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Is the Trump Comeback Too Little Too Late?

After fighting the fatigue to stay up and watch the last debate between the President and Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, I had to consider whether I could be bothered to do it all again.

But within minutes of Trump and the former Vice President taking to the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, I knew I made the right decision. 

Part of this was because my previous prediction was wrong. 

I assumed that the President, as he did in the first debate, would attack Biden personally and warned that this abrasive debating style would be ‘curtains’ for Trump’s re-election bid.

To my surprise, the President’s demeanour completely changed. He was, by his standards, polite both to his opponent and the moderator. 

However, more importantly, and potentially thanks to the mute button, Biden’s uninterrupted two minutes forced him to address, or in his case neglect, the intricate details on key policy areas that voters are dying to know.

And as such I need to revise my assessment:

Trump is down, but he is not out.

While some commentators will instinctively point to the snap polls that showed the Democratic nominee emphatically winning the debate, I have to say that from where I was sitting, and interestingly from through the lens of swing voters, this was far from the truth.

The President was described by swing voters in Frank Luntz’ focus group for the LA Times as “controlled”, “poised” , and “surprisingly Presidential”. 

In the previous debate, undecided voters told Luntz that Trump was “arrogant”, “unhinged” and even “unpresidential”. 

The fourteen participants, from Georgia to Arizona and Michigan to Florida, went so far as to say that the President’s performance last night could be enough for them to put aside their concerns over his personal pitfalls to cast their vote in favour of Trump.

As early as June I had written that if the President were going to enter a series of personal skirmishes, he would inevitably lose the race to 270. Still, I added that if he could tone down his aggressive style of communication he had a chance.

Republican pollster, Neil Newhouse, was broadly in agreement. 

After last month’s debate, Newhouse said that “the Trump campaign needs to turn this from a referendum on his presidency to a choice”.

The President successfully did that yesterday.

This was reflected not only in the view that swing voters had of Trump but of their position on Biden.

Rather than being the “confident”, “coherent”, “leader” that was seen after the Cleveland debate, this focus group accused Barack Obama’s former running mate of being “vague” and “non-specific” on policy. 

Undecided voters expressed concerns over a lack of “substance” from the former Vice President. For rust belt participants, Biden’s flip-flopping on fracking was extremely concerning. More broadly, voters felt uneasy about the prospect of a Biden administration reversing Trump’s tax cuts.

Therefore, it will come as no surprise that all participants regard the President as the man to lead the nation to economic recovery.

In his performance style, the “Sleepy Joe” line of attack from the White House premier appeared to finally cut through. Swing voters, without much objection, described Biden as “cognitively impaired“ and even as “grandfatherly”. 

By making the debate one of policy and not personality, the President was able to position himself with some swing voters, including Tasha in Ohio, as the “lesser of two evils”. 

Tasha was not alone in her assessment. After the debate, all but one participant stated that they would vote, or be more inclined to re-elect Donald Trump in less than two weeks’ time.

Former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, also hosted a focus group with voters from Georgia and Ohio for Conservative Home, and similar conclusions were made.

One respondent described their willingness to put aside their moral concerns about Trump with a medical metaphor. They said: “He’s like a great surgeon who is very arrogant and has a terrible bedside manner, but he’s the one you want to do your surgery.”

And this position, aided by a restrained style of debating, may be the antidote to Trump’s previously infected Presidential campaign.

Nevertheless, political commentators, from either side of the Atlantic, will be quick to add that election debates make little difference to election races.

In the UK, this is hard to disagree with. Cleggmania was short-lived in 2010, and the only commanding victory in our nation’s recent history of televised election debates was when Nigel Farage, then UKIP leader, rinsed the deputy Prime Minister, in a two-part discussion on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2014.

In fact, one may argue that the only debate disaster a politician has had was Theresa May in 2017, and that was for failing to turn up.

Across the pond, it is slightly different. In 1960, fifty years before the UK held its inaugural election debate, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the first televised US presidential debate.

For those watching on television, Kennedy was the clear victor, Nixon was seen as sweaty and less comfortable on screen. But for those listening on the radio, Nixon edged it. 

Again in 1992, George H W Bush, the most recent President to fail in their re-election, was caught out for repeatedly looking at his watch when he was debating his successor Bill Clinton and the independent Ross Perot. 

This is not to say that debates are the be-all and end-all. They aren’t. 

Biden has had successes in campaigning remotely, which in these Covid-times is no bad thing. It has been reported by CBS News that the former Vice President has spent $177 million in October alone – almost three times as much as the President.

Nevertheless, the importance of a strong campaign on the ground will galvanise morale amongst Republican ranks. The President’s busy schedule, flying from swing state to swing state, will undoubtedly bode well for Trump – especially given that Biden’s plan is far less compact.

The surge in voters registering as Republicans, notably in Florida, will also spur on the Trump campaign even if this does not automatically translate into extra votes in the ballot box.

The main concern for the President, however, is early and mail-in voting. The Washington Post has estimated that almost fifty million Americans have already cast their vote – 23 million of whom are voting in one of the thirteen key battleground states.

If some of those voters were previously inclined to vote for Trump then maybe the President is missing out on some additional key voters in swing states that could cost him his re-election.

Nonetheless, with eight days to go until Americans go to the polls, I would just warn political pundits to hold fire before declaring Biden the victor.

The worst time to write off the underdog is when he’s on the ropes and with the help of shy Trump voters and undecided electors the President may yet again shock us all on November 3.

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