With the first of three scheduled presidential debates now in the books and just over a month to go before Election Day, it is conventional wisdom that, if a candidate is still busy shoring up his base, it is an ominous sign that he has probably already lost. But with the Trump and Biden campaigns having spent months cementing the support of their most committed partisans, the time has come for both to expand their horizons. Campaigns resting secure in the support of their base constituencies turn their attention to those potential or likely voters who are undecided or can be swayed as the day of reckoning approaches.
President Trump is working hard to win more of those pesky suburban white women – the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett won’t hurt – and touting his pre-COVID economy and jobs numbers to increase his share of black and Hispanic voters. Joe Biden is trying to win back white voters who formed the backbone of Trump’s shocking victory in 2016 while trying to steal votes among Republicans queasy over the president’s personality. And so it goes in the battle for those precious voters who have yet to make up their minds or might be open to a change of heart.
And yet we are told by pollsters far and wide that the electorate is hardened, that an almost historically low percentage of voters – as few as 3% – remain undecided. Can that really be true?
The Decision Paradox
If it is the case, it would be truly paradoxical and in seeming defiance of human nature. Consider the multiple unprecedented life-altering events America has been forced to process in this year of our Lord (though many aren’t sure) 2020. Start with a virulent pandemic for the first time in over 100 years, forcing us to alter our lives in ways so profound and enduring that we could never have envisioned or been prepared for the fallout. Then, a debilitating shutdown of life as we know it produced an unthinkable 20% unemployment rate and a bone-chilling collapse of an economy that was firing on all cylinders just weeks before.
As if that was not enough, along comes the jaw-dropping execution of George Floyd and subsequent riots, destruction, and bloodshed, which metastasized across the land. And as if we were in the midst of a diabolical game of Can You Top This? we are now launched into another war between the parties over a seismic shift in the Supreme Court unlike any we have ever witnessed – in the heat of one of the most bitter and consequential election campaigns in American history.
Whew. I mean, whew. To say the voters are on overload would be the understatement of the 21st century – and the fight-night atmosphere surrounding the initial debate hardly lightened the load. And one of the most visible effects of multiple, ongoing shocks to the system is an inability to process events coherently in real-time. It is not until we are forced to take a step back and carefully consider everything that has gone down that the human mind can begin to make sense of it all, or at least clarify our thinking.
It is inarguable that, when the nation is beset by conditions such as those of today – a persistent pandemic, stubbornly high unemployment, violence in the streets, raging racial polarization, all adding up to a general insecurity about life itself – the incumbent is generally on the hook.
Trump is not responsible for the presence of COVID, though his response to it has not met with majority approval. The president did not kill Mr. Floyd nor set off the mayhem in Democrat-controlled cities. And he had nothing to do with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He may not have caused the many events and conditions defining this election, but they happened on his watch. All this, together with his bombastic nature, forms a combustible political mix, which makes Americans’ usual impulse to re-elect a sitting president far more complex.
The Trump Referendum
So this is a straight referendum on Trump, we are told. Perhaps, but which version of Trump are voters considering? The president who over his first three years accomplished many of his game-changing goals, achieved near-full employment and energy independence, and revived a slow-moving economy, or the man beleaguered by horrific turns of fortune which few presidents could survive intact? Trump will hope to avoid the fate of President George H.W. Bush, who in 1992 was, as the song goes, riding high in April, but shot down in May. Blessed with record-high approval after his successful conduct of the Gulf War just one year earlier, Bush 41 was brought low by post-war circumstances far less grave than we face today – a relatively mild recession – and felled easily by Bill Clinton.
But what happens when the time to pull the lever arrives, and the amorphous not-Trump that has been the aging and remarkably passive Joe Biden turns from a cardboard cutout into the actual person you must actively choose to be the leader of the free world at a time of crisis in the land and across the globe? Will making an affirmative choice for Biden be as easy as simply holding the belief that Trump is damaged goods?
And what of the apparent decline of the former vice president, evident in stretches on Tuesday night? Is it really as bad as conservatives have claimed? At 77 years old, does he possess the strength to lead us out of the wilderness? And how about the public corruption related to the sudden prosperity of Biden’s son illuminated by the president in the debate – the same type of vulnerability that badly damaged Hillary Clinton in her email scandal four years ago? Given his willingness to radicalize his long-held stances on fundamental issues (such as whether the nation is systemically racist), is he, despite his meek denials when confronted by Trump, in the thrall of the rising socialist movement in his party? And given that everyone agrees that the Democrat presidential nominee would be just a placeholder, a temporary occupant of the Oval Office, would we really be voting for Kamala Harris – a very different proposition?
So much to process, so little time.
We can all agree that 40-45% of voters will pull the lever for Trump no matter what. The same amount would not vote for this president if their lives depended on it. But think through the full array of unprecedented circumstances voters are forced to consider in this year like no other, and that two more clarifying head-to-head confrontations are set for the weeks ahead. Can we honestly be so cocksure that the remaining 10-20% unwedded to either cause are unmovable, unshakable in their supposedly settled decisions on who should march us forward into a perilous and unknowable future?
Read more from Tim Donner.