“Rude”, “disrespectful”, and “dishonest”.
Three words that swing-state voters told pollsters were their main hesitations about voting for Donald Trump on November 3.
For those of you who decided to stay up until 02:00 (GMT) on September 30 to watch the first presidential debate in Ohio, it is almost impossible to see how the President would have challenged the concerns of swing voters.
Trump went on to heckle and hector his opponent, interrupting Biden on 73 occasions in the 90-minute encounter.
Reputable Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, hosted a quintessentially Covid-age focus group via Zoom and asked undecided voters, from Florida to Nevada, what they thought of Trump and Biden’s Cleveland clash.
While they had sympathy for Joe Biden, many were extremely critical of Trump’s “arrogant” and “unhinged” conduct against the former Vice President and to a lesser extent against Fox’s Chris Wallace, the debate mediator.
Nonetheless, Luke from Wisconsin offered the Trump Team an implicit form of advice. He described Trump as “annoying” and “unpresidential” but suggested that he was willing to put aside the President’s personal pitfalls to vote for a man that would protect the economy and stand up for law and order.
One-hundred-and-fifty days before polling day, I argued precisely that. It is undeniable that the President’s personality and his Covid-errors damaged his integrity but this had not yet ended Trump’s electoral chances. Instead, Trump could have utilised a resurgent economy and his position as the man of law and order to win back swing voters.
Now, with less than a month to go until the American electorate decides who holds the keys to the White House, I am beginning to think that Trump is running out of time to change tact and prevent a Biden victory, or potentially a Democratic landslide.
What this means is that Trump must make November 3 a vote on policy and not a referendum on his personality flaws.
Polls are again moving away from the President despite his positive Covid-result and stint in the Walter Reed military hospital. The latest polls from CNBC, JTN, SUSA, and CNN put Biden ahead by between eight and sixteen percentage points. Leads that would appear almost impossible to overturn with such little time left.
However, people will be quick to point me to the events of 2016, when Trump shocked the world and won the race to the White House.
Four years ago, Trump’s popularity, or lack of it, did not damage his bid for the presidency as much as it could in 2020.
Exit polls suggested that Trump was the most unpopular candidate ever to run for the presidency. However, while Trump was perceived as less qualified, less trustworthy, and having less temperament than Hillary Clinton, he was the beneficiary of a country crying for change.
The same exit poll stated that 82 per cent of Americans thought that Trump was the candidate to bring this change to the United States. This enabled voters to put aside some of their concerns over his personal pitfalls and set Trump up for the most surprising election result in American history.
But a lot has changed in four years. Trump, as the incumbent, now has the pressure of a personal record. This record has been tainted by his response to the outbreak of coronavirus, and, of course, his challenging, unpopular and possibly unpresidential temperament.
Furthermore, while voters do have concerns over his “age”, “cognitive function” and “policies”, Joe Biden is irrefutably regarded as more popular than both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, therefore posing an additional threat to the Trump campaign.
Nevertheless, it would appear to me that many of Trump’s policies remain more popular with the American people than his or his party’s approval ratings suggest. And even his record can help. His position on NAFTA and pre-pandemic economic standing are just two policy areas that could play favourably with voters.
But the President will need to completely alter his demeanour for the next two debates in Miami and Nashville later this month to really connect with the American people and stand a chance of re-election.
By interrupting Biden, Trump managed to give the 78-year-old career politician a ‘get out of jail free card’. Biden was able to squirm his way through some dodgy moments, including the section of the debate on public health insurance, which is surprising as healthcare is usually an easy issue for Democrats.
Rather than having to give detailed answers to questions that evidently challenged the former Vice President, the raucous fragmented debate ensured that no clear answers were given.
Therefore, if the Trump campaign can tone down the personal attacks and focus on discussing policies then the Republicans could benefit from contesting an election of ideas and not a doomed popularity contest.
More importantly, dissecting policies piece-by-piece could inadvertently force Biden into the spotlight, creating more opportunities for the former Vice President to slip up, and potentially even highlight the weaknesses in his own capabilities.
But if Trump, as I expect he will, walks onto the stage in Miami and continues to hit below the belt, attacking Biden and his family, then, and make no mistake about it, it is curtains for Trump’s re-election bid.