Into the last stretch US pres­i­dent has a moun­tain to climb in fi­nal weeks

The Guardian - - World - David Smith

With more than 18m votes al­ready cast, Don­ald Trump is strug­gling to find a co­her­ent clos­ing ar­gu­ment for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion as opin­ion polls put him in dan­ger of a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat by his Demo­cratic ri­val, Joe Bi­den.

Long queues have formed across the US for early in-per­son vot­ing, a sign that there could be a record turnout in spite, or per­haps be­cause, of a coro­n­avirus pan­demic that has killed more than 217,000 Amer­i­cans and put mil­lions out of work. But there could still be sur­prises be­fore elec­tion day on 3 Novem­ber and fears per­sist that, in the event of a Bi­den vic­tory, Trump could plunge the world’s old­est con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy into cri­sis by dis­put­ing the re­sult in court, spread­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries on­line and mo­bil­is­ing mil­i­tant sup­port­ers.

Bi­den leads by 17 per­cent­age points in an Opinium Re­search/ Guardian poll, 16 points in a CNN poll and 11 points in an NBC News/ Wall Street Jour­nal poll. The last in­cum­bent pres­i­dent to suf­fer such deficits was the last one to lose: Ge­orge HW Bush, beaten by Bill Clin­ton in 1992.

Bi­den’s con­sis­tent ad­van­tage in­cludes the cru­cial swing states that will de­cide the all-im­por­tant elec­toral col­lege and raises the prospect that Democrats could re­gain the White House and Se­nate and ex­pand their ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, end­ing years of grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton.

“Trump’s go­ing to get killed,” said Joe Walsh, a for­mer con­gress­man who un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged the pres­i­dent in this year’s Repub­li­can pri­mary. “I think we’ll know elec­tion night that he lost … It’s go­ing to be a blood­bath for Repub­li­cans.”

Trump ap­pears to be haem­or­rhag­ing sup­port among two cru­cial vot­ing blocs. One is older peo­ple, who were cru­cial to his vic­tory over Hil­lary Clin­ton in states

such as Florida in 2016. Walsh said: “[Trump] beat Hil­lary when it came to older vot­ers but Bi­den will win them by a healthy amount be­cause they think Trump is a fuck­ing lu­natic who screwed up this pan­demic big time.”

The other group de­sert­ing Trump is sub­ur­ban women, ap­par­ently re­ject­ing his vul­gar in­sults and shows of machismo on the virus. With a hint of des­per­a­tion at a rally in Penn­syl­va­nia this week, the pres­i­dent begged: “Sub­ur­ban women, will you please like me? Please, please.”

Trump had ap­peared con­fi­dent of re-elec­tion at the start of the year based on his eco­nomic record, but Covid-19, and his per­sis­tent down­play­ing of it, wreaked havoc. The pres­i­dent him­self was ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal with the virus ear­lier this month but has since re­cov­ered and is back on the cam­paign trail.

But his ral­lies do not soak up me­dia cov­er­age like they used to, with some com­men­ta­tors sug­gest­ing that the car­ni­val barker act, so novel in 2016, has be­come rou­tine and even bor­ing. His need to hold them in states such as Iowa and Ge­or­gia, tra­di­tion­ally safe Repub­li­can ter­ri­tory, sug­gest he is on the de­fen­sive. Bi­den, who was Barack Obama’s vice-pres­i­dent from 2009 to 2017, has main­tained a re­mark­ably steady poll lead over Trump. His low-key cam­paign, with far smaller events, ap­pears to be work­ing.

Trump, 74, has at­tempted to por­tray the 77-year-old Bi­den as men­tally de­clin­ing and a pup­pet of the rad­i­cal left. This week he tweeted a doc­tored im­age of Bi­den in a wheel­chair at a nurs­ing home and claimed: “Sim­ply put, it’s a choice be­tween a so­cial­ist night­mare and the Amer­i­can dream.”

But the “Sleepy Joe” brand­ing seems to have been a poor se­quel to “Crooked Hil­lary” and Bi­den has been more dif­fi­cult to de­monise than the widely un­pop­u­lar Clin­ton. Trump has also tried hard to change the sub­ject from the pan­demic to “cul­ture wars” or law and or­der, but the virus is an im­pla­ca­ble foe.

His cam­paign has been just as chaotic as in 2016. Its man­ager, Brad Parscale, was de­moted and then quit af­ter be­ing ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal fol­low­ing re­ports he had threat­ened to harm him­self at his Florida home. Trump, who hit pop­ulist notes about im­mi­gra­tion and trade in 2016, has veered off-script con­stantly this year. In Oc­to­ber alone he has pushed a con­spir­acy the­ory ques­tion­ing Osama bin Laden’s death, crit­i­cised Amer­ica’s lead­ing in­fec­tious disease ex­pert, de­scribed Bi­den’s run­ning mate, Ka­mala Har­ris, as a “mon­ster” and, in du­elling town hall events with Bi­den on Thurs­day night, failed to dis­avow the QAnon con­spir­acy the­ory.

Monika McDer­mott, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Ford­ham Univer­sity in New York, said: “It’s been ter­ri­ble, es­pe­cially lately, be­cause Trump him­self just has no dis­ci­pline and no con­trol. He’s alien­at­ing peo­ple left and right and doesn’t seem like he’s ac­tively try­ing to win this.”

Bi­den, she added, ben­e­fited from rid­ing out part of the pan­demic by do­ing in­ter­views and fundrais­ers from his base­ment at home in Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware. “Since he’s been out and about, he’s been rel­a­tively gaffe-free and solid and steady and I think that’s what peo­ple are look­ing for right now, as op­posed to the crazi­ness of what’s go­ing on with Trump these days.”

More than 18 mil­lion peo­ple have cast bal­lots so far, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the US Elec­tions Pro­ject. Democrats led Repub­li­cans in mail-in bal­lots in Florida by more than 400,000 as of Wed­nes­day morn­ing. But there has been lit­tle sign of com­pla­cency on the Demo­cratic side, with mem­o­ries still raw from 2016, when many state polls were off the mark.

Jen O’Mal­ley Dil­lon, Bi­den’s cam­paign man­ager, warned Twit­ter fol­low­ers: “Mil­lions of vot­ers have al­ready cast their bal­lots. But there is still a long way to go in this cam­paign, and we think this race is far closer than folks on this web­site think.”

As he runs out of time, Trump could be­come even more reck­less in his ef­forts to al­ter the tra­jec­tory of the race. Elec­tion watch­dogs re­main on alert for signs of voter sup­pres­sion or in­tim­i­da­tion.

Democrats have ar­gued that the best an­ti­dote is to win by such a mas­sive mar­gin that the re­sult is be­yond dis­pute. Such an out­come, once seen as highly im­prob­a­ble, is now at least pos­si­ble.

Larry Ja­cobs, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of Pol­i­tics and Gov­er­nance at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, said: “Trump has run the worst pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory. Bi­den’s got a lead that’s be­yond the mar­gin of er­ror and I con­sider those num­bers real … So to me, this elec­tion is prac­ti­cally over.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ADAM DELGIUDICE/ SHUT­TER­STOCK

Mi­ami po­lice form bar­ri­ers to keep Bi­den and Trump sup­port­ers apart be­fore a Trump town hall event this week

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS

▲ Don­ald Trump sup­port­ers at an event in Mi­ami, Florida, on Thurs­day. Trump re­turned to cam­paign­ing af­ter his bout of Covid-19

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