With just a day to go before former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald J Trump square off in the first presidential debate of 2020, Biden commands the advantage. Polls show the former VP continuing to maintain his lead over the incumbent. 

Trump’s Advantage as the Incumbent Slipped in 2020

Heading into 2020, Trump Republicans were fairly certain that their golden child would have another 4 years locked away. Although his opponents are very outspoken and his scandals beyond count, the president enjoyed a steady approval rating for a long time. It would slip a little here or there after a new scandal cropped up, but remained fairly steady. However, then 2020 hit. When the Coronavirus pandemic struck, Trump was instantly out of his depth.

A mediocre businessman whose tax records show that he has struggled to keep his interests afloat, Trump was bowled over by the requirements of leading through a global pandemic. To be fair, it’s not something anyone really prepares for on the campaign trail. Nonetheless, Voters began losing confidence in Trump and by the time Joe Biden was announced as his opponent for the election, Trump was facing a crisis of popularity. 

Polls Have Shifted but Biden has Remained Ahead

Once Biden claimed the advantage, he has maintained it. Although conservative outlets are desperate to spin the fact that Trump is nearly neck-and-neck with Biden in key battleground states, that’s exactly the strategy that lost Hillary Clinton the election in 2016. They are trying to get voters focusing on the exciting races and ignoring the electoral college votes. It’s a tactic to raise lagging voter confidence as they support their candidate moving into the 35-day-run up to election day, but it failed in 2016. The battleground states do matter and the popular vote will push electoral votes, but the advantage Biden continues to maintain should have Trump pollsters sounding all of the alarm bells. 

Pretending the problem is overblown can make it bigger than it would have been if they had just acknowledged his lagging support to begin with. Clinton’s people did the same thing in 2016, and voters were confident based on an inaccurate image being painted that there wasn’t a huge problem heading into the election. 

Currently, FiveThirtyEight reports an average of polls made from likely voters shows Biden with the support of 50.1% of registered voters. Trump only holds 43.2%. If he wants to pull the upset he did in 2016, Trump’s margins need to be closer. The president’s election in 16 reminded that it’s possible to lose the popular vote and still win the electoral colleges, but the 7-point-spread between Biden and Trump is larger than the president’s people are likely to be comfortable with.

Trump’s Corollaries are Getting Anxious

Donald Trump debate

Big-name politicians around Trump who have ridden on the coattails of success are starting to be rattled by the president’s lack of success in polls. They assumed that they could embrace Trump’s radical policies and coast in his wake through the next election. However, the fact that this has failed to materialize is evident with Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham disappointed constituents, who had previously embraced his more moderate voting record, by jumping onto the Trump Train with both feet. Graham clearly expected that he could make up for shortfalls with supporters lost through his advocacy of Trump’s rhetoric by benefitting from the enthusiasm of Trump supporters who would have, should have, embraced him. Graham, however, seems to be in dire straits.

Just last week, the senator appeared on Fox and Friends to make a weird, out-of-character, tearful and impassioned appeal to voters to help fund his desperately struggling campaign. Graham’s opponent has broken all state records for fundraising in her attempt to topple the senator from his seat on November 3rd and Graham says it’s because his opponents, “hate his guts.” Graham, a former critic of the president who weirdly got in line behind him over the past 4 years, is still expected to win. But it’s a reminder to Trump peers that hitching yourself to the wagon is coming with a cost this year as voter confidence in the president has been shaken. 

First Debate Could Change Everything

Trump expects the first presidential debate to be his first chance in months to take back the advantage. Going into the debate, Trump has ramped up his anti-Biden rhetoric, oddly and without evidence demanding that Biden submit to a drug test. The president and his supporters continue to paint Biden as, “sleepy,” and slipping cognitively. That gamble could pay off if Biden fails to perform well in tomorrow night’s debate. Such a validation of the president’s claims against Biden could shift the balance of support in his favor, and Trump is clearly banking all he has on this.

This could also backfire. If Biden puts in a good showing, Trump’s accusations of Biden will be seen as sour grapes. While there are few undecided voters left to convince, there are enough people unenthusiastic about voting for Trump that they might, at the least, choose to abstain from voting. Biden can afford to lose that 1% or 2% to the same lack of enthusiasm, but Trump has less wiggle room.

While Trump’s attack-dog tactics haven’t netted him much loss of support in the past, Trump is touting his advantage over Biden is the fact that Biden as deep in a state of dementia and cognitive decline. As this doesn’t appear to be the reality, Biden’s appearance tomorrow could turn that entire argument into a dead end for the president. 

Biden is by No Means a Shoe-in

Joe Biden speaking passionately

Despite overwhelmingly favorable polls even as they shift from day to day, Biden’s election is not a certainty. Trump has a lot of avenues to pursue to gain support, and a recent Atlantic article suggested that he might lose the popular and electoral votes and still refuse to concede. So Democrats are far from assured a win. 

Trump has been good in the past at seizing opportunities that no one else thought possible, and there are still several presidential debates to get through. While debates don’t usually change minds, they can encourage unenthusiastic voters who might have considered staying home to get up and actually make the effort to vote. Or they can convince them that it’s not worth the effort.  

Whatever Trump’s critics have to say about him, he continues to show up and be a threat to Biden in the polls. If Biden and his team accept the polls as a certainty of victory, Trump’s team is almost certain to snatch it from their jaws. While the lead-up to the 2020 Election is stressful for most Americans right now, it can’t be denied that the contest is fascinating. Time will tell who the voters show up for on Election Day and over the weeks for mail-in voting, but right now one thing is certain; Biden leads, but Trump is nipping at his heels. 

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