Campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, Donald Trump escalated his attacks on Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, and the protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racism. “Today’s Democrat Party is filled with hate,” he said. “Just look at Joe Biden supporters on the street screaming and shouting at bystanders with unhinged, manic rage.” Referring to protests that took place in New York and Chicago earlier in the summer, he said, “They are not protesters. Those are anarchists, they are agitators, they are rioters, they are looters.”
In the wake of this past week’s Republican National Convention, Trump’s strategy couldn’t be more clear. With the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic topping a hundred and eighty thousand in the U.S., and opinion polls showing him running well behind Biden, the President is trying to transform the election from a referendum on his own abject performance to a contest centered on Biden, radical Democrats, and unrest in the streets. That was the central thrust of the four nights of programming at the R.N.C., including the speeches that Trump and Vice- President Mike Pence gave.
It’s no mystery why the Trump campaign has adopted this strategy: desperation. So far, the central fact about the 2020 campaign has been its stability, at least according to the polls. In mid-March, after Joe Biden effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination, he was leading Trump by 6.4 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics national poll average. Today, the R.C.P. poll average shows Biden ahead by 7.1 percentage points. Although individual polls have zigged up and down quite a bit, the over-all pattern has been remarkably steady.
It’s been so steady, in fact, that The Economist’s Presidential forecasting model, which combines polling results with fundamental factors, such as the state of the economy, now puts the probability of a Biden victory at eighty-eight per cent. FiveThirtyEights’s forecasting model, which is constructed differently and factors in more uncertainty, puts the probability of Biden winning at sixty-nine per cent. Both models indicate that a Trump defeat is by far the most likely outcome. Still, many Democrats are nervous, and for understandable reasons, including skepticism about the polls; concerns about the Republicans’ built-in advantage in the Electoral College; and fears that Trump’s scaremongering could strengthen his position among some key voting groups, particularly seniors and suburban women.
In 2016, the polls underestimated Trump’s support, especially in key battleground states. Even though pollsters insist they have made adjustments to avoid another error, there are some grounds for interpreting their findings cautiously, including the fact that the average response rate for telephone polls—which are still considered the most reliable ones—is now well under ten per cent. That doesn’t mean the polls are wrong again this year. As the Pew Research Center noted in a piece from 2019, it does “signal that the risk of error is higher than it would be with higher participation.”
Trump’s biggest advantage remains the inherent bias in the Electoral College toward smaller, red states. In 2016, narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin enabled him to defeat Hillary Clinton, by three hundred and four votes to two hundred and twenty-seven, despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes. (If you include two Republican electors who voted against Trump, his Electoral College total was three hundred and six.) Only two hundred and seventy votes are needed for victory. “I’m asked all the time, how are you going to run the table in the Upper Midwest again?” Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, told Politico earlier this week. “He just has to win one of three. He won with three hundred and six electoral votes, not two hundred and seventy, not on the button. We have some cushion there.”
Stepien’s argument rests on the assumption that Trump wins all of the other states he carried in 2016. But the latest local polls show him trailing Biden in a number of them, including Arizona, Florida, and Ohio, which together have fifty-eight votes in the Electoral College. Polls also show Biden leading in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If all these leads hold up, Biden will win in a landslide. The Trump campaign is basing its hopes on the national and state polls closing substantially over the next two months, which could flip a number of key battleground states to Trump. (They will take encouragement from a CNBC-Change Research poll, this week, that showed Biden’s lead already narrowing in some swing states.)
To try to bring about a turnaround, the Trump campaign will continue to press the line that a vote for Biden is a vote for anarchy. “We are all that stand between the American people and the left-wing mob,” Trump said in New Hampshire. Going forward, the President and his surrogates, Pence included, will repeat this message ad infinitum. So will a barrage of television advertisements. (For the period between Labor Day and November 3rd, both campaigns have booked about a hundred and fifty million dollars in television ads.) The big question is whether these scare tactics will be any more effective than they have been so far.
Don’t forget, Trump has been trying to exploit the Black Lives Matter protests for months already. And it’s been six weeks since Pence first described Biden as a “Trojan horse” for the radical left. Despite continued unrest in Portland, Oregon, and occasional flareups of violence in other cities, including the awful scenes witnessed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this past week, when a seventeen-year-old white youth armed with an AR-15-style rifle shot and killed two people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and injured a third, the polls haven’t moved much. There “could be a bloc of voters who support the protests and currently back Biden but who will shift to Trump because of the riots,” Perry Bacon, Jr., of FiveThirtyEight, noted earlier this week. “We can’t rule out that group emerging. But, crucially, that group has not emerged yet, despite plenty of opportunity.”
Trump’s challenge is clear. He’s been in the White House for more than three and a half years, and many voters will judge him on his record and how they think the country is doing. Right now, his approval rating is stuck in the low forties, which is where it has been for most of the time since he entered office. And more than two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track.
These would be challenging figures for any incumbent to overcome, let alone one as polarizing as Trump. In fanning fears of violence and mayhem, without any commitment to truth or any scruples about ripping the country apart, he seems to think he’s found a way to shake up the race. It will be a week or two before we know if the latest iteration of this strategy is showing any signs of working.