Biden’s ‘not Trump’ strategy playing out perfectly — partly thanks to Trump

How does every Joe Biden campaign staff meeting start? I imagine everyone takes a solemn oath not to blow the election. And so far it’s working. If Biden has made any mistakes, it has been leaving his basement too often.

Facing any candidate or incumbent other than President Trump, running out the clock would be a highly risky strategy — but Trump keeps sabotaging his own momentum and has shown no aptitude for self-discipline.

Even more important, the national mood, which benefited Trump in 2016, is a drag on his prospects in 2020. The simple rule of thumb for campaigns is that undecideds go for challengers. After all, the incumbent is a known commodity and re-elections are mostly referenda on the incumbent. Essentially, if a given voter hasn’t decided for the incumbent as Election Day approaches, the voter will either vote against the incumbent or not vote. That is bad news for Trump, who lags in national and swing state polls.

The key 2016 polling statistic was the “right track/wrong track” number. In 2016, 63 percent thought the country was on the “wrong track.” It should have been no surprise that undecided voters would gravitate to Trump — the de facto challenger. In 2020, the right track/wrong track number is 62 percent wrong track, 26 percent right track. Simply put, we should expect the “wrong track” voters to move to Biden, the non-incumbent.

The election is coming down to Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Ohio could flip to Biden, but then it’s a rout. Limited polling also shows Nevada’s 6 votes competitive, but they are unlikely to make a difference.

According to the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight state polling averages, Biden leads Trump in every swing state. If so, Biden would win 333 electoral votes to 205. But that is if the polling averages are right and the undecideds split proportionately. If the Trump vote is underestimated, how would the election project?

The FiveThirtyEight site runs multiple projections to obtain a series of predictive results. The level of complexity is interesting, but not really necessary (and introduces its own errors and biases). Taking the current polling, three simple projections can be made: best case for Biden; best case for Trump and a middle case.

In the best case for Biden, the polls are accurate (nobody has posited the existence of “hidden” Biden voters) and the undecideds break along the right track/wrong track lines: 62 percent for Biden and 38 percent for Trump. This split puts every swing state and Ohio in the Biden column and a 351-187 electoral victory. In the middle case, Trump’s “hidden” vote is 2 percent. RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages disagree on Florida and North Carolina but do keep Ohio in the Trump column. Still a loss for Trump.

The best case for Trump assumes 3 percent of voters are secret Trump supporters. Assuming that such voters are declaring as “undecided,” and not flat out lying, and splitting the remaining undecideds along the right track/wrong track number, Trump holds North Carolina and Ohio. Florida would stay with Trump according to the RealClearPolitics average, but flip to Biden under the FiveThirtyEight average. Biden would still win 289-249.

If we drop the averages and instead look at the most recent state polling by Morning Consult (Sept. 9), Trump is still in trouble. Only Ohio would stay with Trump under any of the three above scenarios and possibly Arizona, if the large recent swing to Biden is overstated. Even a best case across the board has Trump losing.

Could Trump still turn things around?

Theoretically, but the underlying numbers are daunting.

Voters have consistently shown limited confidence in Biden. Whether handling the coronavirus (33 percent) or dealing with civil unrest (32 percent), Biden is behind with independent voters. But Trump polls even worse on all these dimensions — and the problem for him is that he’s president. Only on the economy does Trump poll better, but just barely.

As president, Trump is expected to solve problems or present a path forward for solutions. Instead, Trump just rages and attacks. There is no affirmative plan. As long as Trump presents no action plan or shows any ability to end the chaos, the average voter is more likely to take a flyer on the challenger.

Trump’s message is that things will only get worse with Biden. That may be true, but that message is a tacit admission that things are bad now and he has no fixes.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” was one of the great slogans in campaign history — it was an optimistic message about America and an attack message implying that the country was in trouble. The amount of lampooning it was subject to was just a testament to its power.

What’s Trump’s slogan now? He doesn’t have one. He has no optimistic message and, as incumbent, he owns the chaos.

Biden is winning by letting Trump lose.

A more disciplined, skilled politician would be taking advantage of the overreach and violence of the protesters and the improving situation regarding the coronavirus. A president like Reagan or Nixon would have made a national address (or multiple addresses) with a plan of action and would have kept himself and his entire administration on message.

When times were good, Trump benefited from being non-traditional and extemporaneous. But now his undisciplined, frenetic style is a huge liability and has put a ceiling on his vote.

Trump can rage all he wants at Biden and the media, but losing will be his responsibility alone.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2020 election 2020 presidential polls Approval polls Donald Trump Donald Trump 2020 presidential campaign election polling Electoral College Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign power of incumbency

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