Swing State Pres

Sunday, October 4, 2020

BTRTN: Three September Surprises...and an October Stunner

Tom with the BTRTN September 2020 Month in Review…and into early October, this once. 

We have just witnessed two weeks that defy imagination.  And yet, none of the epic events – not the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nor the outing of Donald Trump’s taxes, nor Trump’s stunning savagery in his opening debate with Joe Biden, nor Trump’s contraction of COVID-19 – were, at the end of the day, terribly surprising.  One could reasonably argue that they were all inevitable – it is simply the confluence of their occurrence, and all so close to Election Day, that leaves us reeling. 

Not only reeling, but, more than ever, without a clue as to where it all will land.  As predictable as those events might have been, the outcomes that could arise from them range from A to Z.  Most notably: will Trump recover, physically?  Can he recover, politically, from the blows delivered by his taxes, his widely-panned debate performance, and the return of COVID as a campaign issue?  And will Amy Coney Barrett actually ever be confirmed as a lasting Trump legacy on the Supreme Court? 

The “lifetime term” conferred on newly appointed Supreme Court justices seems so noble and inspiring, protecting the justices from the indignity of groveling for reappointment, keeping them above the political fray, their decisions beyond reproach.  But that lifetime term has the unfortunate bi-product of turning their inevitable physical decline into a grisly death watch, especially when the balance of the court seems at stake.  And no decline has been as carefully monitored as that of liberal hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who defied calls to retire throughout Barack Obama’s terms in office to keep her seat in safe liberal hands for decades to come.  She stated her indifference to timing, arguing she had plenty left in the tank, despite many serious bouts with cancer as she moved through her 80’s.  She was clearly willing to take the gamble that a post-Obama retirement or death would entail. 

The state of Ginsburg’s health became of even greater concern when Antonin Scalia died in 2016 and Mitch McConnell refused to consider Barack Obama’s center-left pick, Merritt Garland, in Obama’s last year in office.  When Trump was elected, Scalia was replaced with a more like-minded conservative justice, conservative Neil Gorsuch in 2017.  And those same concerns skyrocketed when Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018 and was replaced with another conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, tipping the court decisively rightward.  As the months slipped by in 2020, there was some relief as liberals sought comfort in McConnell’s apparent precedent with Garland.  Surely any action to fill a vacancy would be deferred until after the election. 

But with every health scare came more angst, and ultimately, and devastatingly, Ginsburg lost her gamble when she died on September 18.  Mitch McConnell moved quickly and successfully to solidify GOP support for a quick confirmation process, to be completed either entirely before Election Day or in the lame duck session before the new Congress convenes.  He was completely unmoved by his own precedent, and almost the entire GOP caucus sided with him on his timetable. 

Trump, for his part, wasted little time – waiting only until Ginsburg was buried – to select arch-conservative Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee.  She comes with an impeccable pedigree, and Trump introduced her at a giddy White House ceremony crammed with GOP dignitaries, and like all Trump events, devoid of proper social distancing and protective masks, the only tools we have in the toolkit to fight the spread of the virus as of now.  Videos of the event looked eerily pre-COVID, like those that have surfaced of the crowded pool in Missouri and the spring break beaches in Florida.  Viewers can only whistle, “What were they thinking?”  More on that event later. 

The next bombshell was the long-awaited breakthrough on Trump’s taxes.  It seems incredible that it took journalists so long to secure copies of his past federal returns, given how many people had access to them, across law firms, auditors, banks and courts.  The odds on those taxes never seeing the light of day seemed small, and, finally, The New York Times broke the story on September 27, just two days before the first debate.  The tax returns told the tale of a very wealthy man paying virtually no taxes over the span of a decade, and in a battle with the IRS over a contested deduction of over $70 million.  

The optics were disastrous, and the Trump camp struggled with a response.  How do you explain a billionaire paying far less taxes than the working class people he claims to champion?  Trump’s de minimus tax payments were not illegal per se (with the potential exception of the contested deduction) and claims of his precarious financial position were doubtless overstated (while Trump might owe $400 million in debt, he also, according to Forbes, has well over $3 billion in real estate assets, some of which could, theoretically, be liquidated to raise cash).  But still, this was a terrible story for the Trump campaign, and one could readily understand why Trump has fought so strenuously to keep his taxes out of the public eye.  

Thus Trump came into the debate with an exceptionally weak hand, with his mismanagement of COVID-19 as Exhibit A, the devastated economy Exhibit B, and his taxes as Exhibit C.  These had all contributed to his standing in the polls, trailing Biden by 7 points nationally and by material amounts in crucial swings states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.  Trump could and would take comfort in his SCOTUS story.  But clearly he and his campaign strategists decided that the best approach for the debate was neither to defend his record nor paint a vision of a second term, but rather to simply savage Biden, attempting to overwhelm him with constant interruptions and personal attacks.  The aim was to have Biden crumble under the assault and thus be exposed as a doddering old fool, unequipped to deal with the pressures of the position.  Biden seemed to know this was coming – perhaps not in quite the actual magnitude of the attack, but he was ready.  Not so Chris Wallace of Fox News, the moderator, who later admitted that he had been unprepared for the onslaught and struggled mightily (and failed) to manage Trump and maintain some semblance of order.  

And thus American voters and the entire world were treated to a spectacle never before seen on a presidential debate stage, not even from Trump himself.  At the outset, Trump ran roughshod over the debate rules, incessantly and loudly interrupted Biden and ignored moderator Wallace, in a breathtakingly rude display.  Biden did well under the onslaught.  He managed to keep both his cool and his train of thought, alternately laughing off Trump’s excesses and ripping off memorable lines, including one with which all Democrats could gratefully identify: “Will you just shut up, man?”  Biden was far from perfect, but he met the challenge.  

Apart from the form, the substance of Trump’s rants was ghastly as well.  Most notably, Trump refused to denounce white supremacists despite many openings by Wallace to do so.  He created a catchphrase of his own, when invited to denounce the Proud Boys, the well-known group that was behind the Charlottesville marches:  “Stand back and stand by.”  This was interpreted by many, including the Proud Boys themselves, as a call to wait for Trump’s signal to wreak havoc on the left.  Trump also refused to commit to accepting the results of the election, continuing his assault on the norms of our democracy. 

The pundits afterward had a field day, summed up by Dana Bash’s simple conclusion that what we had just witnessed was a “shit show.”  GOP regulars were appalled in their off the record commentary, and every scientific poll had Biden as the clear winner, including CBS at 48/41 and Morning Consult at 50/37. 

But each of those epic events – the death of Ginsburg, the release of the taxes, and the disastrous debate – paled before the events of October 2, when it was announced that Trump, as well as the First Lady, had tested positive for COVID-19 (this followed the revelation that senior Trump advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive).  This absolutely stunning news pierced the veil of invincibility that Trump had worn, and reinforced his own cavalier attitude toward the virus, the downplaying of it that he had admitted to Bob Woodward in February was a conscious strategy.  Every aspect of his management of the virus hinged on the assumption that the actual threat of the virus was minimal, that the paramount concern was the health of the economy, and things like business closures, virtual education and masks were impediments to the spinning of the wheels of commerce to which he had hitched his presidency and reelection.  

Trump’s White House is notable for its culture of laxness, long on testing but woefully devoid of masks and distancing in the cramped West Wing.  This mirrored GOP mores on Capitol Hill; like White House staffers, GOP congressional staffers grumbled that masks were viewed as a sign of weakness, and virtual work was frowned upon.  In other words, Trump, his staff and his party paid lip service to the virus at best.  So was it really a surprise that Trump himself would catch the virus at some point, and so many of his defiant followers would fall with him? 

Many people with COVID are asymptomatic, and others suffer only mild symptoms.  But Trump, an obese male septuagenarian, is a walking compendium of risk factors, and in the first 24 hours after the news broke, it became clearer and clearer that Trump’s illness was more severe.  Trump was first described as having “mild symptoms,” but that gave way to news that he was being given experimental drugs (Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody “cocktail,” which is still in clinical trials), and then, finally, to the image of Trump being medivacked from the White House to Walter Reed Hospital.  By then it was clear that we were in the midst of the worst presidential health crisis in 39 years, since Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C. in 1981. 

While Trump’s worsening condition was coming to light (sketchily, as initially there were no formal medical press briefings), word came that others in Trump/GOP circles were testing positive as well, including three GOP Senators (Lee of Utah, Tillis of North Carolina and Johnson of Wisconsin), two more staffers (Kellyanne Conway and Campaign Manager Bill Stepien), debate prep specialist Chris Christie, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and Notre Dame President Reverend John Jenkins.  Eight people who now have COVID had attended the previously mentioned Amy Coney Barrett announcement event in the Rose Garden at the White House, which rapidly became known as a super-spreader event, the virus meeting little resistance from the hubris of the GOP with its lax anti-virus habits.  (Ironically, Barrett herself was infected with COVID in August and had recovered.) 

Who knows where all this is headed.  Of course Trump’s health outcome could go in either direction, and the same is true of all of these infected individuals.  We can only wait to see how this plays out.  But there are an incredible number of political ramifications that have and will arise as a result of these cases -- and other cases that will doubtless come to light in the next week.  Among them: 

·        Trump and the campaign.   The illness jeopardizes Trump’s ability to campaign; he had recently decided to resume in-person rallies, and those are now being cancelled.  It is possible Trump will not be able to do any more, depending on the speed of his recovery – and even if he does, will anyone attend?  Remember Tulsa… 

·        How Biden responds.  First and foremost, will Biden become infected?  He stood a mere 13 feet from Trump during the debate, when Trump was presumably contagious, with Trump constantly facing him and spewing venom in his direction.  Biden has tested negative, but that is no guarantee that he will not come down with COVID in the coming days.  

With respect to Trump’s virus, Biden has uttered all the right words, continued his campaigning, but pulled negative Trump ads off the air.  Will that continue, given that the Trump team has left their negative ads on the air?  How will Biden make the case against Trump while the president convalesces?  Don’t forget, Biden has plenty of money to spend.  He outraised Trump in August with a record-shattering haul of $365 million to Trump’s $210 million, and that was before the absolute deluge of funds that came in right after Ginsburg died.  How will he spend it, and on what messages? 

·        The debates.  Will Trump be well enough to debate again?  Will Biden choose to face him?  Might they switch to a virtual format?  Will a weakened Trump adopt a milder approach?  Or seek to prove his “vitality” with another brawl?  And should the VP debate, scheduled for this Wednesday, go ahead as scheduled?  Mike Pence is a “contact,” given his proximity to many of those now infected (Mike Lee sat directly behind him at the Barrett event).  And, of course, Pence is next in line to the presidency, and should take extra precautions anyway.

·        Campaign themes.  Of course, every day the news cycle is focused on COVID-19 is a bad day for Trump.  COVID mismanagement is clearly his worst issue.  Trump had been handed the gift of the SCOTUS process to switch the October dialogue to the courts, a far better Trump issue.  Now that will not happen; it will be all COVID, all the time.  This is much like James Comey’s machinations near Election Day in 2016, which turned the final news cycles of the campaign back to Hillary Clinton’s emails.  

Trump has insisted that the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus, but there is no data to support that claim.  While COVID cases and deaths were both down about 20% in September versus August, there were still over one million new cases in the US and over 24,000 deaths in the month, as the country passed the surreal marks of seven million cases and 200,000 deaths.  With an average of well over 30,000 cases and 800 deaths per day, plus the looming threat of a second surge in the fall, it was hardly time to be declaring victory.  Plus, Trump was again explicitly disagreeing with his own advisers in terms of the readiness of a potential vaccine for widespread public use (Trump: end of 2020; CDC head Redfield: mid-2021).  

Thus, COVID remains a third rail issue for Trump, one on which the country has rendered a negative verdict on his management of the pandemic.  The fact that he himself, and so many of his lackeys, are now stricken with it – with no Democrats similarly affected as yet – reinforces Trump and GOP failures. 

·        The Barrett confirmation process.  With all of these GOP Senators falling – two of them on the Senate Judiciary Committee – the confirmation process could be delayed and even derailed.  The Senate COVID positives could result in delays in the Judiciary Committee hearings on the nominee, pushing the final Senate confirmation vote ever closer to Election Day.  The committee met on Thursday behind closed doors, and we now know several of its members were contagious, and virtually none of the other members wore masks.  If the GOP cannot confirm Barrett before Election Day, they run the risk of defections in the lame duck session if Biden wins and the Democrats flip the Senate.  One could see some of the more moderate GOP Senate members (Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Alexander, Sasse, etc.) declining to participate in a charade, recognizing the absurdity of confirming Barrett in the belief that they were acting in accordance with the will of the American people – right after a Democratic sweep. 

The White House continues to shoot itself in the foot with respect to communications about Trump’s condition, with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows issuing an update that directly contradicted that of Trump’s doctors at Walter Reed.  Those doctors finally held a press conference in the afternoon, a shaky one in which they obfuscated about whether Trump had been administered supplemental oxygen at any time (he was) and confused the timeline of his illness.  Trust in the Trump White House, never high, has hardly been helped by these snafus, and the clear sense is that all formal communications emanating from it are driven by Trump’s wishes rather than the truth. 

There are now 30 days to go until Election Day.  It is hard to imagine, but at the point in 2016, the Access Hollywood video had not as yet leaked, nor had the WikiLeaks dump, nor either of the Comey letters.  We’ve already had enough shocks for many Octobers, and it is only October 4th.

 

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING 

Same old same old with Trump’s approval rating, once again at 43% for the month of September.  This marks the 33rd consecutive month that Trump’s approval rating fell in the 40-45% range.  This level does not bode well for his re-election prospects.  Only George W. Bush won re-election with less than a 50% approval rating – a figure Trump has yet to attain – and Bush’s was 48% (also a level Trump has yet to attain).  And with 30 days to go -- and millions of Americans voting early every day -- it is a long way from 43% to 48%. 

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

 

2017

2018

2019

2020

 

1H

2H

1H

2H

1H

2H

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

Appr.

44

39

42

43

42

43

43

44

45

45

44

41

41

43

43

Disap.

50

56

54

53

54

54

54

54

53

53

53

57

57

56

55

Net

-6

-17

-12

-10

-12

-11

-10

-11

-8

-8

-9

-15

-15

-13

-12

 

TRUMP’S HANDLING OF THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS 

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus remains in the low 40’s for September, just a tick mark higher than his low point in August. 

TRUMP HANDLING OF CORONAVIRUS

 

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

Approve

48

46

43

41

39

40

42

Disapprove

47

51

54

56

58

57

56

Net

1

-5

-11

-15

-19

-17

-14

 

TRUMP VERSUS BIDEN HEAD-TO-HEAD 

Joe Biden continues to hold a commanding lead over Trump in national head-to-head polls, now at +7 points. 

TRUMP VS BIDEN HEAD-TO-HEAD NATIONAL POLLS

 

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

Biden

50

50

50

48

48

50

49

49

50

Trump

45

46

43

42

43

41

41

42

43

Diff

5

4

7

6

5

8

8

7

7


GENERIC BALLOT 

The Democrats continued to hold a healthy lead in the generic ballot, which is a very strong predictor of November performance.  If the Democrats still hold a 6-point lead come Election Day, they stand to pick up roughly 10-15 more seats to add to their overwhelming majority in the House. 

GENERIC BALLOT - LAST 12 MONTHS

 

2019

2020

Oct

Nov

Dec

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Dem

47

47

48

45

47

49

46

48

49

48

49

49

GOP

39

39

41

41

40

40

39

40

40

40

41

43

Net

7

8

7

4

7

9

7

8

9

8

8

6

 

TRUMPOMETER 

The Trumpometer remained in historically disastrous territory in September at -328.  The -328 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are an astounding 328% lower than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below).  

There was modest improvement in several key drivers from August, when the index was at -343.  Consumer confidence improved and the unemployment rate dropped.  Gas prices were flat and the Dow Jones actually declined. 

The “Trumpometer” was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The Trumpometer now stands at -328, which of course means things are far worse than that, even worse than the -53 recorded at the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, in the midst of the Great Recession. 

Presidents >>>

Clinton

Bush

Obama

Trump

Measures

End Clinton  1/20/2001

End Bush 1/20/2009

End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)

Trump 8/31/2020

Trump 9/30/2020

% Chg. Vs. 1/20/2017 Inaug.          (+ = Better)

Trumpometer >>>

25

-53

0

-343

-328

-328%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Unemployment Rate

4.2

7.8

4.7

10.2

7.9

-68%

  Consumer Confidence

129

38

114

85

102

-10%

  Price of Gas

1.27

1.84

2.44

2.27

2.26

-7%

  Dow Jones

10,588

8,281

19,732

28,430

27,782

41%

  GDP

4.5

-6.2

2.1

-31.7

-31.4

-1595%

 

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Notes on methodology: 

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending. 

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency. 

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 

 

 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this quick response and thoughtful addition to the maelstrom of news cycling now.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Looking forward to reading your take on the Senate races: if Senators are using the calendar
    * to confirm Judge Barrett and NOT campaign in person (or even as much virtually), and
    * NOT to advance any COVID-19/economy relief,
    any guess how that would impact the races?

    ReplyDelete

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