MIAMI - During the 2016 election campaign President Donald Trump seemed to have a protective layer of Teflon that shielded him from any kind of blunder or attack. He could do no wrong, to the extent that he joked, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
Fast forward to 2020, and it appears the Teflon is gone. As the president stumbles from one blunder to another, his support is falling in the polls.
So much so, that political analysts are beginning to question his viability in November.
“Trump’s campaign needs a relaunch to try to regain some momentum and reframe the race, and they are running out of time,” said Alex Conant, a Washington-based public affairs consultant with Firehouse Strategies, and former Communications Director for Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Trump’s highly criticized handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his response to the police brutality protests, have seen him fall behind Democrat candidate Joe Biden by as much as 10 percentage points in the latest Pew Research Center poll published on Tuesday, pointing to a potential landside defeat on election day, November 3, now only four months away.
But other say it still way too early to predict a winner. “When I see these analysts taking Trump to the graveyard, it’s premature to say the least,” said Brett Doster, a Republican political strategist in Tallahassee, working for several campaigns in November. “Campaigns have their ups and downs. I don’t think the undecided voters are going to be hardening their views until October,” he added.
While November may still seem like a long way off, analysts point out it would require an almost historic comeback by Trump to overturn Biden’s lead.
“In the history of presidential election polling, no elected incumbent president has ever come back from as big a hole as Trump is now in,” according to Bill Scher, a political analyst and contributor to RealClearPolitics.com.
The only elected incumbents to suffer from a double-digit deficit at any point in their reelection campaigns, both ended up losing badly: Jimmy Carter in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush in 1992 to Bill Clinton.
The biggest recent comeback not involving an incumbent, came in 2016. Trump fell eight points behind Hillary Clinton in October after the revelation of his vulgar comments about groping women’s genitalia in a Hollywood Access videotape. Trump still went on to lose the popular vote by two percentage points but managed to win the electoral college vote.
Trump is also running this year as an incumbent, with a record in government that voters can judge him on. “2016 was more of an open seat race. Trump would say all kinds of outlandish stuff, but a lot of people gave him the benefit of the doubt expecting him to act more presidential if he won,” said Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
“Now that Trump has a record of governing, they have more to judge him by and are holding him to a higher standard,” he added.
But the biggest difference is the state of the country. In 2016 the U.S. economy had recovered from the ‘great recession’ and was beginning to hit its stride. Four years later, the country is facing an unprecedented health crisis that has wiped out economic gains, and racial tensions are on edge due to police mistreatment of Blacks, and the president perceived racism.
Ironically, the coronavirus has struck hardest among older voters who are Trump’s strongest supporters, undermining their confidence in his leadership, polls show. At the same time, younger voters, who are largely unaffected by the covid-19 virus, have become politically energized by the Black Lives Matters protest movement.
Even more ironically, public health experts point out that Trump’s handling of the pandemic is turning into a self-inflicted wound in political terms. His efforts to play down the pandemic and insisting on reopening the economy without proper precautions, such as social distancing and facemasks, have only delayed the economic recovery he needs to win re-election.
But Trump is caught between the individual freedom to choose not to wear a facemask, demanded by his base, and what his own White House Coronavirus Task Force considers to be good public policy.
A Gallup poll found that 75% of Democrats said they had worn a mask in public, while less than half of Republicans said the same. A Quinnipiac University poll also found that only 40% of Republicans believe “everyone should be required to wear face masks in public,” compared to 87% of Democrats.
Biden in the basement
The covid-19 pandemic has played into the Democrats hands in another important way electorally. Not only has it undermined a roaring economy, which was Trump’s strongest advantage in the race, it has exposed what many see as Trump’s weaknesses: lack of empathy, chaotic management and a hands-off - some would say, absent - style of governing. Meanwhile, it has also allowed Biden to keep a low profile, confined largely to his basement, avoiding media exposure and his penchant for making verbal gaffes.
“It’s really a genius strategy to keep him the basement. He’s a good candidate, but he’s not perfect,” said Coleman. “If the Democrats could send him on vacation till November, they would.”
Trump, on the other hand, is clearly frustrated by being confined to the bubble of the White House and is anxious to get back on the campaign trail addressing rallies. His effort to restart his campaign suffered an embarrassing setback in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month when only 6,200 people showed up.
Polls also show Trump’s support slipping, among white evangelical Protestants, also among Trump’s most supportive religious constituency.
Trump may still enjoy an advantage with the electoral college in conservative rural states, but if 2020 turns out to be a personality election, as it was in 2016, then roles may be reversed this time. While Trump still enjoys strong loyalty with his base, negative views about him have risen. Meanwhile, Biden doesn’t excite the same kind of dislike as Hillary Clinton did, even among some Democrats, in 2016.
In the Pew poll, a 54% majority described Biden as caring about the needs of ordinary people, while only 41% say this phrase accurately describes Trump. Across six personal traits, just 25% of voters say Trump is “even-tempered,” compared to 60% who describe Biden that way.
Voters also consider Biden to be a better role model and describe him as more honest than Trump, by wide margins.
However, Biden still fails to excite voters, with only 33% of his supporters saying they view their vote as an expression of support for him; while twice as many (67%) view it as vote against Trump.
Biden beat Trump in fundraising for the second consecutive month in June, according to official campaign data. Biden's campaign and affiliated groups raised $141 million during the month, while Trump's backers raised $131 million.
But some Latino grassroots organizations say they haven't seen much effort from Biden's campaign to contact them, or invest cash in their activities to organize, and register, new voters.
Despite the public respect for Biden’s values, Republicans consider his age and years in office a potential weakness, hoping to brand him as part of the old establishment. “The Democrats may have made a fatal error in circling around a person like Biden. He’s an establishment guy, he’s been around for ever and a day,” said Doster. “We saw that with Hillary, who represented the old establishment that people had come to hate over the years,” he added.
On the other hand, Democrats consider it a positive that after decades in public office, the 77-year-old former senator is still held in high regard.
If Republicans allow the election to be decided over Trump’s leadership on coronavirus, and his response to Black Lives Matter, they may well lose, warns Conant. “Trump desperately needs to make this an election more of a choice between himself and a less acceptable alternative,” said Conant.
That means finding a means to move the political discussion away from coronavirus and police abuses and onto Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda where Republicans feel more comfortable, such as immigration, taxes and the economy. “A lot of the socialist rhetoric that’s coming out of the Democrats has made the non-partisan voters very nervous economically,” said Doster.
“Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t think Trump’s going walk back in. It’s going to be very close,” he added.