- Presidential polling resembles the summer of 2016.
- Biden has yet to participate in the campaign or be exposed to media coverage.
- Markets remain focused on the pandemic disposition in the United States.
- Trump campaign has not begun to contest the election.
The campaign in the summer of 2020 resembles nothing more than the one four years ago when then presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump throughout the fall campaign, a lead that bore little indication of the final result.
Then as now the press coverage of Mr. Trump was unremittingly negative with the important difference that this time there has been almost no attention paid to the Democratic nominee former Vice-President Joe Biden. That situation, beneficial to Mr. Biden, will not last.
On June 28, 2016 with neither candidate officially nominated Ms Clinton was ahead of Mr. Trump by 6.8% in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of national polls. That advantage remained true for the entire contest except for a brief three days stretch in late July. The final posting on Election Day November 8 of a 3.2% edge gave an indication of the tightening race, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1%, without hinting at the 306 to 232 Electoral College victory that lay ahead for Mr. Trump.
In the same RCP polling average Mr. Biden was ahead by 9.4 points on July 27, 2020.
Are there factors that could change the polling as the campaign proceeds? What topics will be used by the Trump campaign to change to voters’ minds and make the case for his re-election? Does the Trump campaign have issues and advantages that are yet to be explored?
I am focusing on the Trump campaign this week for two reasons. First the Trump campaign will have to make its own case to the electorate and it has not yet started. Second the chief themes of the Biden campaign, a return to normality and replacing Trump are already evident and will likely remain.
Biden has been almost completely absent from the media since the pandemic began. He has not given a press conference in three months and his few appearance on video have been scripted without any meaningful exchange with reporters. His last appearance was a video fundraiser with former president Obama. His scarce presence is clearly a sensible campaign choice to let the negative media continue to pummel Mr. Trump’s approval. But Mr. Biden cannot remain hidden for much longer and expect to be taken seriously by the electorate or even the media.
Biden’s record and the Democrats
The Trump campaign will go after Mr. Biden’s long record in politics, his policies and myriad malapropisms and his fitness for office.
Against the Democratic Party Republicans will claim that the leftward tilt of the party in the last four years puts it far from the mainstream of US politics, is antagonistic to the concerns of American families and that the party secretly if not overtly sides with the rioters, statute and monument destroyers and other disruptors of the political comity.
Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1973, he served as Barack Obama’s Vice-President from 2009 until 2017. His record in politics is long, varied and not always in concert with current sensibilities. His support of tougher criminal sentencing rules during the Clinton administration could be a special target to contrast with the prison sentencing reform signed by Trump last year.
His long career and the changing politics and mores over the past generation are a vast arena for the Republicans to look for video clips and views distasteful to one of the many of the Democratic interest groups.
The Biden campaign has agreed to three debates in the fall probably because at this stage of the contest they felt there was no choice. Whether they follow through on that promise is open to question. Given Mr. Biden’s recent history of mistakes, misstatements, gaffes and seeming confusion, the risk of an impression of incapacity is real, though its seriousness is difficult to judge with the candidate’s limited recent exposure.
The Trump campaign is unlikely to be shy or tender about exposing weakness in Mr. Biden’s fitness for office.
Another potential embarrassment for the Biden candidacy lies in US Attorney John Durham’s probe of the activities surrounding the Mueller investigation and its antecedents within the Obama administration and bureaucracy. Even if Mr. Biden is not expected to be the subject of the inquiry any indictment of administration figures are liabilities for his candidacy.
Mr. Biden has already been forced to admit that his claim of knowing nothing about the FBI’s illegal pursuit of Trump’s first national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, was untrue as he has been documented in a meeting with President Obama and others when it was discussed.
Protests, violence and Democratic politics
The Republican Party and political action committees and the Trump campaign will make extensive efforts to tie the Democratic Party and Biden to the civil unrest that has taken place in many American cities.
The demonstrations that began as a protest against excessive police force and alleged racism degenerated in many cities to riots, looting and general mayhem. Almost all of the cities afflicted are run by Democratic mayors, police forces and city governments. None are controlled by Republicans.
The original protests were supported by a majority of Americans as consonant with legal and acceptable political freedoms. Whether the protests were hijacked by violent anarchists, the self-named Antifa groups, others or opportunistic criminals, what began with approval ended by providing an endless source of videos of violence and destruction, burning building and stripped and boarded stores.
Several mayors including Bill de Blasio of New York restricted the response of the police, others delayed calling in their National Guard resulting in extensive damage and looting in many urban commercial districts. That many of the arrested looters were released or not charged by city governments and district attorneys will be used as evidence of Democratic sympathy with their methods.
The idea of defunding police forces, or even disbanding them as was voted by the Minneapolis City council, a wholly Democratic and progressive political body, and is supported by many mainstream national Democratic politicians is opposed by upwards of 60% of Americans.
In Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered her police department to abandon a six-block area of the city permitting the establishment of a police and city government free ‘autonomous zone’ called CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) by its denizens. That the city government eventually moved to dismantle the zone after two murders will matter far less in the presidential campaign than that it was allowed to exist and that Ms Durkan referred to it as “a summer of love.”
Finally the movement to tear down the statues of many of America’s founders and greatest Presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and others even extending to slavery abolitionists, strikes many Americans as an attack on the nation itself by an ideology antithetical to the values of the United States and its Constitution.
The visuals of destruction are striking and will make hard hitting Republican campaign ads.
Fall presidential campaign
While the general events are known and were covered initially by the standard media, the continuing attacks on monuments and individuals, the sustained attacks on police, physical and rhetorical, in Portland, Seattle, New York and elsewhere and the connection to the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party will come as news to many voters.
The many statements of support and approval given by a long list of national and local Democratic politicians and institutions to the more extreme demands of the protestors and their often equivocal response to the violence will make for an effective Republican campaign.
There is one main difference between the Democratic and Republican political operations this Fall that will enhance GOP efforts.
Mr. Trump has been in the spotlight for almost five years. His slashing political style is hated by his enemies but his attacks resonate with wide swaths of the electorate. He has been accused of every political sin under the sun, from racism to colluding with Russia and corruption. His partisan impeachment by the Democratic controlled House ended in a whimper. There is little new to be said about Donald Trump by the Democrats and the Biden campaign will be hard pressed to differentiate its case from the antagonistic media background of the last four years.
For Mr. Biden and the Democrats the opposite is true.
In the long stretches of the former Vice-President’s career are a surfeit of statements and actions that will be used to attack his politics and character. The recent riots and their exclusive locus in cities under Democratic control, often for a generation or more, provide a ready-made narrative for the failure and indulgences of their political philosophy.
The charges and illustrations for this case that will be made by the Trump campaign will present a largely new point of view, one unexplored by the general media. The novelty of the ideas as much as their content guarantees an audience.
Markets and politics
Markets are essentially agnostic on most of the political and cultural issues that drive media coverage and they adapt quickly to whatever party triumphs in November. The historical preference for Republican policies has weakened over the years as a new generation has ascended in the Wall Street hierarchy.
That said the leftward slant of the Democratic Party in the last decade but especially as it is constituted now in its vehement Trump hatred has emboldened the small but vocal group of anti-corporatists like Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, and the socialists around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, with a much greater public impact.
If polling in the Fall favors a Democratic sweep of Congress and the Presidency, markets will price those polices and regardless of Fed support or the condition of the economy, an adjustment slump would result. A continuation of the current split government or a Republican sweep will be greeted with relief and promise in the nation’s financial world.
The purpose of this analysis is not to choose sides in the election but to demonstrate that the contest is very far from decided. Markets are correct in withholding judgement until the campaign is fully entered after Labor Day.
Mr. Trump’s wholly unexpected victory in 2016 provided a lesson in forecasting that, in the political emotions of the moment, few seem willing to learn.
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