In my opinion, the 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be a huge paradox. Historically, a sitting president running for re-election has had a substantial advantage, particularly if the economy has been good, and there is no external threat to national security. Most of the time they have won re-election, especially under those conditions.
Earlier this year, before the advent of the CV pandemic it seemed like form was holding. It looked like President Trump would win re-election handily, despite the three-year witch hunt of Russia collusion, which finally had been discredited, and the “trumped-up” (pun intended) impeachment. But, then, the CV changed everything. The CV was and is the unforeseen, unanticipated development, the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the wild-card.
For the past three plus years all the polls have shown consistently that to approximately half of the electorate, President Trump is unpopular personally. They tend to focus on his personality and discount or ignore his achievements. The other half does essentially the opposite. They focus on what he does, not what he says. Prior to the advent of the CV I believe, on balance, President Trump’s achievements had outweighed any perceived personality defects, and his supporters had the edge.
1. The twin threats of terrorism, in general, and ISIS, in particular, had been reduced considerably.
2. The economy was, arguably, the best ever.
3. Unemployment was at historic lows, particularly with respect to AAs, Hispanics and women.
4. The stock market was at historic highs.
Moreover, each of the many Dem candidates vying for the nomination had critical weaknesses. The presumptive nominee, Joe Biden has so much political baggage that his campaign advisors have adopted the unusual strategy relegating him to his basement and campaigning as little as possible. More on that later.
In addition to retaining the presidency it looked as though the GOP would retain control of the Senate and, possibly, seize control of the House. Then, came the big game-changer, the Corona Virus.
One can debate whose fault it was, whether or not it was handled well, whether or not the shut-down of the economy was justified, who performed well and who performed badly. The undeniable fact of the matter, however, is that the shut-down, whether justified or not, has, at least in the short run, ruined the economy. And, now, instead of being re-elected handily, President Trump is facing a tough fight. Furthermore, there is a good chance that the Dems will seize control of the Senate as well.
Why? How did this switch occur? Traditionally, the electorate votes its pocketbook. If the economy is going well and people feel prosperous and optimistic, they generally vote for the incumbent. If not, the opposite occurs. As the late Casey Stengel was fond of saying, “you could look it up.”
This phenomenon has given rise to the traditional campaign question to voters, “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” The latest candidate to fall victim to a poor economy was George H. W. Bush (41). He presided over a poor economy, raised taxes and paid the price on Election Day.
As a result of the pandemic the economic situation is very poor. Some 30 million people are out of work; others have had their hours cut; businesses, large and small, are struggling; and unemployment has risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression. How much, if any, of this is President Trump’s fault is up for debate. How long these conditions will last is also up for debate. But, I believe it has affected his popularity and his chances for re-election.
So, now we have a paradoxical situation of a candidate (Biden) with several glaring faults who has confined himself to his basement, eschewed all traditional campaigning, and yet, incredibly, is leading an incumbent president in all the polls. Obviously, this strategy has enabled him to hide his biggest weakness. He may have a cognitive impairment or be suffering from the early stages of dementia or Alzheimers. Additionally, he has a propensity to put his foot in his mouth. The CV has provided him with a handy excuse to limit his active campaigning, and it is working.
The latest composite of all the major polls shows him leading by seven points. Furthermore, he is leading in all the battleground states by anywhere from four to 12 points. I know that in 2016 the polls underestimated Mr. Trump’s support and fooled the so-called experts. That may turn out to be the case in 2020, but they are still cause for concern for the GOP.
Biden may not even venture out for the convention. He may choose to appear virtually. This is contrary too all traditional rules of campaigning.
When is the last time this type of strategy has ever been successful? Has it ever been?
Students of presidential election politics and history, in general, will recall that “porch politics,” as it was called was employed several times, mostly successfully, by the GOP between 1880 (James A. Garfield) and 1924 (Calvin Coolidge). The reasons varied depending on the particular election cycle, but generally it was because the candidate was not as articulate or adept at campaigning as his opponent.
To be sure, that was a different era, but Biden sure fits the profile. In any event, so far for whatever reason, the concept of “less is more” has been working for Biden and the Dems. Truly, it is a paradox, but in this unusual year it may end up being the exception that proves the rule.