By one significant measure alone — the cratered economy — history shows that President Trump’s reelection is a long shot. Think Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Pile on widespread civil unrest and the deadliest pandemic in a century, two crises most Americans believe he has handled poorly, and by traditional standards Trump should be toast this November.
Yet as the party conventions wrapped up last week and the fall campaign (such as it is, with coronavirus still raging) is set to begin, Democrats feel anything but confident in the outcome even though their nominee, Joe Biden, remains solidly ahead in the polls. To them, Trump looms like some horror movie villain who just keeps coming no matter how much is thrown at him.
“People are worried because Trump does very few things well, but deflecting attention… he is good at it,” said Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. “They just lie with impunity, and that’s why I think people are scared.”
Fear was a theme of the Republican and Democratic conventions as the parties and their nominees offered competing views of the biggest threat facing the nation: the protesters in the streets or the virus in the air.
Biden tried to calm people worried about the future, as the pandemic claims more than a thousand American lives a day.
“United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America,” he said in his acceptance speech, blaming Trump for much of it. “We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.“
Trump tacked in the opposite direction. He sought to stoke anxieties not about the path of the pandemic, which Republicans cast as mostly vanquished, but the trajectory of the nation under Biden.
“This election will decide whether we save the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny,” he said.
With convention TV ratings off from four years ago, and two already well-known presidential candidates, the scaled-down party gatherings the past two weeks are unlikely to have changed the minds of many voters, said Michael Steel, who was an aide to former House speaker John Boehner, a Republican.
The race, he said, will hinge on the dominant factor in American life right now: the virus.
“Both parties are making a huge bet on what the coronavirus pandemic is going to look like by Nov. 3,” Steel said. “The president is betting on relative normalcy and the stirrings of an economic recovery. Biden is betting we’ll still be overly concerned and eager to embrace public health measures.”
The conventions highlighted the candidates’ different approaches to the pandemic and their standing in the race.
Democrats staged an almost completely virtual event. Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, delivered their acceptance speeches in a nearly empty room in a Delaware convention center. On the final night, they and their spouses — all wearing masks — went outside and watched fireworks with socially distanced supporters who had viewed Biden’s speech on a big screen from their cars as if they were at a drive-in movie theater. There was no postconvention rally, as Biden has avoided in-person campaign events since the pandemic took hold, a strategy that has been accompanied by his rise in the polls.
Republicans, while taping most of their speeches with no audience, took more risks and staged three major addresses outside in front of crowds of mostly maskless supporters, with little social distancing. Trump’s acceptance speech featured more than 1,000 people packed onto the South Lawn of the White House. On Friday, Trump flew to Manchester, N.H., for an airport rally similar to other in-person campaign events he has staged in recent months to try to revitalize his lagging campaign.
“The two candidates’ chosen methods of campaigning reinforce their messages,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who teaches at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley. “By campaigning in public in close proximity to voters, Trump is underscoring the progress he argues has been made in combating the virus. In being more careful and cautious, Biden is underscoring his message that things are much worse than Trump is letting on.”
As the candidate behind in the polls, Trump needs to shake up the race. So the Republican convention largely ignored the coronavirus and focused on an issue the party hopes will motivate his base and resonate beyond: the flareups of violence in what have been mostly peaceful social justice protests around the country since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis three months ago and a broader rash of shootings in cities like New York and Chicago.
“Running on law and order and public safety, particularly in the middle of this unrest, is maybe Trump’s last best hope,” said Schnur. “The voters who are most open to a tough-on-crime message are seniors and suburbanites. And those are precisely the voting blocs that Trump has lost over the last several months.”
A Pew Research Center poll released Aug. 13 found violent crime ranked just below coronavirus as a “very important” issue to registered voters, behind the economy, health care, and Supreme Court appointments.
“He can really effectively use that law-and-order message to get people who might be more afraid the next few months” to support him, said Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “He might be doing things they don’t agree with, but his law-and-order message might make people feel safe where they live.”
Biden and Harris need to counter that message with a broad focus on addressing the inequities highlighted by the pandemic, which has hit harder in communities of color.
“They can’t be afraid to touch on the wedge issues, issues like immigration, issues like climate change,” she said. “Let’s have the hard conversations, understanding that can really galvanize people and motivate them to come out.”
Being more aggressive in the campaign will prevent Trump from setting the agenda, Rivera said. It will also generate more enthusiasm among an electorate that will face hurdles to voting during a pandemic, particularly people of color.
“If we don’t get people more motivated in this kind of environment, it’s going to be even tougher,” she said. “We know from previous vote-by-mail states that people of color are less likely to vote by mail because they trust it less.”
Rendell agrees Biden and Harris need to push back harder on Trump’s law-and-order message.
“They’re responding, but they haven’t responded in a big, bold way,” Rendell said. “They don’t think it’s very persuasive to voters. They think COVID is the major issue.”
But leaving a message unchallenged can be devastating. Rendell cited the slow responses by 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis to allegations he was soft on crime and by 2004 party nominee John Kerry to attacks on his Vietnam war record.
“If the violence continues … I think Trump and the Trump campaign might have the ability to scare enough voters to hold their noses and go in there and vote for him even though they don’t like him that much,” Rendell said.
Although Biden is up by 7.1 percentage points according to the RealClear Politics polling average, that’s down from 9.3 percentage points a month ago. And Rendell remains wary after Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016, despite trailing significantly in state polls.
Some voters are “almost afraid to admit to a stranger on the phone that they’re voting for Trump,” Rendell said. “He runs about four points better than he polls.”
Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, another swing state that Trump won in an upset in 2016, expressed similar concerns.
“There is not a single Democrat that I have talked to — and I talk to a lot of them — who feel smug in any way,” she said on CNN after Trump’s acceptance speech. “Democrats know that in 2016 there were a lot of people who were not counted in any of those polls.”
Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said she is confident in the party’s presidential ticket.
Voters are motivated by the stakes in the election, she said, and Trump’s law-and-order pitch — an echo of the successful 1968 strategy by Richard Nixon during another time of social unrest — isn’t as potent, because the suburbs have become more diverse. She pointed to Democratic success with suburban voters in the 2018 midterm elections. Most of the 43 seats that Democrats won from Republicans to take the House majority were in the suburbs, even as Trump tried to stoke fears of an immigrant caravan descending on America.
“I think that 2018 showed us that suburban voters have changed from 1968, and they want an economy and they want a country that is more inclusive, and they want that in their representatives in the Senate, the House, and the White House as well,” Clark said.
Despite the limitations on campaigning caused by the pandemic, Clark said she is seeing great enthusiasm among Democrats, because they understand the importance of this election.
And Democrats aren’t taking a victory for granted, she said.
“No, we won’t be able to relax,” Clark said. “We know they are going to do everything they can, that the true goal of this president and the administration and Republican Party at this point in its history is to retain power at all costs. We know what’s at stake for the American people.”