. An offensive strategy by the Biden campaign will be visible if he focusses on the traditionally red states that are now in play – like Texas (Trump +0.2) and Georgia (Trump +2.7).

Both men will be desperate to avoid the mistake made by the Clinton campaign in 2016. Wisconsin has been such a reliably Democratic state that Hillary Clinton failed to visit it entirely, the fist major-party nominee since 1972 to do so. Polls put Clinton ahead by over 6 points as election day neared. Then Trump won the state and its 10 electoral college votes. The running joke was that instead of calling her post-election book ‘What Happened’, Hillary Clinton might have called it “Should have Gone to Wisconsin”.

The lesson? Don’t take anything, anywhere for granted. Even the most solidly red or blue states will require attention and the promise of a new injection of political and financial capital. It means both candidates will have to balance shoring up their reliable support with the temptation to campaign in purple states that could possibly tip either way.