Biden is in double-trouble: His lead falling, the race’s remaining variables are also daunting. CNN’s latest poll demonstrates the first, while a quick look at the shrinking calendar reveals the second. Increasingly, November appears to hinge on Biden’s public performance, which was the last thing Democrats wanted.
There is a reason Democrats have worked so hard to keep Biden away from the public and the media. The reason is not magnanimity toward Trump; it is the fragility of Biden.
CNN’s August 17 poll (taken 8/12-15, of 1,108 registered voters, MOE +/- 4 percent) showed Biden’s lead over Trump plummeting to just 50 percent to 46 percent, well within the poll’s margin of error. This is down 10 percentage points from CNN’s June poll, which had Biden leading 55 percent to 41 percent. Especially notable were Trump’s gain among Independent voters, where Biden’s lead almost disappeared, plunging from 52 percent to 41 percent in June, to 46 percent to 45 percent.
Even worse, in the 15 battleground states, which will determine November’s outcome, Biden’s lead was a scant 49 percent to 48. To top it off, the true gap is probably closer still, because the poll sampled registered voters, not likely voters, who are both more certain to vote and trend more Republican.
If this happened to Biden when, by design, nothing was happening to him, what happens when things do happen to him? If the present is concerning, the future looks even more foreboding. Of the race’s remaining variables, most appear neutral with the rest likely negative for Biden.
Looking through September, the foreseeable variables do not favor either candidate. The tickets are now set, and any bump Biden was going to get from Harris has occurred. Biden announced Harris as his VP selection on August 11, and the CNN poll was conducted from August 12 to 15; if respondents factored it in, they did not factor it highly.
Party conventions usually offer each candidate a boost, but they usually offset each other, and there certainly was nothing in last week’s Democratic convention to produce a sizable boost for Biden. Congress’s short remaining schedule is also unlikely to change voters’ minds about the candidates. Again, the current congressional coronavirus standoff was occurring during CNN’s polling, which showed Biden’s plunging lead.
Looking to the campaign’s two-month home stretch, the likely variables look unfavorable for Biden.
The election’s two biggest variables, the economy and coronavirus, have been established and neither has been good for Trump. Trump, however, appears to have withstood the worst both have to offer; now both are improving, even if less rapidly than desired. So, any change in either will likely be positive, and therefore positive for Trump.
Then there are unforeseen internal and external events, such as the 9/11 attacks or George Floyd’s May death in Minneapolis. Since they are unknown, they cannot be specifically accounted for. But at worst these would seem to be neutral-to-favorable for Trump.
External attacks against the U.S. usually provoke an immediate “rally around the flag” emotion that benefits the president as Commander in Chief. Internal events could go either way, depending on the event and the public’s perception. As an example, is civil unrest viewed as protests or riots? Yet in both cases, an incumbent president holds unmatched response resources, with which no challenger can compete in a crisis. If these have an impact, they likely lean toward benefitting Trump.
When campaigns reach their most intense, candidate scrutiny does as well. Having endured a presidential race already, unmatched media scrutiny, and congressional investigation and even impeachment, there is unlikely much left unknown about the president. Not so Biden. Yes, he was on two tickets, but a vice president’s scrutiny does not match a president’s. Further, Biden has remained out of the public spotlight in order to avoid it. If there is going to be newsworthy revelation about a candidate, it is far more likely to be Biden’s.
Finally, there are the debates and candidates’ general campaign trail performance. Again, Trump is tested and known. He debated four years ago and survived these with Hillary Clinton — commonly accepted as a much tougher debater than Biden. On the trail, he is a tireless campaigner and earns huge media coverage wherever he appears.
Conversely, Democrats have assiduously kept Biden off the campaign trail, some on the left even urging him to duck the debates altogether. While the debates are the focal test, the trail is no less so — only longer. Biden will have to campaign publicly, or risk repeating Hillary’s mistake of allowing Trump to steal crucial battleground states.
Nothing at last week’s Democratic convention changed Biden’s prospects in public settings. Despite those spinning his acceptance speech as a triumph, it merely cleared the lowest of bars. Biden proved he could read from a teleprompter, nothing more. A lot more will be expected now. And it will be expected over and over, at live events and in give-and-take settings with the public and media.
There is a reason Democrats have worked so hard to keep Biden away from the public and the media. The reason is not magnanimity toward Trump; it is the fragility of Biden. But Biden’s campaign will have no choice down the homestretch.
The race is closing, is likely closer than observers know, and is closest in the states that will count. With just over two months to go, the race has few remaining “unknowns,” but these do not favor Biden. This sets up the prospect of a negatively self-reinforcing — and rapidly unwinding cycle — for Biden: The closer the race gets, the more public Biden will have to be.
J. T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.