US election Is Trump Already Too Far Behind Biden?
“There is an adage in politics,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota. “When your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, don’t take his gun away.”
As the presidential election campaign begins in earnest, Donald Trump should have an inbuilt advantage. Social distancing rules mean that his Democratic rival Joe Biden has largely been confined to doing low-key events from the basement of his Delaware home.
Untroubled by such public health niceties, Mr Trump has begun a series of rallies designed to demonstrate the ironclad support of his base — while boosting the spirits of the president. Instead, the first rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma just reinforced the very problem Mr Trump had wanted to escape: his rising unpopularity.
Over the past two months, Mr Trump’s approval ratings have nosedived, first because of his heavily-criticised response to the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, his reaction to the antiracism protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Although most developed countries have succeeded in bringing down sharply the number of cases, the US on Thursday saw its biggest one-day total of new coronavirus infections as the pandemic spreads in southern states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona.
At the same time, the president has been castigated for making racist comments and sowing division. He was skewered for trying to send the military into the streets to face down protesters. Former presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W Bush have directly or indirectly rebuked him. And both his former defence secretary Jim Mattis and former national security adviser John Bolton stated that he was unfit to be commander-in-chief. General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Mark Esper, defence secretary, even apologised after Mr Trump roped them into a photo opportunity at a church that involved using tear gas on protesters to clear the way for him to leave the White House. Earlier this year, after he was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial and as the economy roared ahead, Mr Trump appeared to have a clear path towards re-election. But he now finds that Mr Biden, who only four months ago was desperately trying to save his own presidential campaign in the Democratic primary, has a double-digit lead in the polls despite having done relatively little campaigning.
A recent New York Times/Siena poll gave Mr Biden a 14-point edge. Surveys in the swing states that are key to winning the electoral college also look ominous. In 2016, Mr Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin with razor-thin margins, but now trails by between six and nine points. He lags by seven points in Florida and four in Arizona, both of which he won. And Mr Biden is on his heels in Texas, which has not gone to the Democrats since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Landing back at the White House in the early hours of Sunday, Mr Trump seemed deflated, his tie drooped around his neck as he carried his Make America Great Again cap. Only 6,200 people had shown up in Tulsa, for his first rally since the pandemic struck — even though his campaign had boasted that 1m fans wanted tickets. “States that were not in play in 2016 are clearly in play today,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “If the election were held today, it is pretty obvious that Joe Biden would be elected president, comfortably.” ‘Biden blunders will be exposed’ Can Mr Trump recover? After the shock of his 2016 victory, no one in politics is willing to count him out just yet. Mr Ayres points out that things could change again as quickly as they did over the past few months with the emergence of the pandemic and antiracism protests. “Four months is a couple of light years in political terms.” By keeping a low profile Mr Biden is succeeding in making the election a referendum on the president. But some Trump supporters believe that he will struggle to maintain that strategy all the way through to November.
“Biden is still in the bunker,” says John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming. “He can’t hide forever. Once he is out, the Biden blunders will be exposed, and people will see the real choice.” Mr Barrasso says there is plenty of time for Mr Trump to recover. He says the election will be heavily influenced by how quickly the economy rebounds from the shutdowns. He also points out that while the Tulsa crowd was small, Fox News, which broadcast the rally, had a record audience for a Saturday night. Polls show that Mr Trump has lost support among women, including critically those without college degrees. He has also suffered with older voters, a key group for him four years ago, because of concerns about the pandemic. But one factor that plays in his favour is that voters still appear more confident in his ability to steer the economy than Mr Biden, even though the jobless rate has risen from a low of 3.5 per cent in February to 13.3 per cent.