To win, he has to pull an inside straight. With time running out, it’s not likely. But it is possible.
The Biden campaign strategy has always been to focus the race on Trump’s personality and avoid policy. In this he has been mightily helped by Trump and his compulsive need to be the center of attention. But Trump has not helped himself here at all because his personality is so abrasive and off putting, to say the least.
Further, the most important medium that presidents and candidates use to communicate with voters is television. When a political figure is on TV, it is like he has been invited into your living room. And Trump represents the grouchy, cantankerous guest who simply won’t leave. That behavior appalls coastal America. But when the medium is changed there is a different reaction. In live appearances, his obnoxious behavior thrills the crowds that gather by the tens of thousands to see him.
In contrast, Biden’s entire campaign message has consisted of declaring that he is not Donald Trump. The reason is not simply that Trump’s personality is so distasteful to so many, although it is an important factor. It is also because the hard left of his party is ascendant, and their policy agenda is unlikely to be popular with rank and file voters. So Biden’s strategy is to concentrate on personality, avoid policy, and run the clock out. That strategy allows the rank and file to believe that Biden is a moderate, while the left wing gets to own policy making after the election, particularly if the Democrats sweep the House and Senate.
The election has always been tighter than the national polls suggest. Biden has maintained a consistent lead against Trump for going on a year. But so did Hillary Clinton. The main difference is that there exists a reservoir of fondness for Biden in a good part of the electorate while there was none for Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Trump has the Coronavirus hanging over him, which he didn’t have before. So the question is: How is it possible for Trump to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at this late stage?
It is possible because (1) there is lingering suspicion of Biden stemming from the 1994 crime bill, particularly among African-American males; (2) Biden made a significant unforced error on energy policy in the second debate, and (3) while there is hatred for Trump on the left, there is no enthusiasm for Biden.
So how does this square with the polling that shows Biden with a national lead of around 8 to 9 points? It doesn’t. If Biden carries the popular vote with a margin of 8 or 9 percentage points it is virtually impossible for Trump to win. Actually it would be more indicative of a blue tidal wave in which Biden picks up 340 – 360 votes in the electoral college, well over the 270 needed to win. Add to that the probability of Democratic control of the House and Senate.
On the other hand if Biden’s lead in the popular vote slips to 3 or 4 points, it is very possible that Trump could pull it out of the fire. That’s because the battleground state polls are much tighter than the national polls, with much wider margins of error. But for Trump to win the key battlegrounds and gain 270 electoral college votes, the polls have to wrong. What are the chances of that?
More than you’d think. That is because Biden has shown significant weakness, compared to the usual performance of a Democrat, among African-American voters, particularly males. In part it stems from Biden’s criminal justice record, which wound up exacting a heavy price on African-American males. A significant fall-off in the votes of African-American males could tip the margins in Michigan (14% African-American), Pennsylvania (11%), Minnesota (12%) and maybe Wisconsin (6%).
Add to that Biden’s falling into the Energy v. Climate trap during Thursday’s debate. Politicians are prone to claim that costs are really benefits—because they get away with it. But you can only go so far claiming that there will be all these brand new “Green Jobs”, especially when you are looking for votes in a jurisdiction that produces lots of fossil fuel based energy, especially by fracking. When Biden denied he ever said he would ban fracking and then tried to pivot to “transitioning” to clean energy, fossil fuel industry voters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Oklahoma and maybe Minnesota took notice.
Pennsylvania is a critical state. Combine the impact of a lower than usual percentage of African-American Democratic votes in Philly and Pittsburg with motivated energy industry voters; and then factor in a net increase of Republican registrations on the order of of 125,000 voters and a Democratic decrease of 65,000 voters since 2016 and you have the formula for an upset. And it is wise to remember James Carville’s description of the state: In-between Pittsburg and Philadelphia lies Alabama.
Then there is the factor of enthusiasm and its cousin, momentum. While there is a lot of enthusiasm for getting rid of Trump, there is little enthusiasm for Biden. That could make it difficult for the Biden campaign to motivate new voters and get existing registrants to the polls in sufficient numbers. That said, fear of Covid could be a factor motivating Biden voters to show up.
Trump, on the other hand, still retains the loyalty and enthusiasm of his base. But he may be losing suburbanites, particularly suburban women who normally vote Republican. On that score Biden didn’t help himself any when he tried to explain away the corruption issue, news of which is only going to get worse in the next week. Nor did he do himself any favors among affluent and highly educated Republican suburbanites when he pretended that his tax plans would not affect them.
The final question has to do with what pollsters refer to as “shy Trump voters”. That phrase refers to people who are actually in favor of Trump but hide it or lie about it to pollsters because of the chilling effect of cancel culture. It is possible that Trump could actually perform significantly better in the battleground states than the polls currently suggest. If we see the national polls tighten to where Biden is ahead by 3 to 4 points, Trump could possibly eke out a victory at the last minute the way he did in 2016. But if Biden maintains a lead in the 8 to 9 point range, it is virtually impossible.
At the moment, I’d put the odds of a Trump victory at about 1 in 3.
Let’s wait and see if the polls tighten over the next week.