Into the last stretch US president has a mountain to climb in final weeks
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.”
Miami police form barriers to keep Biden and Trump supporters apart before a Trump town hall event this week
▲ Donald Trump supporters at an event in Miami, Florida, on Thursday. Trump returned to campaigning after his bout of Covid-19