Originally published in The Sunday Independent
On Friday, the world woke up to the revelation that the Trumps had tested positive for Covid-19. Then came the helicopter trip to a military hospital. A sitting US president contracting a disease he’d spent months downplaying, a month out from an election, is a staggering turn of events. No precedent exists. We’ve no idea what’s happening, or what’s going to happen next.
Will Donald Trump recover and use that to prove his vitality? Will Joe Biden benefit from his adherence to mask-wearing guidelines? Will the remaining debates take place over Zoom?
One of the few things we know is that, retrospectively, the first debate became one of Trump’s last chances to publicly shift the campaign trajectory. And he blew it. In the debate’s aftermath, CNN held a focus group with undecided voters. Maria, a female Ohio voter, summed up her feelings: “I was agreeing with a lot of what President Trump was saying; but it’s not what he says, it’s how he says it… I’m finding myself being swayed against him, not toward him, even though I believe in what he’s saying.”
That quote epitomises why Trump lost the debate. And why he’s losing the election. He failed, and is failing, to reach voters who approve of his policies, but not his approach. Maria isn’t an outlier. Research from America’s Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) tells us that 46pc of Republican voters “wish Trump’s behaviour were more consistent with past presidents”.
Trump went for an all-out aggressive, combative approach – interrupting and slandering from the off. He was the dominant figure on the stage, with Biden often looking every one of his 77 years. But dominance and effectiveness are not the same thing. Trump set out to accomplish a task he’d already achieved. He riled up his unshakeable base at the cost of alienating voters he needs.
Trump is performing significantly worse than he did in 2016 among two key voter groups: voters over 65 and women. Last election, Trump won over-65 voters by 13 points. Biden is currently leading them by four. Four years ago, he lost women by 12 points. That deficit has increased to 21 points.
Significantly, his position with women without degrees has also declined. Take Minnesota: Last election he won this group by 22 points; now he’s trailing by 19.
The abrasive nature of Trump’s performance will have done nothing to win back either cohort. And he had the potential to do so. Trump’s greatest strength is his base’s loyalty, but he’s failing to press this advantage.
In 2016 he declared: “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” – and he was probably correct. Nothing during his norm-shattering presidency has impacted his support. He is Teflon-like to his tribe, with the most stable approval ratings since the 1940s. On its face, this is an advantage – when a candidate knows their supporters are psychologically incapable of deserting them, it should allow them widen their coalition.
Trump could say anything and still keep his base’s devotion, meaning he’s free to reach out to voters like Maria. But he, evidently, can’t bring himself to say: “I understand some people don’t like my style – but what’s more important, my style or the Supreme Court majority?”
Instead, he chose to insult Joe Biden’s son and refused to denounce white supremacy. It’s politically nonsensical as well as disgustingly immoral.
Meanwhile, Biden did the opposite. He used the innate advantage Trump ignores against him. The left of Biden’s party don’t love his moderate positions, but that’s superseded by their dislike of Trump. Biden knows they’ll remain motivated to vote Trump out, regardless of what platform Joe defends.
It’s a knowledge that allowed him to confidently state “I am the Democratic Party” in response to the claim that the Democratic platform calls for socialised medicine. And to reject calls to ‘Defund the Police’.
Trump’s views are abhorrent to the ‘Sanders left’, meaning there’s no risk of the voter complacency that hampered Clinton in 2016; allowing Biden to pivot, risk-free, to a strategy focused on the centre. That was the difference in this debate and in this election so far.
The got his strategy wrong on every level. He failed to force any news-cycle friendly slips from Biden – providing no grist for the Republican ad mill. He failed to pin the former VP to any unpopular left-wing policies. And he did nothing to change the minds of floating voters.
Trump needed this debate to matter. It didn’t. Polls revealed 53pc of likely voters put Biden as the winner, compared with Trump’s 29pc. Only 2pc of viewers changed their minds.
And yet he might still scrape home. Trump’s Covid positive status might yet change the dial. Yesterday, pictures were beamed around nation of the president’s formidable medical team lined up outside the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre. It made for dramatic news bulletins, but whether the latest twist in this extraordinary saga will make any difference to the undecideds on November 3 is another thing. We are into unknowable territory now.
Lorcan Nyhan is head of training at the Communications Clinic