After making one of the greatest comebacks in modern American political history, Joe Biden has all but disappeared from public view. With most of the country locked down over the coronavirus pandemic, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is handicapped in building enthusiam and in fundraising.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s campaign is sitting on a huge pile of cash and the president himself is center stage with his daily news briefings.
Yet Biden’s polling numbers versus Trump look stronger than ever and Republicans are worried.
Political operatives and observers caution that it’s a long time until November, and remind us that at this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton had an ever bigger lead. But there are factors that say what worked for Trump then are less likely to work now.
Trump practices the politics of grievance and resentment, appealing to whites who feel their place diminished in an increasingly polyglot nation. He also won votes in 2016 from other Americans who were disgusted with what they saw as corruption and self-dealing by the leaders of both the democratic and republican parties. Those voters wanted a clean sweep.
Trump was masterful at caricaturing his opponents with belittling nicknames, and at demonizing them with invective only loosely – if at all – tied to facts.
Hillary Clinton proved to be Trump’s ideal foil. Campaigning in a year in which national sentiment was running heavily against established politicians, Clinton was the embodiment of the species. She was seen as insincere, arrogant and too slippery by half.
The revelation that while secretary of state she had used private e-mail for official business – against government policy – only reinforced people’s doubts about her integrity. Polling in mid-2016 showed that 55% of voters viewed her unfavorably, while only 41% had a favorable opinion.
As New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore wrote, “Almost everyone in the country had an opinion of her, and they really disliked her.”
Trump exploited Clinton’s unpopularity to the hilt, calling her “Crooked Hillary,” inflating her policy violation into a possible federal crime, and encouraging his followers in chants of “Lock her up!”
In this way, Trump was able to overcome his own record-breaking unpopularity. A poll taken by Gallup on the eve of the 2016 election gave Trump a 61% unfavorable score – the worst in presidential polling history.
According to Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, as quoted in the New York Times, 15% of Trump’s votes in 2016 came from people who didn’t approve of the candidate but, for a variety of reasons, cast their ballots for him anyway.
Expect the same approach this year. Trump’s re-election strategy all along has been to push down his opponent’s popularity while boosting turnout in his own base.
But now, Trump can no longer boast of a strong economy, and his erratic management of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus is driving down his approval ratings.
The latest polling averages compiled by the FiveThirtyEight website show nearly 53 percent of American voters disapproving of Trump, while just under 43 approve.
“Trump’s campaign is more certain than ever to become a savage hate machine,” wrote Kilgore, “throwing everything negative at Biden that can be discovered, invented, or exaggerated.”
The dirt thrown will include unsubstantiated allegations that Biden and his son, Hunter, had corrupt dealings with Ukraine, as well as what the Trump campaign calls Biden’s “softness” towards China, where the pandemic originated.
Underway now is a torrent of commentary on Trump-friendly media pushing an accusation from Tara Reade, a former member of Biden’s Senate staff, that he sexually assaulted her 27 years ago. Biden’s campaign says that never happened, and no other women have come forward with similar stories.
So far, Reade’s accusation doesn’t seem to have hurt Biden politically. Prominent Democratic women including Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillebrand have announced their endorsements of Biden.
Gillebrand, asked if she believed the former staff member, said, “I stand by Vice President Biden. He has devoted his life to supporting women, and he has vehemently denied this allegation.”
Unlike Hillary Clinton, Biden has over his 47-year political career accumulated a trove of good will. “Nearly every top Democrat says the same thing” about Biden when they make their endorsement, reported CNN. “He is a man defined by his decency and empathy.”
Biden’s life has been marked by a succession of tragedies. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash soon after he had been elected to the US Senate for the first time. In 2015, he lost his son Beau, an Iraq War veteran who died from brain cancer at the age of 46.
Former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president for eight years, said, “He’s someone whose own life has taught him how to persevere; how to bounce back when you’ve been knocked down. When Joe talks to families who’ve lost a hero, we hear another parent of an American veteran; a kindred spirit; somebody whose faith has endured the hardest loss there is.”
That quality in Biden draws a strong contrast to Trump, who has turned his daily briefings on the pandemic into opportunities to boast about himself and attack his political enemies.
“Have you heard him offer anything that approaches a sincere expression of empathy for the people who are hurting?” Biden asked during an Internet-streamed campaign event this week. “Have we seen any sign that he grasps just how hard it will be for people to recover from this?”
While Trump’s favorability continues to be underwater, judging from an average of six recent polls, “Biden’s not helping Trump’s cause, as his net favorability rating is higher than Trump’s in all these polls, and he’s winning the overwhelming share of those voters who like neither,” CNN analyst Harry Enten observed this week.
“Put simply, Biden’s not allowing Trump to turn this into a choice election between two disliked candidates, as it was in 2016.”
Henry Eichel reports for Asia Times from Lexington, South Carolina.