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Trump’s worst possible closing message

Happy talk about worsening COVID-19 situation could alienate voters

Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center at Nationals Park in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center at Nationals Park in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — The president of the United States has settled on a closing message that could transform the 2020 election. But not in a way that would improve his prospects.

By arguing that the country is “rounding the corner” on COVID-19 in the face of irrefutable data that the coronavirus is surging, Donald Trump risks appearing more and more out of touch with reality.

Critics of the president will joke that he has been out of touch for the last four years. But Trump’s argument in the final weeks of the campaign could alienate any remaining undecided voters, possibly causing some of his weakest supporters to stay home.

Daily reports of more cases, hospitalizations and deaths make it difficult to ignore the illness, which is expected to surge in the late fall and winter. Indeed, nervousness on Wall Street — stocks have taken a substantial hit recently — about the spread of the virus and its impact on the economy in both Europe and the United States suggests that investors aren’t convinced of Trump’s “we’ve turned the corner” claim.

Purely from a campaign point of view, spiking coronavirus numbers make it difficult for Trump’s messages about the economy, China, peace in the Middle East or challenger Joe Biden’s mental acuity to reach voters. And given the current shape of the economy and Biden’s successful debate performances, two of Trump’s reelection themes seem to be of limited effectiveness.

Starts at the top

Politically, the recent Pew Research Center report on increased straight-ticket voting suggests that weakness at the top of the ticket could undermine the prospects of Republican senators seeking reelection.

Obviously, some Republican senators have established for themselves a reputation for independence, while others have spent the last four years embracing Trump. But the general rule holds: In an era of straight-ticket voting, the worse Trump does in states with competitive Senate contests, the more difficult it is for the GOP incumbents in those states.

As many of us have noted over the years, there is a tendency in Senate races for close races to fall in the same direction — to the Republicans or the Democrats — depending on the cycle.

There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, of course, including both in 2016 and 2018.

In 2016, when Trump was elected, the parties split the four closest Senate races, with Democrats Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Republicans Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Roy Blunt of Missouri winning.

Two years later, GOP challengers easily knocked off Democratic incumbents in Indiana and Missouri while incumbent Republican Ted Cruz was winning an uncomfortably close race in Texas. Republican Rick Scott won a true squeaker in Florida.

At the same time, Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia were winning Toss-up races in 2016 Trump states.

2020 realities

Of course, Republicans began the 2020 cycle with an advantage because of the Senate map. Only two of the states with Senate races that started off “competitive” were carried by Hillary Clinton — Colorado and Maine — so Democrats needed a few breaks to make potentially competitive contests into real, live battles.

In fact, they received more than a few breaks, including surprisingly good candidates, an unexpected pile of campaign cash and Trump’s intemperate, even bizarre, behavior.

Many Senate Republicans in competitive races are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do they continue to embrace Trump, or do they seek some separation from him (by acknowledging his electoral problems) and risk angering his grassroots supporters, many of whom assume his reelection is inevitable?

I answered this question in a column on July 7, which looked at the GOP’s 1996 down-ballot messaging. Toward the end of that cycle, Republicans explicitly argued that voters should not give Bill Clinton a “blank check” — which meant electing a Republican Congress to “check” Clinton. The move effectively abandoned GOP presidential challenger Bob Dole.

When I talked with current GOP strategists, they argued that this cycle was different from 1996 and Republican nominees could not use that argument without alienating Trump voters, who constitute the heart and soul of the party and are unflinchingly loyal to the president.

In fact, most Republican nominees have been hesitant to criticize Trump or even acknowledge his weak reelection standing.

Although the Senate is still up for grabs, polls show Democrats with the advantage in at least four states (Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina) and with reasonable takeover opportunities in at least two others (Iowa and Georgia). Republicans have but one strong takeover opportunity (Alabama).

Of course, the uncertainties of turnout, combined with the loyalty of Trump supporters, creates more questions than usual.

I think we do know one thing for certain: If the 2020 elections — presidential and Senate — don’t turn into a partisan wave, you can’t blame Trump. He tried his best to make a blue wave happen by choosing the worst closing message possible.