Donald Trump may be down but he is certainly not out

Joe Biden’s once-commanding lead in polls is shrinking. The 2020 election is still too close to call

US president Donald Trump delivers remarks on the economy at Mankato Regional Airport, Minnesota, on August 17th. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

US president Donald Trump delivers remarks on the economy at Mankato Regional Airport, Minnesota, on August 17th. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

While all eyes focused on presidential candidate Joe Biden last week as Democrats held their national convention, Donald Trump will return to the spotlight this week. The Republican National Convention opens on Monday, with Trump due to accept his party’s nomination on Thursday from the White House.

That Trump, once the political outsider, is now striding towards his party’s nomination for a second term is a measure of how far he has won over the Republican Party.

But it has been a difficult few months for the president.

Despite Trump’s strategy of denial and defiance, coronavirus has now claimed more than 170,000 lives in the United States, forcing him to shift his messaging and advocate the use of masks.

His first rally of the election season in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was marred by rows of empty seats, ridiculing his claims that one million people had signed up for the event. A photograph snapped on his return to Washington that night – tie undone, a crumpled red hat in his hand – suggested a president beaten and deflated.

Joe Biden’s campaign, energised by the announcement of Kamala Harris as his running mate, has been consistently ahead of Trump in polling for months.

But while Trump’s recent efforts to delegitimise the results of November’s elections by attacking postal voting may suggest a man increasingly desperate in the face of defeat, the race for the White House is far from over.

On Monday, a CNN nationwide poll found that Biden’s lead over Trump had significantly tightened since June. Fifty per cent of registered voters support Biden, as opposed to 46 per cent for Trump – a four-point lead as opposed to the 14 point gap that separated the two in June.

The picture was even more concerning for Biden in the 15 “battleground” states surveyed, with the Democratic candidate winning the backing of 49 per cent compared to 48 per cent for Trump.

The news reinvigorated Trump, who appeared on Fox News on Monday morning ahead of a series of campaign events across the country, claiming that his support levels were being underestimated by the “fake media”.

While analysts have been quick to point out that CNN’s poll is only one of many, there are signs elsewhere that Biden’s commanding lead appears to be diminishing. An Emerson College poll for July and a survey by Rasmussen Reports on Wednesday also had Biden just four points ahead.

Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University warns about putting too much st in polls, noting that they can often drive the media narrative around a candidate.

“Big polling leads in the summer can dissipate by fall. We’ve seen this time and again. Just ask Michael Dukakis,” he says, referring to the Democratic nominee in 1988. “He had a double point lead over Bush in the summer, but he wound up losing that election by seven percentage points.”

Distrust of the polls, particularly since 2016, is helping to fuel quiet optimism among Trump Republicans

This year, there is particular anxiety around polling given the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump despite her lead in polls across the board.

Campbell stressed that the dynamics of an election can change in the last few weeks or even the final week of the campaign. Similarly, polls are not supposed to be predictive, he cautions.

“The summertime polls are not necessarily predictive … they are not prophecies. They are not telling us now in the second half of August what is going to happen in November,” he says.

While polls are not always wrong, he says, they “have been wrong often enough, and they’ve had a chequered history, that we ought to treat them with caution … not embrace them as the oracles that some people think they are.”

Distrust of the polls, particularly since 2016, is helping to fuel quiet optimism among Trump Republicans in Washington, boosted by the surprise resilience of the US stock market in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. This week the S&P 500 reached record levels. The recent deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates also allows Trump to claim a foreign policy win.

Elsewhere, there are signs that Trump’s support in the country is rock solid. New York City’s Police Benevolent Association – one of the largest police unions in the country – recently endorsed Trump.

“Most politicians have abandoned us, but we still have one strong voice speaking up in our defence,” said union president Patrick Lynch as he introduced Trump to a sea of cheering red-hatted police officers. “Across this country, police officers are under attack. Our neighbourhoods are being ripped apart by violence and lawlessness,” he continued – an indication that Trump’s decision to run on a law-and-order platform in the wake of George Floyd’s death and false claims that Biden wants to defund the police may be resonating with supporters.

Trump’s fundraising prowess should also not be underestimated. Though Biden has significantly closed the gap since the Democratic Party rallied behind his candidacy in March, the Trump campaign outraised Biden last month, raising $165 million (€139m) in July, compared with the Democrats’ haul of $140 million (€118m).

Since his election in 2016, the Trump campaign has been steadily amassing a huge campaign war chest, raising more than $1.1 billion (€900m) in the past two years.

As well as a massive advertising campaign – incorporating a sophisticated social media strategy – the campaign has hired hundreds of staff representatives in the field.

His decision last month to replace his campaign manager Brad Parscale after the Tulsa rally fiasco was also an effort to reset the campaign after a rocky few months.

While Trump remains an historically unpopular president according to the polls, he still commands formidable support among his core base, which has been hovering around 40 per cent. Recent polling has suggested an “enthusiasm gap” between the two candidates, with Trump supporters more likely to be enthusiastic about their candidate, than Biden supporters towards theirs, an imbalance that could favour Republican turnout.

Democratic presidential candidateJoe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Delaware on August 12th. Photograph: AP
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Delaware on August 12th. Photograph: AP

There is also the much-debated concept of the “hidden Trump voter” – Americans who don’t admit they will vote for Trump, an idea that Trump himself has promulgated. “We have a silent majority the likes of which nobody has seen,” he declared recently.

But past election voting trends suggest that even the existence of the so-called “shy Trump voter” may not be enough to swing the election in Trump’s favour, given the tight race ahead in a core group of swing states.

As election day nears, several Republicans have amplified their attacks on Trump.

The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group founded by former Republican establishment figures including George Conway, husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, has launched an effective ad campaign highlighting Trump’s litany of failures in office.

Maryland’s governor Larry Hogan – one of the few Republican politicians to break from Trump – told The Irish Times that by “dividing and shrinking the base of the party,” the Republican party under Trump is likely to lose badly in November’s congressional elections.

“He’d be much more successful if he threw his phone away and stopped tweeting,” he says of the president.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell – who has previously backed Democratic candidates – endorsed Biden at last week’s Democratic National Convention, as did former Ohio governor John Kasich. The decision sparked criticism from some on the left of the party, piqued that progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got less speaking time than Republicans.

But Cedric Richmond, co-chair of the Biden campaign, defended the move, saying it was important to reach out to “Republicans who feel bullied, who feel that they will be isolated if they support Biden. This will show them that they’re not alone.”

'People are afraid to make a prediction, but I’ll make a prediction. Donald Trump is going to be beaten badly'

Rick Tyler, whose new book Still Right explores what it means to be a conservative in the era of Donald Trump, says that the conventional wisdom that Trump has staged a takeover of the Republican Party is too simplistic.

“Trump calls himself a conservative but that’s demonstrably false,” he says. “He is 180 degrees out of phase of what the conservative movement has always articulated on trade, on immigration, on deficit spending, on national security, even judges,” he says, noting two recent Supreme Court rulings against him.

While he accepts that Trump’s base remains loyal, he said that November’s election is so close that middle-ground conservatives who vote for Biden may help swing the election in Democrats’ favour.

He cites Trump’s handling of coronavirus, still the dominant political story in the US.

“If you look at greater Asia with a population of about 4.6 billion, they have had about 120,000 deaths. With a population of 0.3 billion we’ve had 180,000. Clearly something is wrong. That is how the country will judge the president.”

He continues: “People are afraid to make a prediction, but I’ll make a prediction. Donald Trump is going to be beaten badly and he’s going to take the Republicans with him,” he says, referring to the string of Senate and House seats also on the ballot in November. “It’s going to be a wipe-out.”

For many analysts still smarting over the shock 2016 election results, however, the 2020 races are still too close to call. Donald Trump may be down but he is certainly not out.

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