Election Day is in exactly 60 days, and the “low-intensity civil war” is underway: Every day a death at the hands of the police is reported, or a confrontation between protestors, and every day Donald Trump tweets again against Joe Biden, who is “not on the side of Law Enforcement.” An election campaign like the screenplay of an episode of “Law and Order” — police against thugs, safety against looting — offering nothing new. Republicans have used it successfully in 1968 and 1988, winning both times.
It worked over a half a century ago, but will it work this year? It is possible, but the evidence to be determined on Nov. 3 says otherwise. It cannot be completely ruled out that a series of inner-city riots, an attack or the physical collapse of one of the two candidates in the next two months will cause critical shifts in the election campaign. For instance, Trump is said to have had a mini-stroke last November, and Biden, every now and then, shows signs of his age in public speeches. But in the absence of such an event, the election will be decided by other factors.
First, Trump was and still is supported by the minority, elected with 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His approval ratings among Americans have never exceeded 45%, not even for a day.
Second, his handling of the pandemic has been disastrous, his erroneous and inconsistent messages, and his attempts to downplay a narrative that has already killed more than 180,000 people, continue. The consequences of this irresponsible and criminal behavior have slowly invaded American public opinion. Today, however, citizens see friends and relatives affected by the disease, even in states that have been the most loyal to Trump, such as Texas, Iowa and Wyoming. Calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” will not be enough to prevent the public from asking questions.
Third, the incumbent president is far behind the Democratic candidate in the polls, at least for now. Currently, Biden is up by 11 percentage points (52% against 41%), a status that is certainly destined to change: The margin between candidates always decreases substantially the day before the election. Such a strong lead is however unlikely to disappear entirely. A large group of voters surveyed by the University of Southern California say they regret voting for Trump in 2016 and have decided, thus far, to support Biden. This group comprises 9% of the Republican voters from four years ago, which would be an enormous loss for Trump.
Fourth, Trump is losing the support of important of pieces of the coalition that elected him in 2016. For example, among Hispanics, his support fell 10 points: from 35% to 25%. Among women living in rural areas, who overwhelmingly voted for him in 2016, the loss is equally as stark: 10 points down. An electorate crucial for the fallout are voters from the suburbs: members of the middle class, generally holding college degrees, who have always been drawn to promises of tax cuts and the preservation of public order. This year, though, Biden has a large margin among these voters, too: 53% of the 40% who are projected to vote — partially, of course, thanks to women who have been a true pillar for the Democratic coalition for many years.
Fifth: The politics of breathing the fire of polarization and even of racial violence can certainly stimulate the most aggressive part of the Republican base and attract right-wing extremists ready for anything. But the downside of this strategy is the equally important mobilization of Blacks and Hispanics, sectors of the population that normally vote less, but this year, together with young people of all races, seem determined to make their voices heard, not only in the streets, but also at the polls.
Finally, we need to look at the deciding institution for choosing the next occupant of the White House: the Electoral College, where the actual election takes place. In 2016 Trump won, because he gained the delegates of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania with just a handful of votes, while also prevailing in other swing states like Ohio and Florida. This year he should try to mirror that same result because the loss of just two of these states would cost him the reelection. Right now, not only is Biden ahead of Trump everywhere, even if by a narrow margin, but Democrats are also hoping for a majority in historically Republican states like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. So, Trump’s road is uphill from here.