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How Stuck Is Trump?

Where the polls put the presidential race at Labor Day—and what they tell us about the violent unrest and the great vaccine race.
September 9, 2020
How Stuck Is Trump?
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Traditionally, Labor Day is a time for stock-taking in presidential campaigns—the start of a two-month sprint to Election Day which focuses our collective mind. But the peculiarities of 2020 pose a defining question: Is the race suspended in an equipoise that can yet break in Donald Trump’s favor, or is he dog-paddling in political quicksand of his own making?

The confluence of variables begins with turnout. Which candidate can best motivate his base? How will the pandemic affect participation? How much will Trump’s protean efforts at voter suppression slant results? And, finally, can Trump overcome an historic depth of voter aversion?

That last point is critical to Trump’s chances. Not for a single day as president has Trump ever enjoyed a positive approval rating. Nonetheless, he has the unwavering support of four in ten Americans. His challenge is to convince enough swing voters who find him personally distasteful that he is, nonetheless, the safest choice.

Conversely, Biden must rally his less-zealous base while persuading enough undecided voters in battleground states to entrust him with presidency. For both men, the three presidential debates scheduled for September and October are as potentially defining as they are unpredictable.

Finally, the race will be dominated by two ungovernable forces: a pandemic impervious to politics and, secondarily, our volatile reckoning with race.

For several months now, a sustained political stasis has favored Biden. After an eventful August which featured two conventions, a resurgence of COVID-19, and an alarming spate of violent unrest, a compendium of national polls shows Biden’s 7-plus percent edge virtually unchanged. More salient, Biden continues to lead in all six universally acknowledged swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida—though his margins in the latter two seem somewhat diminished.

Some partisan tightening was widely anticipated. What seems clear is that Trump has yet to sell his characterization of Biden as a senile catspaw for socialists, rioters, and looters.

Here Trump’s biggest liability is his own presidency. By a margin of 58 to 38 percent, a recent national Quinnipiac poll of likely voters shows that voters think America is worse off than in 2016. Gallup shows only 13 percent of Americans are satisfied with the country’s direction—the lowest figure seen in that “right track/wrong track” poll in nearly a decade. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows that Trump’s approval rating remains underwater at 43 to 53 percent. For an incumbent president with two months to go, this is a daunting crevasse.

In response, Trump has blatantly cast himself as the last bulwark of white America against supposedly menacing minorities. He has indiscriminately conflated peaceful protesters against systemic racism with the propagators of violence and vandalism. He has claimed that Biden will despoil the suburbs with low income housing overseen by Cory Booker. He has abrogated racial-sensitivity training for federal employees as “How to be Anti-White 101.” He has called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate” while upholding Confederate monuments.

In response, Biden has promised to fight for racial equality while strongly condemning disorder. But Trump has succeeded in this much—voters perceive his candidacy through the lens of race. A recent CBS poll found that 66 percent of registered voters believe that Trump “favors” white people, and that 50 percent believe he “works against” black people. Among the likely voters in that same poll, Trump led Biden among whites by 51 to 43 percent, while trailing among blacks by 9 to 85 percent.

No doubt Trump has the racist vote cornered—not least because he is one. The question is whether he can win back a critical slice of fearful voters without further repelling others.

There is some anecdotal evidence that Trump is making marginal headway in arousing fear among some suburban and blue-collar voters, and a recent Marquette poll found that, among white registered voters,  favorable views of Black Lives Matter protesters fell from 57 percent in June to 47 percent in August. Clearly, those whose criminality tarnishes peaceful protests are Trump’s best friends.

But Trump’s overtly racist appeals and his not-so-tacit encouragement of white militia create their own unease. A Fox News survey of Wisconsin likely voters gave Biden a 47 to 42 percent edge on issues of “policing and criminal justice.” And the recent Quinnipiac poll found that, by 50 to 35 percent, likely voters say that having Donald Trump as president makes them feel less safe.

Similarly, a recent national CNN/SSRS poll conducted in late August and early September accorded Biden a 56 to 38 advantage over Trump on handling issues regarding racial inequality, and a margin of 51 to 44 with respect to criminal justice issues. Despite Trump’s race-based focus on “law and order,” a new national Harvard/Harris poll of likely voters shows that 58 percent believe that Biden would fare best at curbing urban violence and 57 percent say he would be better at handling civil unrest. Further, by 61 to 39 percent, respondents saw Biden as better-equipped to bring the country together.

Particularly worrisome for Trump is a CBS/YouGov battleground tracker from last week. It showed that 49 percent of registered voters believed Biden is trying to “calm the situation” regarding recent protests in U.S. cities, compared to 39 percent of voters believing that of Trump. Conversely, 47 percent of the respondents said they believed Trump was trying to “encourage fighting,” compared to just 30 percent believed that of Biden.

Finally, other new CBS/YouGov polling shows that Biden’s lead in Wisconsin—currently ground zero for racial unrest—remains unchanged. In sum, Trump’s efforts to reframe the campaign around racial anxiety have yet to fundamentally alter the electoral dynamic—in part because he has failed so miserably to control the true epidemic besetting America: not disorderly protests, but COVID-19.

Our fatalities are fast approaching 200,000. America accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population more than and 20 percent of the confirmed deaths to date. Observes Catherine Rampell, “cumulative deaths per capita in the United States are double those of Canada, quintuple those of Germany, 20 times those of Australia, 90 times those of South Korea, and so on.”

Inevitably, Biden has enjoyed a wide and consistent lead over Trump on the ability to handle the coronavirus. Typical is the Harvard/Harris poll: 57 percent prefer Biden to manage the coronavirus, 58 percent believe that Trump has done a bad job, and 56 percent believe that he failed to stop the virus from spreading early on.

Remarkably, Trump’s response continues to be blatantly avoidant—if not outright infantile, as when he mocked Biden for wearing a mask because it “gives him a feeling of security.” Frequently, he seems utterly detached from COVID’s lethal realities: Paradigmatically, he told Chris Wallace in July, “I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.”

Heard from whom? one wonders. As Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post:

Right now, we’re flying blind. . . . Public health is not getting in the way of economic recovery and schools reopening. Public health is the means to economic recovery and schools reopening. You don’t have to believe me. Look all over the world. The U.S. is a laggard.

Trump’s failure to make this fundamental linkage is sapping his greatest residual strength: his perceived superiority at managing our economy.

Regardless of the reasons, a flagging economy tends to wound an incumbent. And this economy is not merely flagging; the coronavirus powered America’s most severe economic collapse since the Great Depression. Of necessity, Trump must sell himself as the best man to lead a recovery. When, in August, employment rose by 1.4 million, and unemployment declined from 10.2 percent to 8.4 percent, Trump touted a rebound “faster and deeper than thought possible.”

But that depends how one views the context. Six months ago, unemployment was a modest 3.5 percent; two months later, it had skyrocketed to nearly 15 percent. So how do Americans read this very recent history, and what is likely to happen between now and Election Day?

Rampell cites several reasons for concern: A rising percentage of permanent layoffs. The dampening effect of closed childcare facilities and schools. An impending fiscal crisis in states and cities which could trigger severe job losses and catastrophic cuts in schooling and public health. And, critically, the GOP-driven delay in providing another round of coronavirus relief—the stimulus checks, boosted unemployment benefits, and loans to small businesses that likely helped stave off an outright depression. Without such further intervention, an incipient recovery could crater altogether.

Further, Trump’s failure to manage the coronavirus has led to a projected death toll, in at least one model, of over 400,000 by year’s end. “You can’t have an economic comeback when almost 1,000 Americans die each day from COVID,” Biden says. “The painful truth is, we just have a president who just doesn’t see it.”

No one knows for sure what will happen between now and November 3. But the chances of sustained economic pain seem greater than for the broad-based recovery that is Trump’s principal remaining hope.

Hence Trump’s desperation to fast-track a political Hail Mary: a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day. “It’s called Operation Warp Speed,” he trumpeted back in May. “That means big and it means fast—a massive scientific, industrial, and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.”

“We . . . will produce a vaccine before the end of the year,” he promised the Republican convention, “or maybe even sooner!” But his flop sweat is showing, as witness this panicky August 22 tweet:

Quite rightly, this has triggered concerns that Trump is rushing the announcement of a vaccine—or its illusion—to save his presidency. “This timeline,” epidemiologist Saskia Popescu told the Times, “is deeply worrisome for the politicization of public health and the potential safety ramifications.” Writes Laurie Garrett, a science journalist with deep expertise in infectious diseases:

Like most experts closely watching these developments, I have no confidence that a safe, effective vaccine will be ready for use by Halloween. Worse, I can no longer recommend that anyone retain faith in any public health pronouncements issued by government agencies.

The top scientist advising Operation Warp Speed calls the authorization of a vaccine by late October “extremely unlikely.” But such is the concern with Trump’s pronouncements that the CEOs of nine major pharmaceutical companies competing to develop a vaccine felt compelled to sign a pledge yesterday, reassuring the public that they will not seek a premature approval of vaccines—and, thereby, endanger public safety while further diminishing public faith in vaccination writ large.

This remarkable development underscores the degree to which Trump’s pathology has become ours: America’s president is, quite literally, unbelievable. He lives in a fantasy world, maintained by his enablers, in which his sulfurous hyperbole and perpetual mendacity fuse with a mindless enthusiasm for conspiracy theorists, white extremists, and purveyors of crank science to render him at once both dangerous and ludicrous.

Exemplary are his denunciations of Biden as someone who is “against God,” “against guns,” wants to “hurt the Bible,” “abolish police,” and “ abolish the suburbs.” No wonder, then, that a Fox News poll in July found that registered voters  think Biden has the mental soundness to be president by 47 to 39 percent, while the answers flipped for Trump: only 43 percent of respondents think he has the necessary mental soundness, while a 51 percent majority said he does not.

Yet, on Labor Day, Trump descended to calling Biden “a stupid person.” The bottom line of Trump’s rhetorical incontinence is that he has lowered the bar for Biden in debate—and raised it for himself.

Indeed, Trump’s incessant self-exposure underscores what may prove his most insuperable liability—he is not merely a narcissistic ignoramus and gaseous carnival barker, but a truly repulsive human being. That is the import of the Atlantic reportage, confirmed by other news agencies, concerning his contempt for those who have served—and too often died—in America’s military.

Out of his own mouth, Trump has made it completely credible that he refused to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris because he feared that rain would disarrange his hair, and that honoring a site “filled with losers” was beneath him. His mockery of John McCain for being captured and tortured is similarly consistent with calling dead Marines “suckers” and grousing of McCain “we’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”

His chronic callousness towards others makes it wholly believable that, when standing with John Kelly near his son’s grave at Arlington, he said of the dead stretching before him: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Reacting to that report with his trademark grace, Trump disparaged Kelly as an incompetent who, as his chief of staff, “wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months.” This of a four-star general from a man who dodged the draft by claiming bone spurs.

Nonetheless, Trump tried to top himself on Labor Day. Faced with further reporting about his discomfort with wounded veterans, and his disdain for efforts to repatriate prisoners of war, Trump cast our senior military leaders as the callous handmaidens of war profiteers: “They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” Mired in endless grievance and self-pity, Trump cannot avoid displaying exactly who he is.

Once again, his opponent provided a basic contrast in humanity. Reports the New York Times, Biden “strained to contain his disgust . . . over a report that Mr. Trump had made extraordinarily disrespectful remarks about fallen soldiers.” “How would you feel if you had a kid in Afghanistan right now?” Biden said. “How would you feel if you lost a son, daughter, husband, wife? How would you feel, for real?” The Times adds that Biden described Trump’s remarks as “disgusting,” “sick,” “deplorable,” and “un-American.” Not to mention, one might add, unthinkable in any normal person—let alone our president.

That brings us to Trump’s ceaseless degradation of our democracy, and the appalling reality we have come to take for granted: that he believes he needs a successful voter-suppression campaign to squeak out an Electoral College victory—and will pursue it to the no-doubt bitter end. But, even then, he can win only with a remarkable confluence of undeserved good fortune—Biden imploding in debate; a stronger than expected recovery; fewer coronavirus deaths than anticipated; the credible promise of a vaccine; and, most perverse, outbursts of race-based ugliness that trigger a backlash among critical voters.

Only then, to our collective peril, can he hope to overcome his most richly-deserved obstacle—himself.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.