How can Trump hold back the Democrats?

It has undoubtedly been a bad couple of weeks for President Donald Trump: the handling of the coronavirus, the economic downturn, the racial unrest and protests, the book by John Bolton and several Supreme Court defeats. A massive rally in Oklahoma, that should have been a turning point, was a disaster and embarrassment. Without doing much, the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is now leading Donald Trump by almost 9% (49.6% to 40.9%). At the moment, he is also raising more money than Trump: 141 vs. 131 million USD during the month of June. This seems to confirm an old fundraising truth: %=$

To begin with, Biden’s lead is more than double the lead Hillary Clinton had on Donald Trump. As the prediction website fivethirtyeight pointed out recently, it’s actually quite a historic lead. Only Bill Clinton back in 1996 had a bigger lead at this point in time and as we now know, Bill Clinton did go on beating Bob Dole on Election Day. Am I saying that Joe Biden will win? No, because surveys are never a prediction. As discussed recently on my blog, an early lead might even be deceptive and a sweet poison putting campaigns to sleep. But this being said, I would much rather be in team Biden than in team Trump at the moment.

Next, let’s look at the underlying dynamics. Conventional wisdom has it that an election with an incumbent is foremost a referendum on the incumbent. When voting for a challenger, voters merely express a wish. When voting for an incumbent, they render a verdict. In that respect, the job approval rating of the incumbent is crucially important (and oftentimes a better prediction of the vote than the match-up question). At the time of writing, 42% approve of the job Trump is doing while 56% disapprove. His personal favorability ratings are basically the same: 40% have a favorable opinion about him while 56% have an unfavorable one. So it’s not that voters disapprove of the job he is doing but would like him as a person (or vice versa). In addition to job approval and personal favorability, another important indicator is how voters think about the state of the country. At the moment, 24% say that the country goes into the right direction while 68% say it’s off the wrong track. Putting this number into perspective, it seems so bad that voters might soon be willing to vote for a change almost no matter what the other option is.

When studying the surveys, it is also important to look at the number of undecided voters and the number of people who vote for a third-party candidate. In that respect, Biden reaching 50% of vote intention in some surveys is an important mark and something that Hillary Clinton never attained four years ago. She was leading, yes, but when one added up the vote for Trump, undecideds, and third-party candidates, there always was a potential anti-Hillary majority out there.

Now, these are all nationwide numbers (which, by the way, I all got from the website realclearpolitics) and one might argue that it’s not really a nationwide, but a state-by-state election. While this is true, it wouldn’t really matter if Biden were to maintain such a substantial lead. If you’re ahead by 10% nationwide, you almost certainly also lead in the swing states. It therefore comes as no surprise that Biden is indeed currently ahead in Florida (+5%), Pennsylvania (+7%), Michigan (+7.5%) and Wisconsin +(6.5%).

Normally, the vote share of challengers is particularly volatile as voters usually have much less information about a challenger than about an incumbent. One might argue that this is different for Joe Biden as he has served as vice president for eight years. The counterargument is that vice presidents mostly play a supporting role. I doubt voters, when asked in focus groups, would be able to say many specifics about what Biden did during his decades in Washington D.C. So while awareness is high, familiarity might be lower than one might think. And herein lies a vulnerability in addition to the lack of enthusiasm about Biden among his own base.

What would I advise if team Trump would be calling me? Well, I wouldn’t advise anything without looking at the internal research. But this being said, the most viable option is probably what I call the ruthless counteroffensive. The main point of this strategy is to try and change the dynamics from a referendum to a binary choice and to define Biden negatively before he can further define himself. At the moment, Biden’s own favorability rating is 45% favorable vs. 46% unfavorable. A good attack ad could further tip the balance. While challengers are particularly vulnerable to negative campaigns, there is, however, an art of the attack. It has to be a coherent narrative, well-researched and credible in the voters’ eyes. If you attack your opponent for seven different things every day, the individual attack loses credibility. I would also try to keep Biden from establishing economic competence and credibility, which is actually still a relative strength for Trump. His job approval on the economy specifically is still at almost 50%, and this might well be the crucial issue when voters go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November.

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