With just under 100 days before election day, many in Washington are comparing the current mood across the nation to the final months in office of two one-term presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H W Bush. Yet, while Donald Trump is badly behind in polls, he cannot yet be completely counted out with more than three months of the campaign left.
The evidence for why Trump is in growing electoral trouble is shown in the latest wave of polls which indicate Joe Biden’s national lead has grown, and his margin is now larger than Hillary Clinton’s was at any point during the 2016 campaign. Turning to the maths of the all-important presidential electoral college, Biden also holds significant leads in key battleground states and, if the president ballot was today, it is very likely that he would win.
Yet, many pollsters will remember the experience of Autumn 2016 when Clinton’s apparently consistent lead evaporated on election night. And, even if Biden does win, it remains quite likely, unless Trump implodes, that the polls could narrow.
This ‘closer contest’ scenario is especially likely with the president looking to recalibrate his election strategy in the last three months of the campaign. The pattern of recent days points to signs of greater moderation in Trump’s demeanour, and a newfound acknowledgement of the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis. With much of the US populace viewing his response to the pandemic as lacklustre, Trump last week acknowledged for the first time that the crisis will get “worse before it gets better”, and U-turned on the issues of face covering asserting it was now “patriotic” to wear one.
Increasing efforts to lure centre ground voters
At least part of the reason for the shift appears to be the change in Trump’s campaign team initiated earlier this month. This saw Bill Stepien, a field director for his 2016 campaign, taking the place of Brad Parscale who was reportedly blamed by Trump for the poorly attended rally in Oklahoma last month.
The new 100-day strategy appears to be based around his new campaign team’s belief that the 2016 tactic of firing up a core base and riding an anti-establishment wave will not be enough to win again. So there is an increased effort to peel off centre ground voters by the president with him placing less emphasis on rancour and discord, and seeking to bring greater political conciliation in a country more divided than perhaps in living memory.
To try to turn around his presidency before election day, Trump will have to show with much greater purpose that he knows how to do both, defying expectations that are held about him by many voters.
The key question mark is how much Trump, with the huge ‘political baggage’ that his presidency now has after a polarising three and a half years, can make this strategy successful with swing voters by striving for more consensus and for a healing of frayed relations across the country. There is no question that the office of the presidency can — in suitably skilled hands — still offer the potential for national renewal and unity at troubled times.
Yet, many voters will not have forgotten how much Trump has eschewed this agenda with his sometimes wild rhetoric, and by failing to forge a governing agenda that brought the country together since the controversies of the 2016 campaign. The partisan animosity and wider political challenges coming out of that election have not been tackled by Trump and, while he has shown himself to be an effective (if unorthodox) campaigner, all too often he has demonstrated poor judgement and governing competence as the first president since Dwight Eisenhower never before to have held elected office.
In the remaining months of his term, the presidency continues to provide Trump with at least two broad powers: that of setting governing themes for his administration, including renewal and unity; and that of creating interactive coalitions among the public and within Congress in support of the administration’s agenda. Trump’s effectiveness here will continue to depend upon his political skill in exploiting two sources of power: the popular prestige of the presidential office and his leadership reputation among members of Congress and senior federal bureaucrats.
Strong and effective presidents exploit each source of power interactively. As for example Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did in the 1930s/40s and 1980s respectively.
To try to turn around his presidency before election day, Trump will have to show with much greater purpose that he knows how to do both, defying expectations that are held about him by many voters. Part of the key to success here is the urgent need for a clear, compelling governing agenda for a second term that brings the country together, rather than further apart.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics