Has Biden peaked?

Just something that’s on my mind since I saw this tweet by The Economist’s data guy:

Biden did reach a 10-point national lead in RCP’s poll average but it was fleeting. There’s been slight movement towards Trump over the last month:

Sleepy Joe led by 10.2 points on June 23. A month later he leads by 8.6 points even though the coronavirus news over that span has been almost uniformly bad. If the presidential race were a perfect reflection of the state of the epidemic we’d expect Biden to still be at or past his peak from June, but it isn’t. Maybe his lead was inflated last month by the freshness of the George Floyd protests and the sense that Trump was making things worse, not better. Now that the protests have receded, the Democrat’s lead has deflated too. Alternately, maybe consternation about the CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle and the escalating situation in Portland has driven some fencesitters back towards craving an assertion of authority strongman-style. I think back to the Fox News poll from a few days ago showing Trump gaining 11 points on Biden among senior citizens in a month. Possibly fear of crime and civil unrest has surpassed the COVID epidemic as seniors’ greatest fear.

But that seems hard to believe considering that we’ve been breaking daily records for confirmed cases lately.

Nate Cohn, the NYT’s data guy, has also been mulling Biden’s margin. In modern American politics presidential candidates simply don’t maintain leads of nine points for very long. Hillary’s lead swelled to numbers like that a few times in 2016 but twists in the news cycle always drove it back down. The one modern candidate who did break from the pack and win easily, Barack Obama in 2008, was himself propelled by a massive twist in the news cycle, the financial crisis in October 2008. Conceivably the Trump/Biden contest is destined to revert to the state of the race circa May, when Biden enjoyed a steady but not especially impressive four- to five-point lead. But it’s hard not to notice that we’re in the midst of the mother of all news-cycle twists right now. “The politics of coronavirus nonetheless seem simple,” Cohn writes. “It has become the dominant issue in American life, and voters have reached an overwhelmingly negative view of how the president has handled it.” How does Trump go about changing that? How does he turn the election from a referendum on him, and more specifically his performance on COVID-19, to a choice between him and Joe Biden’s myriad faults? That’s the only way to imagine a real dent being put into Biden’s lead.

Ross Douthat argues, and I agree, that Trump’s electoral fate is now out of his hands inasmuch as he lacks the ability to change. He’s not going to have an awakening about prioritizing containment of the virus above reopening the economy, as poll after poll shows the public wants. He’s not going to transform from a guy prone to ranting self-pityingly about how unfair his enemies are to him into a disciplined messenger who’s laser-focused on testing, contact tracing, and positivity rates. What he needs is an intervention from fate. Specifically, says Douthat, he needs for the epidemic itself to peak — soon — and begin to fade so that there’s no second wave for him to manage this fall. Douthat thinks that could happen if it turns out that the threshold for herd immunity is lower than scientists assume, as some experts theorize; I think it could happen with a very timely pharmaceutical breakthrough that turns the virus from a killer into more of a nuisance. Either way, someone or something is going to need to bail him out. He can’t get out of the coronavirus mess through his own political efforts at this point. He doesn’t have it in him.

The other way the race could break towards Trump, Douthat claims, is with more unrest in American cities. But that’s not as likely as it sounds:

First, because the way Americans live now means that swing voters in the suburbs are a lot more buffered from urban crime than were white-ethnic swing voters in the 1970s, and the liberal gentrifiers who feel unsafe when crime spikes in Chicago or Washington D.C. are extremely unlikely to vote for any Republican, let alone for Trump.

Second, because Trump’s own overreactions, in Lafayette Park especially, have locked in an image of him as an instigator in his own right, an arsonist in the White House whose presence there can only make matters that much worse. Maybe there is a threshold of violence where this image changes and his instigation starts to look like necessary toughness. But it’s also possible that Trump’s incapacities now extend to an inability to ever look like the law-and-order candidate, no matter how many times he tweets the phrase.

Finally, because if Trump gets lucky and gets the first form of help he needs, the earlier-than-expected coronavirus herd immunity, it’s likely that the subsequent normalization will have a calming effect on urban unrest, pulling people off the streets and turning down political temperatures at the moment when literal temperatures begin to fall as well.

The president’s doing his best right now to create a made-for-TV law-and-order pageant in Portland. The fateful question is whether Americans will rally to him over that or whether, per Douthat, they’ll see him as inflaming an already bad situation. Republicans like Ari Fleischer have gently scolded Trump recently for settling on “Sleepy Joe” as his go-to putdown of Biden because many voters would prefer a “sleepy” White House at this point to the endless grinding mess of 2020. The Portland standoff could play into that. In a vacuum, sure, voters want a president who’ll keep the criminals in line. But if they feel that Trump is yet again following his instinct to make things more chaotic instead of more orderly by sending camouflaged feds into the city, it may backfire. And if it does then maybe Biden actually hasn’t hit his peak yet.

Here’s a hard shot from the sleepy one speaking earlier today that we’ll hear a lot until November, the idea that Trump has “quit” on the country by his disengagement on the pandemic. Today’s revival of the daily coronavirus briefing is designed to disprove that. There’s one note of hope for POTUS in the latest numbers, by the way: Despite Biden’s big lead, he’s actually underperforming Hillary Clinton among both blacks and Latinos. Not by gigantic amounts or anything, but for all the hype about Trump’s rock-solid support among white voters and Biden’s strength among minorities, the truth this year per Harry Enten is that Trump’s overperforming with minorities by Republican standards and Biden’s overperforming with white voters by Democratic standards. If Trump can get some of those wayward white suburbanites back on his side, his higher margins among blacks and Latinos give him a fighting chance.

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