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Analysis

The numbers show it: Joe Biden is winning the presidential race by not really running

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Two events from two presidents on Thursday may have perfectly encapsulated the 2020 presidential race as it heads into the final three months.

With horrible (coronavirus-related) economic numbers set to be released, President Trump went to Twitter potentially hoping to change the subject. He tossed out the idea of delaying Election Day so that any problems with mail-in voting could be ironed out. (Per the Constitution, only Congress can change the date.)

While Trump was tweeting, with no events on his public schedule, three past presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — were in Atlanta delivering speeches at Representative John Lewis’s funeral. During an especially fiery speech, Obama addressed what he suggested was a racist effort to restrict voting laws.

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While the 2016 election was about two unpopular candidates, Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the 2020 election is mainly about Trump. And if it is about anyone else, then it is about Trump and Obama.

Joe Biden? He’s just the Obama proxy on the ballot. Note that he was seemingly nowhere on Thursday.

To see just how irrelevant Biden is to voters in his election, take a look at a CBS/YouGov poll, which conveniently broke down the motivations of likely voters who took part in the national survey. For context, Biden led Trump 51 percent to 41 percent, which is in line with other polls lately. One other piece of background: these voters have largely made their minds up. A whopping 94 percent said their mind is made up or “probably won’t change.” These are voters who have thought about things.

Specifically, they have thought a lot about Trump. Those who backed Trump were asked for the main reason why and 68 percent said it was because they liked Trump and just 17 percent said it was to oppose Biden. It was the opposite among Biden supporters. Only 27 percent said the biggest reason for their support was that they liked Biden, while 50 percent said it was to oppose Trump.

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To underscore: 50 percent of Biden voters said their main reason for voting for him was to oppose Trump. Another 23 percent said they the main reason they backed Biden is that he is going to be the Democratic nominee. So for 73 percent of Biden voters, Biden, the man, was a non-factor.

In many ways, this makes perfect sense. During the presidential primary season, Biden didn’t offer some inspiring candidacy. He sold the idea that he had the best chance of winning and if he did he would just return the country back to the Obama years. This ended up being the right message for Democrats who said in every poll the previous year that they were most concerned with finding a candidate who could beat Trump.

The coronavirus crisis began in earnest the moment the general election effectively began. This basically kept Biden off the campaign trail and in his basement doing low-energy Zoom calls, while Trump continued to try to drive the news of the day. Now, the election is entirely about Trump.

There is a well-established playbook whenever a challenger signs up to defeat a politician seeking reelection. Step one: convince voters they need to fire the incumbent. Step two: convince voters he or she is a palatable alternative.

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Biden’s challenge to Trump’s reelection is one of the rare races that doesn’t follow this strategy.

Biden isn’t leading the argument that Trump should be fired, Trump is doing that by himself. A new Associated Press/IPSOS poll on Friday found 66 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of coronavirus.

And Biden also doesn’t seem to be strongly arguing he is a palatable alternative, though he could try to do that. He knows where the cafeterias are on Capitol Hill; in the White House; and, as former Senate Foreign Relations chairman, in other world seats of government. But he isn’t even stressing his experience this summer.

It may not be much of strategy for Biden, but it’s working.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.