Covid Hit, the Economy Shut Down, and Masks became mandatory. It was short term they told us, 30 days, then 60, then the summer, and, well, you get the point. Look, Trump was not popular at the beginning of Covid, but by the end of the summer, with voters over being locked inside for months, the Trump campaign was rolling.
““ Joe Biden, however, is fully capable of losing enough states to lose the election in the Electoral College. If the last three weeks are any indication, he’s well on his way to doing just that. You can feel the change in the press coverage. The tone of the commentary and analysis has gone from up-tempo to downbeat. “Biden’s doing well” has been replaced by “Biden’s in trouble.”
Boston Globe, September 1, 2020
I've written before that had the election been held on September 1st, or really about any time in September, Trump could have won. The campaign had all kinds of momentum, and voters were siding with Trump on his prioritization of economic recovery over Biden's priority of waiting and getting the virus under control. Momentum in politics, just like in sports, can win an election, but the timing has to be right. You can't peak too early and you you have to have it before it's too late. Trump had the momentum, and he was peaking at the right time.
Strike One: A Supreme Court Decision Begins
One week, OK 8 days actually, was all Trump would wait before nominating Amy Coney Barrett. I was asked a lot at the time how I thought a Supreme Court Opening would affect the race. My response was simple, "I'm not sure yet."
Generally speaking, conservatives are much more invested in an appointment like this, and in the past, it has helped to fuel election momentum. This time around I wasn't sure if that would happen, only because President Trump had locked in most of his voters, and it was debatable whether or not swing voters would care about an appointment.
Now, there were arguments on both sides of the nomination immediately, just like there was in 2016 with President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland. At the time, Democrats argued that Garland should get a swift hearing before Obama vacated the White House, while Republicans argued it should be the next President who gets that opportunity. Republicans of course stalled on Obama's appointment in 2016 and Democrats passionately argued against Republicans, demanding Merrick Garland have a confirmation hearing. So, in 2016, Republicans said wait and Democrats said move forward.
While both parties swore in 2016 the argument was not partisan, but rather the right thing to do, the irony in 2020 was each party took the other's argument from 2016 rather than their own. This time, Republicans wanted a swift confirmation hearing while Democrats argued, like Republicans did in 2016, that the hearings should wait. Both parties looked hypocritical in the process and once again, it became a bitter partisan fight. Was this enough to sway an election? At the time, probably not, but, it was a definite opportunity for President Trump.
The timing, of course, was bad, and a flip from the 2016 argument. Frankly, it would be near impossible to argue it wasn't hypocritical. It was certainly an issue that woke up a lot of sleeping Democrat voters who hadn't been paying attention previously. At the time, I was much more curious about who Trump might nominate as opposed to when. Again, it's really hard to believe that voters suddenly changed their minds on Trump because he moved a nomination forward and didn't wait. Yet, it was definitely easy to see why the decision of whom Trump chose was an opportunity....for both parties. This to me, is where things got interesting.
A lot of potential names were immediately floated, but there were two that stuck out. THe first was Barrett who was from the Midwest, a major battleground election focus, and had an impressive, but controversial background. In 2107, when she was first confirmed to the United States Court of Appeals, she was confirmed by the skin of her teeth, the Senate Judiciary Committee only confirmed her thanks to party lines (11-9), and only three Democrats voted to confirm her in the end. In the end she earned that nomination on a 55-43 vote despite strong pushback from Democrats. The simple point here was that she had already been a controversial nomination once, and had barely been confirmed the last time. It was bound to set up a similar sequence this time around. Now, as I mentioned, Barret checked three major boxed for his campaign, she was a female, from the Midwest, and a strong pro life social conservative. It was clearly a nomination geared at locking in wandering Trump voters as opposed to courting swing voters.
At the time, knowing how controversial the nomination would be, I argued for someone other than Barrett, and so did a lot of others. The most prominent name out there was Barbara Lagoa, a Florida native who was the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. Like Barrett, she was a strong female conservative, and from an important swing state. There were two clear differences at the time. The first was that Lagoa was he daughter of parents who fled from Cuba following the Revolution and assumption of power by Fidel Castro. In other words, she was a first generation Hispanic American with deep roots in that community with an amazing personal story to tell. Now, I should mention before going on to the second important point, that Lagoa was a recent appointee, in January of 2019, and many pointed to Barrett as being more qualified based on their resumes. The second reason Lagoa made a lot of sense? Unlike Barrett's controversial and close nomination in 2017, Lagoa had breezed through hers, having been confirmed with 80 votes, or specifically, 26 more votes than Barrett received. In other words, she had bi-partisan support in her confirmation where Barrett did not. It would have been incredibly difficult for Democrats to argue that someone they confirmed less than a year ago was suddenly unqualified and a bad choice as a nominee.
To bolster the case for Lagoa, Hispanic radio and television outlets started giving Trump positive news, and Hispanic leaders urged Trump to nominate her. Hispanics were an important target demographic of the campaign, and Trump nominating Lagoa sure would push back on a lot of the racist narratives he had been facing. Heck, Politico even called Lagoa "a trailblazer for women and Latinos." There is little doubt that Lagoa would have been a more popular nominee across the board as opposed to Barrett. She would have made it very difficult for Democrats to attack the nomination of a first generation Cuban immigrant trailblazer.
Of course, Trump chose Barrett, and the confirmation hearings were ugly and partisan. It may have helped in the Midwest, and Trump may have picked the more polished candidate with the better resume. However, in terms of political decisions, it simply wasn't a good one. Trump still lost the Midwest, and he still won Florida. Who knows if it could have helped in other close states. What we do know is Trump gave the other side a lot of ammunition to reinforce their negative narrative. But of course, this wasn't enough to sink a campaign, and as I mentioned, for all we know, could have generally helped in the Midwest. It just wasn't the only misstep in that month long bad stretch of the campaign.
Strike Two: The Worst Debate Maybe Ever
“ The topline is clear: Americans were not impressed with the president’s performance. Whether that will actually lead people to change their votes remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely. Debate watchers were pretty decisive in their verdict of last night’s performances: Only about one-third said Trump’s performance was “somewhat good” or “very good,” and 50 percent said it was “very poor.””
FiveThirtyEight, September 30, 2020
Yes, it was possibly the worst ever. I don't think you can get around it. What should have been a policy debate on important issues to voters became nothing more than a groveling shouting match on live television. It wasn't a good look. But there is more to it than that, which I will never fully understand.
For weeks, the Trump campaign hyped the debate. Their entire narrative was simple, watch Biden implode! This was a constant talking point and a theme leading into the debate, and frankly, the only theme. Why spend weeks lowering the bar for your opponent? I mean, that's basically what the campaign did. Watch Biden Implode...not...Biden won't have a plan, or Biden doesn't know the economy, or well, anything else. So after weeks of that singular strategy of waiting for Biden to implode during their debate, voters wondered, will he implode?
Voters watched...waiting for Biden to implode. But as Trump screamed and shouted, and cut Biden off time after time after time, Biden didn't implode did he? The implosion the campaign needed never came, and in the process, the Trump campaign had set the bar so low for Biden that he climbed it. Biden won that debate without even trying, and he won it without actually beating Trump on policy. He simply showed up, didn't implode, and thanks to the table setting from the Trump campaign, Won.
“ Before the September debate, voters had relatively tepid expectations for how either candidate would do. Trump significantly underperformed those. On a 0-to-100 scale, Trump’s performance in the debate came in 18 points below what voters had expected, a comparison of those surveyed before and since the debate shows. Independents who lean toward the GOP — a key bloc of potential swing voters — reported the most disappointment. Their rating of Trump’s performance came in 24 points below their pre-debate expectations, the poll found. Biden's performance was closer to expectations.
-Los Angeles Times, October 14th
Did you see that last line? "Biden's performance was closer to expectations." Again, all Biden had to do was show up and not implode, and he succeeded, thanks to the Trump campaign. The underlying issue ran deeper however, which is that while Biden did not implode, Trump struggled to keep his cool. The other narrative the Trump campaign had been pushing for weeks was that Biden was too old, his health was bad, and that he was unfit. It's a theme both sides tried to push, which was ironic considering both were over 70. Unfortunately, Trump's poor debate performance not only helped Biden win the debate, it helped most in reinforcing the Biden campaign narrative that Trump was unfit.
“ Trump also lost ground, and Biden gained, on the question of which candidate is more mentally fit for the presidency. The former vice president’s advantage on that question grew from 12 points before the debate to 19 points since then. Since the debate, roughly half the voters polled said they do not believe Trump is mentally fit."
-Los Angeles Times, October 14th
We'll never know how different things could have been had Biden actually imploded. This was strike two after the drawn out ugly, partisan confirmation hearings.
Strike Three: You've got to be Kidding Me, he's got Covid?
It had already been a bad couple weeks, and Trump's numbers were going South after the debate. However, there's a whole lotta campaign left and we got a second debate coming up, so there's still time to rebound, right? Not when the guy who mocked his opponent for wearing masks is the one who ends up with Covid less than a week later. Ouch.
Look, Trump had been gaining largely due to voters having cabin fever and tired of being locked inside. Moms, families with children, and people who lost their jobs could only take it for so long before they got restless. Trump's message had been, and still was, don't be afraid, be strong. He had pointed to the economy time and time again and a need for states to begin reopening and for restrictions to ease. And people bought into it, a lot of them actually. So what does that voter whose been with Trump up until now, and willing to overlook a lot of things because Trump is the one who is going to put their kids back in school and get them back to work think now? They were scared.
“General shock and concern over the commander in chief’s positive diagnosis were the most dominant voter emotions, according to the new poll: 2 in 5 said the word “surprised” described them “very” or “somewhat” well, while a similar share said the same of the word “worried."
-Morning Consult, October 2nd, 2020
A similar poll from Rueters showed that 65% of Americans thought Trump wouldn't have gotten sick if he had taken the virus more seriously and CNBC Exit Polling during voting showed that 52% of voters believed controlling the pandemic, even if it hurts the economy, was more important than rebuilding the economy. The point is that coming out of the summer, voters were over Covid, but heading into election day, they were scared of Covid again. If Trump had not caught the virus, he could have continued with his theme of reopening the economy and Biden's lack of a plan. Instead, he played right into Biden's messaging, and the majority of Americans believed the virus needed to be contained more than the economy needed to reopen.
Look, there is no denying that was a pretty bad month for Trump. You may not think it was as severe as me, but you have to admit, it wasn't pretty. As a strategist I think it's important to ask why and how Trump lost an election when he had the momentum with only 60 days to go, and unfortunately, the answer is not voter fraud. Trump simply shot himself in the foot and his campaign decisions backfired. Hopefully Republicans learn from and acknowledge Trump's mistakes rather than doubling down on a stolen election.