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The politics of confusion tests both Trump and Biden

Neither candidate looks like a winner as yet to a volatile electorate seeking strong leadership

American voters are looking for strong leadership this year, and it’s too soon to say which candidate will win that argument, Winston writes.
American voters are looking for strong leadership this year, and it’s too soon to say which candidate will win that argument, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The American electorate today is understandably distressed and perhaps a little more than confused over the turn of events in the past few months. Who could blame them?

To say that people have been subjected to a barrage of conflicting messages in recent weeks is more than an understatement, starting with COVID-19.

First, they were told that masks were unnecessary and might do more harm than good. The World Health Organization said only health care workers needed them. Then, the public was told masks are now mandatory and essential to defeating the virus. Last week, the WHO changed its tune, announcing that masks were needed when social distancing wasn’t possible. Meanwhile, try buying a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk in an American grocery store without one.

As the pandemic spread and the economy was shut down, people were also told it was critical for them to stay at home. And they did, while they watched businesses, large and small, close their doors, waiting for the elusive “flattening of the curve.” Gatherings of over 10 were forbidden. No more backyard barbecues or church on Sunday — banned in the name of joint sacrifice for the greater good — and people accepted this new normal.

But then they began to see that some governors refused to shut down their states or reopened them earlier than others with minimal impact, while the science and health care community argued about the cause and effect of the virus and how to handle it. 

Finally, over the last week, Americans saw the same governors and other officials who told them that church was off limits along with their jobs protesting in huge crowds where social distancing was hardly followed.

To be clear, the country is in agreement that the death of George Floyd was murder and that peaceful protests are warranted. There is no gray area about this whatsoever. What is confusing to many people is reconciling mass protests with simultaneous orders over social distancing and limitations on gatherings.

Who to believe?

But conflicting messages haven’t been limited to the health aspects of COVID-19. The impact of the virus and the accompanying shutdown of the economy has been devastating. On Friday, the country got the news that more jobs were created in May  — 2.5 million — than any other month in American history. The stock market has continued to rebound, returning to near highs as well-known economist Mark Zandi pronounced the recession over and recovery underway. Then on Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the U.S. went into recession in February. Leading finance and economic experts quickly followed with predictions that the recession would be short-lived, if we aren’t out already. 

Why would any normal person not be confused by this environment? 

Americans at this point have become a little like balls in a tennis match, smashed back and forth, from one side to another. They hear one set of facts from the anti-Trump forces and their friends in the media and another from the pro-Trump crowd. Who’s a voter to believe?

Apolitical people outside the Beltway are trying to figure out what’s happening and what to do next in their lives. People inside the Beltway, in the party bases and in the media aren’t helping the situation as they create more division and discord. We’ve reached a point where one question defines every solution in the political world today, every statement, and every attempt to find common ground: Does this help or hurt Donald Trump? 

Who will win?

So, what does all this mean for Trump and Joe Biden? They’ve got some hurdles ahead.  

First, the president. In 2016, 20 percent of the people who voted for candidate Trump had a negative view of him. Where are those people now? Has he made progress with them in diminishing his unfavorables? And if not, what’s the plan to change their minds in the next five months?

In his first election, Trump got 45.9 percent of the vote. This time, he needs to close that gap and get to 50 percent. Exit polls showed that Trump lost the women’s vote by 13 points but two years into his presidency, Republicans lost women by 19 points in the midterms. The same trend holds true for younger voters. Trump lost them by a 19-point margin, GOP congressional candidates by 35 points in 2018.

The president would likely say that reflects the candidates, not him. But the 2018 midterms didn’t happen in a presidential vacuum. Whether the outcome of this election turns on his personality or the success of his policies is up to him and his campaign. To bring these groups around, he has to show how his leadership sparked a historic economy, saved the country from a terrible pandemic and brought the economy back.

But Biden won’t be making his case in a vacuum either. He may be leading in the polls, but he’s like a man walking a tightrope with two choices: Stay where he is and risk the eventual possibility of falling off, or head for the other side and hope he gets there. 

To win, Biden must broaden the Democratic Party’s advantage beyond California. Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won the popular vote outside California. Biden must do the same.

He must also decide whether to make this a base-oriented campaign or go after a majority coalition. In 2008, Democrats made up 40 percent of voters, which was the highest in recent elections. In 2016, that dipped to 36 percent. Neither Biden nor Trump can win without appealing to independents.   

Finally, an “I’m not him” strategy isn’t enough, especially in these times. People want a reason to believe, and Biden has failed so far to give them one. He’s already made a major mistake calling 15 percent of Americans “not very good people.” That kind of divisive rhetoric came back to haunt Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Biden may suffer the same fate.

It is possible that 2020 may see a rerun of two presidential candidates with very high unfavorables and, as a result, many voters having a negative view of both. This is not a choice voters want to make again. Both Biden and Trump are facing a volatile electorate that has come to understand the need for strong leadership, even if they don’t completely understand what’s happening to the country and why.

It’s too soon to know which candidate will win that argument.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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