Trump, Trailing Biden, Shakes Up His Campaign

The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 28 – July 20, 2020

This week:

  • Will Trump’s campaign shakeup change his trajectory?
  • Senate GOP worried over low fundraising
  • Democrats trying to help Kobach in Kansas

President 2020

Perhaps you have noticed that it’s already mid-July. It feels like eventually the presidential campaign is going to start sometime soon, right? 

In fact, we’re already approaching its late stages. It’s just that, with the coronavirus, we hardly notice it. None of the presidential campaign events we’re used to are going on. And President Trump is clearly suffering a disadvantage on this account, as it prevents him from effectively making this race about Joe Biden instead of a referendum on himself.

Four years ago this week, Republicans were holding their national convention in Cleveland. In the wake of that event, President Trump’s polling numbers briefly ran ahead of Hillary Clinton’s — although that didn’t last long. After July 25, Trump would lead only rarely — and it didn’t matter, he won anyway.  

Where are we now? If not for COVID-19, the Democrats would have just finished their convention, handing Biden the nomination. He would be facing a serious challenge to take out President Trump, who would be presiding over a historically strong economy. 

A presidency derailed? Instead, we find ourselves in this weird situation where all the polling shows Trump heading toward defeat and Republicans being trounced down-ballot — yet even so, no prediction seems truly safe. It’s already weird enough just to have Trump involved, considering how he defied all expectations in 2016 and could easily do so again. But the polling is indeed daunting. This week’s new Washington Post poll shows Biden’s lead among those “certain to vote” at 11 points, and his lead among registered voters widening from 2 to 10 to 15 points in three successive surveys since March. 

Once again, that’s really bad news for Trump, and other polls reflect the same problem. 

His campaign is sufficiently concerned that he has shaken it up, demoting campaign manager Brad Parscale and promoting Bill Stepien to work alongside him. This may make the campaign more effective, but one must look to the bottom of things to identify the problem. Has Trump’s problem really been about his campaign manager? Is it about the way he positioned himself on the coronavirus? Or is it all down to factors he just has no control over — COVID-19, the resulting downturn, the relentless media campaign against him, etc? 

Right now, the new Washington Post/ABC News poll points to coronavirus as Trump’s main problem. Early on, he enjoyed majority support for his handling of the pandemic in this same survey — 51 percent in March — but that number has slipped to 36 percent now. This is the issue Trump most needs to get a handle on, because it is serving as a hole in the bottom of his boat.

Even so, a number of factors are in play that make the situation impossible to interpret definitively. For example, will the rioting and disorder generate a backlash? Is there a fear among poll respondents of admitting they are voting for Trump, based on the increasingly aggressive forces of cancel-culture, political correctness and wokeness? Is the media’s unprecedented campaign against Trump — witness the false coverage of his Rushmore speech — having its intended effect, or might it too have a backlash? What about the basic effect on daily human interactions that the coronavirus is having? What about its eventual effect on voting this fall? And finally, what of the potential for a sudden economic surge ahead of election day, which may already be well underway? 

Senate 2020

Fundraising: Senate Republicans, it must be noted in general, are in a bit of a panic due to lackluster fundraising. Democrats are outraising their incumbents in nearly every important race, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal last week.The difference appears to be mostly small-dollar online fundraising, an even more important source of money than usual at a time when in-person fundraisers are simply less practical. 

Money isn’t everything. That became abundantly clear in 2016 when President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton despite being outspent roughly two-to-one. With several GOP incumbent senators trailing their Democratic opponents in polls, the money problem raises the possibility for a full-on party wipe-out.

Alabama: Former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R, was President Trump’s first ally on the campaign trail in 2016 and one of the first to fall out with him.

Thanks in part to Trump’s disapproval, the former attorney general’s attempt at a political comeback fell flat in Alabama last week. Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville won with Trump’s backing on a very Trump-y anti-establishment message. The finish in this runoff was not especially close. Despite a few potential skeletons in his closet — Tuberville was tangentially involved with a dodgy investment scheme — Tuberville is the overwhelming favorite to win this fall against incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D. 

Kansas: Another wild primary with intervention by the opposite party, with the vote coming up August 4. 

Democrats are trying to help Kris Kobach get the nomination in hopes that he will lose statewide like he did in 2018. To that end, a Democratic group, the Sunflower State PAC, is running ads that criticize Kobach as too conservative, apparently in order to make a subtle appeal to conservatives. The twist is that they also use the airtime to slam Rep. Roger Marshall, R, who is viewed as his more electable opponent. 

Polling has been sparse in this race, but Marshall, who represents the western four-fifths of the state in the U.S. House, led in the last survey. Moreover, in the time since that survey, his chances are believed to have improved because Senate Majority Leader Susan Wagle dropped out. She did so with the stated rationale of preventing Kobach from narrowly prevailing over a split primary field.

Texas: Sen. John Cornyn’s shots at Royce West may have raised his profile, but they did not convince quite enough left-wing voters to back him. Cornyn would have accepted the two-fer of slamming West as a liberal while also gaining him as an opponent, but instead he will now face M.J. Hegar, the favored candidate of the national Democratic Party. 

Cornyn should be safe, but the moneyed Democratic push in 2018 in the Lone Star State is a reminder to Republicans that they cannot afford to be complacent. In 2020, Democrats will be making an all-out push in Texas because of Trump’s perceived weakness on the ballot there. This means Cornyn can take nothing for granted.

House 2020

Kansas-2: Here’s a wild one: we are just two weeks from the primary, and Rep. Steve Watkins, R, has been charged with three felony counts of voter fraud. Watkins says the charges are politically motivated, trumped up and politically timed, as the prosecutor involved has ties to one of his GOP primary opponents, Jake LaTurner

The charges stem from his improper use of a UPS store address on voter-registration documents in a 2019 municipal election, which Watkins insists was a mistake that he remedied shortly thereafter. Although President Trump won this seat by 19 points, Watkins held on to it by less than a point in 2018. A controversy like this one could put the party in a tough spot this fall. Moreover, Watkins won the open GOP primary that year with less than 27 percent of the vote, amid further challenges based on his residency. Although he is the incumbent and enjoys that advantage, he has not had an election to demonstrate that he is well-known or popular among Republican voters.

Michigan-3: Libertarians will have to scratch their heads over the story of Rep. Justin Amash, who after a career as a state legislator and congressman left the Republican Party and voted for President Trump’s impeachment. Much like Rand Paul and Thomas Massie, he seemed like a perfect model for how libertarians could gain political influence within the GOP. After flirting with a Libertarian presidential bid that would have been a lot more attractive than that of Gary Johnson four years earlier, he is bowing out, not even seeking re-election. 

Despite this, it remains likely that, to whatever extent they actually find success in influencing national politics, libertarians will do this through the Republican Party, not the Libertarian Party. Amash was probably the best hope for the LP in 2020, in terms of appealing to actual libertarians while also winning a large number of votes. 

There is a formula here for libertarian success, but part of the problem is that the two-party system — which demands loyalty to people — is always going to be something of a problem for libertarians, who tend to be much more ideological than their conservative cousins. 

Minnesota-5: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D, has been a lightning rod for national controversy. She faces a contested primary August 11 against attorney Antone Melton-Meaux. But don’t bet on her losing. Despite her combined personal and campaign finance scandals, her own poll (so take it with a grain of salt) shows her leading 66% to 29%.