With eight weeks before Election Day, the state of the 2020 campaign is clear: President Trump is trailing Joe Biden, who has succeeded so far in making the race a referendum on the incumbent. If Mr. Trump is going to stage a comeback, and not become only the fourth incumbent in a century to be denied a second term, he will have to make the race about policy differences and Mr. Biden’s indulgence to the Democratic left.
If the race comes down to a character contest, Mr. Trump will lose. This isn’t a repeat of 2016 when Hillary Clinton was almost as disliked as Mr. Trump. Voters may have doubts about Mr. Biden’s capacity, but they don’t dislike him. Americans have also seen Mr. Trump in office for 42 months, and even millions of his supporters dislike the way he conducts himself.
This isn’t merely a normative judgment. It’s a political fact as measured in the polls. Mr. Trump’s job approval rating rests at about 43%-44%, and his personal approval is lower. He hasn’t been able to sustain his job approval above what it was on Inauguration Day. Unlike Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, who won with pluralities the first time but majorities the next, Mr. Trump has failed to expand his coalition.
Mr. Trump has reinforced the intensity of his core support. But in doing so he has shed support in the suburbs, especially among college-educated voters and women. This has been the case in nearly every election since Mr. Trump’s narrow victory in 2016. The Trump GOP is a smaller but more intensely loyal coalition.
The GOP hope has been that this would change with Mr. Trump again on the ballot, and that millions of “shy” Trump supporters who refuse to talk to pollsters will vote like a new silent majority. Perhaps, but there is little evidence of this so far. Mr. Trump has narrowed his deficit somewhat since the GOP convention, but he trails Mr. Biden in the polling averages in every battleground state. It seems unlikely Mr. Trump can win the nationwide popular vote, so he will have to eke out another victory in the Electoral College.
After the surprises of 2016, only a fool would say this can’t be done. But if Mr. Trump is going to do it, he will have to make the election about more than himself, or even his first-term record. He has to make the election a choice about two futures, rather than two men.
This is not a novel insight. Mr. Trump’s strategists can see the polling and have reached the same conclusion. They staged the GOP convention to soften Mr. Trump’s polarizing image and especially to draw lines on policies. Taxes and the economy, education choice, China and foreign policy, urban unrest, opportunity for the least skilled and those without college degrees.
The campaign’s ads are doing the same, and they will have to because the media won’t report on the policy differences. The press also wants the race to be about Mr. Trump, who obliges on almost a daily basis.
Take Mr. Trump’s Labor Day press conference, which was intended to play off the strong August jobs report to drive the theme of economic recovery. Mr. Trump started out on message by citing the facts, but soon he was careening from grievance to attack or anything that popped into his head.
• “His [Joe Biden’s] son, “Where is Hunter?”—Where is Hunter?—I call him ‘Where is Hunter?’—walked away with one and a half billion dollars to manage, even though he never did that before.”
• “And Biden is a stupid person. You know that.”
• “I was never a fan of John McCain because he wanted the endless wars, and I didn’t.”
• “They spied on my campaign. And if they were Democrats, they would have been in jail two years ago. They would have been in jail—literally, if this side were the Democrat side, they would have been in jail two years ago for 50-year terms for treason and other things.”
• “And the dirtiest fight of all is the issuance of 80 million ballots, unrequested. They’re not requested; they’re just sending 80 million ballots all over the country. Eighty million ballots, non-requested. I call them unsolicited ballots. That’s going to be the dirtiest fight of all.”
• “But I watched Kamala’s poll numbers drop from 15 to almost zero, and then drop out even before she ran in Iowa because people didn’t like her, and I understand why. She will never be President—although I have to be careful, because Obama used to say that about me. So I have to be a little bit careful.”
This tower of babbling is entertaining in its Trumpian way, but his economic point was washed away like an irrelevance. The press barely reported it.
Voters have heard this riffing for three years, and one campaign question is whether there are enough undecided voters who are still listening. The country deserves a debate over policy because Mr. Biden is proposing the most left-wing agenda of any major party candidate in our lifetime. The Democratic strategy is to keep Mr. Trump talking about Donald J. Trump.
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