Trump’s Approval Rating, Biden’s Low Bar: This Week in the 2020 Race

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Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.

  • 21.8 million people tuned in on television for Biden’s big night at the convention on Thursday, according to Nielsen, slightly more than the 21 million who watched former President Barack Obama and Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, on Wednesday. The TV viewership for the nominee’s speech was down about 21 percent from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech four years ago, though many people watched online.

  • A new Gallup poll put President Trump’s approval rating at 42 percent. Americans’ approval of his handling of the economy — typically his strong suit — was 48 percent, roughly even with his numbers from June but 15 percentage points off his career high in the winter, just before the pandemic struck.

  • Pollsters mostly paused their work during the convention, waiting for things to play out before taking a fresh read of the country. But at the start of the week, three separate polls by respected outlets showed Biden leading Trump by an average of eight points.

Democrats breathed a collective sigh of relief this week after the party pulled off an all-virtual convention, half political music video and half Joe Biden infomercial, largely without a hitch.

And whether you liked the content of Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech or found yourself unmoved by his message, one thing was clear: He outperformed the low expectations set in part by his general-election opponent.

The Joe Biden of the Republican Party’s telling is a gaffe machine whose age has rendered him unable to speak clearly, a caricature built over months of tweets by Mr. Trump, scores of interviews by his allies and nightly roasts by popular conservative media figures. The Joe Biden many Americans saw this week was cleareyed and capable of commanding an audience, albeit reading from a teleprompter in a room that was largely empty.

If that is a low bar, it is because Mr. Trump and some of his most prominent allies have helped to lower it.

Outside advisers have tried to warn Mr. Trump that he needs to raise expectations for his opponents while lowering them for himself. But that hasn’t stopped the president from bragging to people that he expects the fall debates to be a bruising experience for his opponent. Mr. Trump was eager to run as an underdog four years ago, but this time his campaign has sought to project an image of dominance, in ways that are not always helpful.

  • At the president’s June rally in Tulsa, Okla., Brad Parscale, the former Trump campaign manager, violated a cardinal rule of politics: Underestimate crowd sizes in order to overdeliver. Instead, he made Mr. Trump look foolish when only 6,200 people showed up for an event Mr. Parscale claimed had one million ticket requests.

  • Instead of talking up how Mr. Biden could be a formidable opponent on the debate stage, Mr. Trump and his advisers have mostly done the opposite. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, claimed recently that there was “an active push to get Joe Biden to not debate my father” because of concerns that he was not capable of handling the matchup.

  • Jason Miller, a campaign strategist, has tried to change course on how the Trump team is framing Mr. Biden. “Joe Biden is actually a very good debater,” he told The Washington Post this month. But after all the denigration of Mr. Biden, a lone comment from one operative did little to reset the narrative.

There was a choose-your-own-adventure element to the speakers at the Democratic convention. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts made policy cases, while current and former Republicans made the case for decency. But throughout the week there was a clear emphasis on winning over ideological moderates and Trump-skeptical voters — a prioritization of persuasion over rallying the base.

Consider this:

  • John Kasich, a Republican and former governor of Ohio, addressed fears that Mr. Biden would govern in the interest of the party’s left. “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” he said. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that. Because I know the measure of the man — reasonable, faithful, respectful. And you know, no one pushes Joe around.”

  • Mr. Biden constructed his acceptance speech to explicitly pivot from partisanship. “While I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president,” he said. “I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did.”

  • During the convention, a key Biden adviser talked down the idea of deficit spending on new programs. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who is overseeing Mr. Biden’s transition team, said it was hard to envision big new spending programs in 2021. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit,” he said, citing the president’s tax cuts on top of virus relief spending, “we’re going to be limited.”

The Biden granddaughters were lovely. Shorter speeches were effective. The travelogue roll call made for strangely good TV. And answering the Republicans’ “Where’s Hunter?” battle cry with a video testimonial from the once wayward Biden son was delicately handled.

Those were concessions that Trump advisers and former White House officials handed to the Democratic National Committee after it pulled off the first-ever virtual convention, even while they took issue with the overall message of the week.

The question is, how do they top that? The answer may be that it’s difficult.

  • Republican officials wasted time that could have been used to plan a highly produced semi-virtual convention by trying — for much longer than the Democrats — to pull off a normal one. Mr. Trump scrapped his plans for an in-person convention in Jacksonville, Fla., just a month before the event was scheduled to take place.

  • Instead of handing over the reins to an experienced television producer, Mr. Trump is trying to weigh in on much of the programming himself, mostly with the help of people from his own White House. And he’s insistent on having it still look on television like a “real convention,” i.e., with an audience component, and on playing a major role himself every night.

  • The D.N.C.’s four nights showcasing the diversity of the Democratic Party also heightens the pressure on the Republican National Committee and Mr. Trump to do more than appeal to aggrieved white voters. Republican officials are planning to highlight Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white couple from St. Louis who brandished weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters in June. Will they have a message for people other than the president’s hard-core base?

Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

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