True, Donald Trump’s flippant remarks are capable of repelling potential supporters, as when he told Jews last year, perhaps jocularly: “You’re brutal killers, not nice people, but you have to vote for me. You have no choice.”
But gaffes like that aren’t going to cost him the election. His campaign suffers from a more fundamental problem.
Donald Trump has failed to attack the weakness in Biden’s strength. The weakness in Biden’s strength? Yes.
As a rule, if your rivals attack your most vulnerable point, you can compensate for it– but not if they attack your strength. You can’t change your strength. It’s why you’re running.
Look at 2016. Trump won because he attacked the weakness in Clinton’s greatest strength – her political experience. Trump portrayed her as a member of the out-of-touch political elite; and he geared his whole campaign to reaching out to people who felt that people like Clinton had abandoned them.
Contrast that with what Trump’s doing now. He’s recycling a 2016 strategy, trying to convince voters that his opponent is a monster. But that’s not at all the weakness in Biden’s strength.
Biden’s strength is that he’s not Trump. Not that he’s a stellar candidate with great policy plans. Biden has turned this election into a referendum on Trump. He’s marshaled a wide range of voters who don’t like the incumbent.
The weakness in that strength is that while those disaffected voters don’t like the incumbent, they dislike him for different reasons. As a result, Biden is hamstrung. He can’t talk about policy. Whatever policies he promotes, they won’t please both centrists and the Democrat left.
Besides, if Biden were to talk policy, voters would focus less on their dislike of Trump – which is Biden’s key to winning.
So Trump’s best strategy would be to come up with clear second-term policies and then to focus on Biden’s lack of policy.
Instead, Trump has been trying to paint Biden as a bugbear – for example, at last year’s Israeli American Summit: “Even if you don’t like me. Some of you don’t; some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’ll be my biggest supporters because you’ll be out of business in 15 minutes if they get in.”
That strategy worked against Hillary Clinton, because it dovetailed with the public’s existing perception of her as a scandal-ridden serial liar.
But it doesn’t work for Trump to cast Biden as a monster, because voters don’t view him that way. At worst, they see him as a semi-senile, embarrassing old uncle, who’s too far gone to threaten them. Add to that the fact that two out of every three Americans already see Trump as the lying, corrupt candidate. So even if Trump could somehow persuade them that Biden’s also a bit corrupt, that’s hardly a game-changer.
Trump’s second line of attack, that Biden is a radical leftist, is equally poor. Biden isn’t running a policy-based campaign, so he can happily abandon any unpopular policy of his that Trump attacks. For example, during the first presidential debate, Trump attacked Biden for supporting the Green New Deal. So Biden, who backed the Green New Deal at one point, now came out against it. No harm done.
You can see how effective it would be for Trump to attack the weakness in Biden’s strength, because the few times that Trump’s campaign has done so, the attack has worked.
For example, when Trump courts Blacks and Hispanics, he’s telling them that Biden’s lack of policy is a sign that Biden takes them for granted; while Trump is going to work hard to earn their vote. And polls show that it’s working. UCLA Nationscape’s polling shows that Trump has cut Biden’s lead among Black and Hispanic voters by over 10%.
And during the VP debate, Pence neutralized Kamala Harris’ attack on Trump’s response to Covid when he claimed that the Biden-Harris plan was largely a copy of what Trump was already doing.
But those examples of sound strategy are outliers. As a whole, Trump has run an awful campaign. If Trump somehow wins, or even doesn’t lose very badly, it will be despite his campaign – not because of it.