Have we passed peak Biden?

4 August 2020

3:12 AM

4 August 2020

3:12 AM

A consensus has formed about this presidential election: it is Joe Biden’s to lose. As long as his vice-presidential nomination doesn’t backfire, or he does not spectacularly bungle the debates, the soon-to-be-confirmed Democratic nominee will be in the White House by the end of January. Just look at the polls.

Well, do look at the polls, and you’ll notice that Biden is losing ground. He’s still ahead, and comfortably, but the race narrowed in July, just as the media started to discuss a Biden presidency as if it were a fait accompli. Trump’s job approval rating is rising slightly, too, from 41 percent on June 29 to almost 44 percent today, according to the RealClearPolitics tracker. The overall trends still suggest that Donald Trump will be a one-term president, but there’s a discernible rumbling of discontent in the nation as Joe Biden strides towards power. In swing states such as Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin, Trump’s numbers are improving.

We may have already passed peak Biden — a troubling thought for Democratic strategists as the race enters its most intense and demanding period. It’s widely expected that Biden will lose more ground as November approaches; both because his public performances will be doddery and because Trump’s 2016 campaign made remarkable gains in the weeks before election day and could well do so again.

Biden 2020 is shifting through the gears, yet the campaign engine is making some clunky noises. In his speeches, Biden is trying to move away from simply being the ‘not Trump’ candidate. He’s attempting to articulate his plans to, as his blurb puts it, ‘restore the soul of America’. Pundits are excited about the promise of his ‘big tent’ pitch — another word for it, however, is vague. Joe’s vision thing is blurry. As voters try and fail to focus on what his presidency would mean, they aren’t sure about what they see. The $2 trillion plus ‘Green New Deal’ stuff rings alarm bells in the heartlands. In trying to be ‘not just not Trump’, Biden risks identifying himself as the sort of leader the voters don’t want.

Trump was in a strong position to be re-elected before COVID-19 — and his inept response radically undermined his authority. Yet the pandemic, while still a major issue in voters’ minds, is now of secondary importance. The public are now focused principally on the economy and that’s where the news improves for Trump: he consistently polls better than Biden as the man to get American business buzzing again. He needs better economic news, and fast, but Trump is still able to win even if Biden surprises everyone and runs a relatively smooth campaign.

A curious outlier poll from the Democracy Institute shows Trump winning in Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and on course to win the Electoral College 309 to Biden’s 229. The Institute’s poll showed that 58 percent voters found Biden likable, compared to just 29 percent for Trump — but 58 percent also thought the Democrat was exhibiting ‘some form of cognitive decline, such as the early stages of dementia’; 60 percent thought Biden too old to be president; and 63 percent said he had not been ‘sufficiently critical of the violent rioting’. On the other hand, 61 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the protests and riots and 69 percent said the President was a ‘strong leader’, compared to just 24 percent for Biden. If anything, respondents suggested that Trump had not been firm enough with protesters: 48 percent said he had not been ‘tough enough’; compared to 25 percent who said ‘too tough’.

The poll also points towards a potentially huge ‘Shy Trump’ voter cohort — only 27 percent of Trump voters said they were comfortable with people knowing how they’d vote, compared to 83 percent for Biden. And that’s the ones willing to tell pollsters what they really think.

It’s just one poll, of course, and an unusual one. But it may have picked up on a shift in public attitudes that the other surveys have thus far failed to spot.

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