I suspect most of America is happy to have the summer of 2020 in the rearview mirror. I know I am.
Finding a vaccine to stop COVID-19 and get the economy moving again have been the top priorities of the Trump White House. Joe Biden has focused for the most part on only two things — what’s wrong with Donald Trump and COVID-19 — through a mostly virtual campaign. And all of this is taking place against a backdrop of increasing violence in the streets and a bitter debate on race relations and policing.
And it is in this toxic political environment, seven short weeks from now, that voters trying to keep their lives together in a difficult economy will pick a president. At this moment, if the race turns on policy, especially economic policy, Trump may have an edge. But if Biden continues his success at making the race all about Trump, his tweets and his style, and Biden’s interpretation of Trump’s competency on COVID-19, the president will find himself fighting on less favorable ground.
Biden still leads Trump in most polls, but the race has seen some tightening over the summer. Biden’s decision to run a basement campaign and his gaffes at some of the few campaign events he attended continue to fuel speculation about his ability to handle the job and concern about what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for the former vice president, evident in several voter groups.
A Sept. 6-8 Economist/YouGov poll found a majority of Biden voters were voting against Trump rather than for Biden by a 54 percent to 43 percent margin. Trump voters, however, were voting overwhelming for the president and not against Biden, 80 percent to 19 percent. Independents who said they would vote for Trump were almost as enthusiastic, with a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent.
Trump can also take heart that voters’ definition of their own ideology puts them closer to him than Biden. In our latest Winning the Issues Survey (Sept. 5-7), we asked voters to rate themselves and a series of individuals on a 1-9 ideological scale, with 1 being most liberal, 5 being moderate, and 9 being most conservative. The average for voters’ self-defined political ideology came in at 5.43 — center-right.
The electorate’s rating of Trump and congressional Republicans has remained largely unchanged at 6.43 and 6.48 respectively. Both are closer to voters in ideology than the Democrats.
Despite Biden’s occasional forays into centrist territory, voter perception of both him and his running mate, however, has moved leftward as his campaign’s relative silence on the violence erupting in blue cities across the country has made him vulnerable to a charge of condoning the riots. The Democratic National Convention only added to the image of a candidate and party that has moved left to appeal to the increasingly progressive base. Today, Biden is now seen as further to the left (4.02) than he was back in July (4.28).
Kamala Harris is seen as even further to the left at 3.81. Independents put her at 3.78 while Democrats, not surprisingly, see her as slightly more centrist at 4.34 and Biden further to the right at 4.56. Trump is better positioned with the electorate than Biden in terms of ideology, but the Democrat still edges out the president in head-to-head ballot matchups.
Trump’s overall job approval rating, per the latest RealClearPolitics average, remains underwater at 45 percent favorable to 54 percent unfavorable. But when it comes to the economy, Trump gets good marks with a 50 percent to 46 percent job approval, according to the RCP average. If views of the economy drive votes in November, he is much better positioned to win reelection.
In his hands
But the key word in that statement is “if.” For Trump to turn the political discussion to the economy, voters need to have a sense that the pandemic is currently moving to a point where it will be reasonably under control.
That doesn’t mean eradicated and gone from the planet before Election Day. But it does mean that people need a better understanding of exactly what the administration has done to fight the virus, the progress that has been made to date, and what is likely to happen in the next few months.
Democrats have historically scored better with voters on health care issues, and it remains true when it comes to COVID-19. But contrary to what the Democrats and the media have been saying, there is data to build an effective case for the administration’s COVID-19 effort, whether it’s record testing, the creation of Operation Warp Speed to find a vaccine in record time, or ramping up production of personal protective equipment and ventilators.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that mistakes were made. They happen in all great undertakings. So little was known about COVID-19 that even the scientists involved had some miscues. But it’s also fair for Trump to point out that many of the actions that Biden has either criticized or called for over the past few months have been either proved wrong or were already underway. Biden’s tweet the day after Trump banned travel from China on Jan. 31, is a good example.
Though he’s done an about-face now, he said then, “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.”
What the president and Republicans have to do over the next 50 days is a better job explaining the steps the administration has taken to confront the COVID-19 crisis and their plans to get the country to a transition point, from the pandemic to getting America working. What is the outlook for a vaccine? When and how will it be distributed? What about therapeutics? Can schools and businesses reopen safely and what kind of support can people expect from the federal government in the months ahead? The more detail the better.
To get to the discussion of reopening the economy, people have to believe that Republicans can get the country to that point safely.
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.