The landscape of US politics has been going through transformational shifts in recent months. The implications of the coronavirus outbreak and the protests over racial injustice have not only altered the dynamics of the ongoing presidential campaign, but they have also left a lasting social impact. The incumbent President Donald Trump has not dealt effectively with these two ongoing challenges, which allowed the presumptive Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, to gain a clear edge in the 2020 presidential election polls—against a Trump campaign that has been overwhelmed by setbacks, mostly self-inflicted. There are several driving factors behind this public opinion shift that could have an impact on the US presidential election this November.
At the start of 2020, Trump looked poised to win the presidential race with a strong performance of the US economy and the unconvincing nature of the Biden campaign. However, the shift began in April as Trump’s approval rating and poll numbers began to dip. Since then, the Trump presidency and campaign went into meltdown with the president mishandling national crises and maintaining a confrontational public posture. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released recently showed that Biden leads Trump 55 to 40 percent nationally among registered voters; this is compared to a closely competitive race at the end of March and a seven-point lead for Trump in February.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Biden was struggling in the Democratic primaries and lagging in favorability numbers on handling the economy. Most importantly, he was not very competitive in key swing states that decide the election in November. This past April, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave Trump an 11-point lead (47 to 36 percent) on handling the economy. The presidential advantage has now dissipated, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in mid-July, with Biden edging ahead by five points (50 to 45 percent).
This crucial shift shows that Trump is losing ground on his self-proclaimed most important asset, and this undermines the White House’s carefully built strategy that showcased the president’s ability to manage the US economy better than his Democratic opponents. The tide is also turning to Biden’s advantage in key battleground states such as Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina while he is showing strong competitiveness in traditionally Republican-leaning states such as Arizona and Texas. This is all leading to a transformation in the electoral map where Biden may have several paths to victory on November 3rd.
Trump is politically mishandling the two significant challenges that could potentially bring about his electoral demise.
Trump is politically mishandling the two significant challenges that could potentially bring about his electoral demise: first, he is describing Democrats as disruptors regarding reopening the economy, instead of acknowledging that his administration has mishandled the coronavirus outbreak; and second, he is arguing that Democrats are weak on law and order, instead of focusing on healing the country’s racial divide.
The Pandemic Factor: A Game Changer
As the rest of the world gradually emerges from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, the United States is struggling to contain the pandemic with the number of infections reaching 4.4 million and deaths surpassing 150,000 as of July 28. This rising rate of cases is hitting key swing states such as Florida, where Trump had to cancel the Republican Party nominating convention in August (in Jacksonville); Arizona, where polls are indicating a close race; and Texas, once a Republican-leaning state where Biden is now a strong competitor in the polls (see above).
All this comes at a critical time and adds to the underlying tensions between the White House and the team of scientists handling the pandemic within the federal government, most notably the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose credibility is being tarnished actively by members of the Trump Administration. Tensions over preventive safety measures and the pace of reopening the economy are increasing at the local, state, and federal levels as Trump has positioned himself and his administration at the center of this debate, pushing back in recent months against recommendations by the medical community. This politicization of safety measures during a public health crisis has proven to be counterproductive and was reflected in an AP/NORC poll released on July 26, reporting that only 32 percent of Americans approve of how Trump has handled the pandemic.
This led the incumbent president to symbolically reconsider his stance and accept the realities of the new political landscape. The White House coronavirus task force has resumed its meetings after the president once contemplated the idea of dissolving it. Trump’s bet that the virus would simply disappear and a vaccine would be available soon has not worked. With no coherent national strategy beyond issuing nonbinding general health guidelines, the White House is still trying to deflect responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 by leaving decisions in the hands of local and state authorities.
The president is increasingly showing signs of losing his grip over his own party.
As a result, the president is increasingly showing signs of losing his grip over his own party and is facing growing political opposition from such places as the Lincoln Project and Republicans for Biden, two political action committees composed of growing numbers of moderate Republicans who are breaking ranks with him. Prominent Republican leaders in the Senate have implicitly criticized the White House for not encouraging preventive measures and were silent when the Supreme Court recently issued landmark rulings that delivered constitutional setbacks for Trump’s attempt to broaden the reach of his presidential authority. Trump recently sent a veiled message to those fellow Republicans about ceasing their support of him: “If they don’t embrace, they’re going to lose, because, you know, I have a very hard base. I have the strongest base people have ever seen.” More broadly, the divisions are multiplying among Republicans in Congress over the next coronavirus aid package as Trump sinks further in the polls and economic forecasts get gloomier.
US Politics after George Floyd’s Murder
The police killing of George Floyd on May 25 was a second defining moment for US politics in 2020. The echo of the popular movement that ensued continues to reverberate across political, social, and legal spectrums. The evolution of Floyd’s case into a national political crisis is, to a great extent, of Trump’s own making. He narcissistically politicized a legitimate social issue and formulated it as a battle about presidential authority to enforce law and order, even though these powers primarily rest with local authorities. A Washington Post/George Mason University poll showed that 74 percent of Americans support the protests and 61 percent disapprove of how Trump has managed them.
Republican senators were also critical of the way Trump handled the unrest following Floyd’s death. In addition, the president clashed with the Pentagon on using active duty troops for law enforcement. Moreover, his infamous photo holding a bible and accompanied by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was another indication of how Trump has politicized the military; in fact, the photograph had an immediate impact on voters in Michigan, a swing state. Trump has now sent federal agents to states facing unrest to showcase, to his base, his abilities as an enforcer of law and order.
Nevertheless, an event of this magnitude has clearly impacted—and will continue to shape—the US presidential elections. One result is that Biden may be compelled to choose a Black woman as his running mate, which could motivate two of the largest sectors of the Democratic base, women and African American voters, to have a high voter turnout in November. At the same time, it will incentivize Trump’s electoral base, especially white male voters in rural areas, to stay the course with the current president. More importantly, these protests have made racial equality a central issue that will be hard to ignore in the election campaign and presidential debates.
These protests have made racial equality a central issue that will be hard to ignore in the election campaign and presidential debates.
It is noteworthy that the Democratic Party did not fully capture this profound societal moment, which was led by activists and civic groups. There are three main reasons for this Democratic hesitance. First, the leaders of local and state authorities in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, were from the Democratic Party. Second, Trump’s involvement in this debate complicated matters, which spurred Biden’s campaign to avoid turning the race issue into a presidential campaign battle. Third, at that time Biden was quarantining at home because of the coronavirus, so the approach of the Democratic Party was to let Trump fumble in his positions rather than risk having Biden in public possibly repeating some of the gaffes he often makes.
The Final Stretch: The Candidates’ Advantages and Disadvantages
There is no doubt that Trump is feeling the election ground shaking under him; in fact, in June he acknowledged for the first time that he feared a possible electoral loss. There is currently a high level of pessimism among Americans: an AP/NORC poll in June showed that 74 percent of Americans believe their country is going in the wrong direction, including 63 percent of Republicans. This does not bode well for the president. Nevertheless, while Trump’s national appeal is shrinking, he continues to enjoy strong support among his fervent loyalists, who do not seem ready to give up on him yet. A Fox News poll last month indicated that 86 percent of Republicans have a more positive view of him than former Republican President George W. Bush and former Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney. However, the incumbent president has crucial months ahead to regain the electoral support he lost, and his base alone may not be sufficient to win a second term.
Biden, meanwhile, is enjoying a honeymoon that is not the result of his own efforts but of Trump’s failures. It may not last long. The problem confronting the former vice president’s campaign continues to be the lack of enthusiasm or commitment to vote for the candidate. A Washington Post/ABC News poll revealed that 74 percent of Biden’s supporters are excited to vote for him, compared to 87 percent of Trump’s supporters. The enthusiasm for Biden’s nomination among his supporters is only 34 percent, compared to 69 percent for Trump.
Moreover, Biden’s campaign has not yet placed its candidate in risky situations, playing it safe with calculated and controlled moves. Sooner or later, the former vice president will have to get out of this bubble and face difficult questions. The Trump campaign began attempts to portray Biden as unfit to govern because of declining mental health; the former vice president should be ready to counter such attacks. The incumbent president’s objective remains not only to halt Biden’s ascendancy but to lure his opponent to become more visible, hence increasing his chances of making mistakes. The Trump campaign, which was reluctant to engage in presidential debates last year, is now calling for more opportunities to face off with Biden in the coming months, aiming to alter the dynamics of the race.
The Trump campaign has yet to find the best strategy to defeat Biden. Until such a moment comes, the Biden campaign is riding the polls and striving to avoid unnecessary pitfalls before November. The former vice president’s alliance with Senator Bernie Sanders is providing a stable political environment for Democrats ahead of November; however, it did not resolve the divisions inside the party nor has it inspired liberals, most notably the younger generation, to secure the highest possible turnout on election day.
Trump performed better when he was an underdog in 2016; however, he is now an incumbent president with a record to run on. These are certainly unusual times in US politics. If the president resorts to personal attacks on Biden, such an effort might not resonate well with voters—especially in contrast with the former vice president’s tone of unity during a time of crisis.
The election is less than 100 days away and while the current polls give Biden a clear edge, Democrats should not take things for granted if they want to secure a win.
Nothing will be settled in American politics, particularly with an unpredictable candidate like Donald Trump, until voting day on November 3rd. The election is less than 100 days away and while the current polls give Biden a clear edge, Democrats should not take things for granted if they want to secure a win. As the United States faces the demons of racial tensions and battles a pandemic that is draining the national economy, the ongoing volatility in American politics and society makes it difficult to anticipate the results of the presidential election in November.