With just 57 days until the 2020 election, it will be time to vote before you know it. For our special Labor Day edition, I’m breaking down the five big storylines to watch between now and Election Day — the narratives that will define the final stretch of the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
When he was elected in 2016, Donald Trump, at 70, was the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president. If Joe Biden gets elected this fall, he will break that record; Biden will be 78 on Inauguration Day 2021.
Trump has worked to make Biden’s acuity and health an issue in the campaign, suggesting, without evidence, that the former vice president is not mentally up to the job.
“Something is going on,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity last month. “And I assume we will be able to find out sooner, rather than later, I hope. But something is going on. It’s very strange.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s own health has become a topic of conversation in the race — specifically an unscheduled trip he made to Walter Reed hospital in November 2019.
The story the White House told about the trip — routine start to his annual physical, just some test and labs — has been contradicted by reporting that Vice President Mike Pence was alerted to the possibility he might need to take over as president if Trump was anesthetized.
Even without these stories, the health of the two candidates would be something of an issue, as one is 74 and the other is 77. Voters in the latest CNN poll, released earlier this month, were closely divided over which of the two men they believed had the “stamina” and “sharpness” to be president; 48% chose Biden while 46% opted for Trump.
4. The debates:
Despite Trump’s best efforts, there will be only three general election debates this fall, with the first one set for three weeks from Tuesday.
In a country still dealing with a steadily spreading pandemic, there will be far less in-person campaigning by the two presidential candidates than in years past. And likely fewer interviews with state and national reporters.
All of which means that the trio of general election debates are that much more important this time around. Because they will function almost certainly as the best — and only — non-scripted events featuring both candidates between now and November 3. And as such, represent Trump’s biggest chance to change the arc of the race — and Biden’s biggest potential pitfall to lose it.
So, what do we know about the two men as debaters?
Biden is, well, so-so. He struggles with bringing key facts out on the spot and thinking quickly on his feet. He is also a debate rule-follower, often cutting off his answers mid-sentence when he reaches the approved time limit.
Trump is, uh, unorthodox as a debater. He will bully, interrupt, intimidate and play fast and loose with the facts. He isn’t big on preparation in advance of the debates, which occasionally leaves him without a clue of what he is being asked. (See: “Nuclear Triad.”)
As a result of Trump’s debating style, the moderators — Chris Wallace of Fox News for the first, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully for the second and NBC’s Kristen Welker for the third — will play an HUGE role in how the proceedings play out.
Do they fact-check Trump in real time? Do they allow him to go far over time? Does he simply ignore their attempts to make him stop talking?
3. Election interference:
Everyone this side of Donald Trump (and Attorney General Bill Barr) seems to acknowledge that Russia continues to pose a serious threat to the integrity of the 2020 election.
“We assess that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail and shifting voting processes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public trust in the electoral process,” read a recent intelligence bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security.
And in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris acknowledged the threat posed by Russia and other foreign actors. “I do believe that there will be foreign interference in the 2020 election, and that Russia will be at the front of the line,” Harris said.
The issue is that Trump (and Barr) don’t agree. Instead, the President has spent many tweets insisting that the rise in mail-in balloting — as states seek to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — is the real threat to election integrity.
“For our Country to be sending 80 million UNSOLICITED BALLOTS is very unfair and a roadmap to disaster,” he tweeted late last month. “Even recent small and easier to control elections which did this are a catastrophic disaster. Fraudulent & missing Ballots like never seen before. 20% and 30% off. STOP!”
Add it all up and what you are left with is a recipe for chaos — with foreign actors seeking to muck around in the election, a President dead-set on creating the idea of a rigged election and the very likely possibility that the vote count takes longer with so-many mailed-in ballots.
2. “Law and order” vs. racial injustice:
Anyone who watched the Republican National Convention late last month knows that the Trump campaign is heavily invested in using the protests — some violent, most not — breaking out around the country over racial injustice and policing to scare suburban voters back into the Republican ranks.
“If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other Constitutional freedoms,” said Trump at one point during his convention acceptance speech.
And at another: “If the Radical Left takes power, they will apply their disastrous policies to every city, town, and suburb in America.”
The question is whether people — especially white suburban women — buy what Trump is selling. Or put more accurately: Will these blatant appeals to fear overcome their personal distaste for Trump?
Much depends on what comes next — and neither Trump nor Biden have much control over that. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, the protests were largely regarded by the public as peaceful, and Trump’s tone-deaf response to them was a major factor in his tumbling polling numbers. (His handling of the coronavirus — much more on that below — was the largest factor in his slide.)
The more recent protests in Portland and Kenosha, Wisconsin have produced far more violent images — buildings burning, a Trump supporter dead — that have left people more undecided about their feelings about the unrest.
Biden has to walk a fine line here too — condemning the violence coming out of the protests while also acknowledging the roots of why people are taking to the streets: A string of Black men killed or wounded in interactions with the police.
“Rioting is not protesting,” Biden said in a speech on the subject last Monday. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple.”
So will the next two months make people more open to Trump’s “law and order” message? Or will Biden’s attempt to condemn riots while supporting the right to protest be enough?
1. The coronavirus election:
When a global pandemic sickens more than 6 million Americans and kills almost 189,0000 — and is projected to kill 255,000 by November 1 — it is the dominant issue of election.
The coronavirus ripples — economic, educational, environmental — are everywhere, and there isn’t a single person not affected by them. And practically everyone has a strong opinion about how Trump has handled the virus.
At the moment, that is very bad news for the incumbent. In the latest CNN poll, conducted earlier this month, just 40% approved of how he has dealt with the virus while 55% disapproved.
Asked which candidate would deal better with the ongoing pandemic, 53% chose Biden while just 41% chose Trump.
These numbers are consistent with virtually all the other polling data in the race. And as approval for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has waned, so too has his standing in general election polling against Biden. (The CNN poll of polls gives the former vice president a 51% to 43% edge.)
The President’s numbers — on coronavirus and in general election matchups — have been strikingly consistent over the summer. That is, again, bad news for him as it suggests that the public’s mind is largely made up on the matter.
How could the incumbent change such a politically problematic dynamic? Trump, if his public pronouncements are to be believed, thinks that he has a silver bullet: The announcement of a vaccine before the election.
“Starting to get VERY high marks in our handling of the Coronavirus (China Virus), especially when compared to other countries and areas of the world,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Now the Vaccines (Plus) are coming, and fast!”
The first part of that tweet is false. The second part is aspirational. If a vaccine does emerge pre-election, it’s still no guarantee to change Trump’s fate.
How widely available will it be? How effective will it be? How soon before the election will an announcement be? And what if it doesn’t come pre-election?
Trump is in a worse place right now than he was in 2016. And that’s because a majority of Americans don’t trust him to handle the single largest issue — by a lot — they believe is facing the country.