Biden’s path is achievable but not easy


Bernie Sanderssuspension of his presidential campaign this week made Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and gave the former vice president a significant advantage.

He’ll need it.

Despite his continued, deep unpopularity with a large swath of the American public, President Trump still has a decent shot at reelection. Trump, who won an improbable upset four years ago, remains a slight underdog this time around, but no more than that.

With the primary race now more or less officially out of the way and election day a bit under seven months in the future, let’s take a look at where the race stands.

Trump’s one big thing

For a brief moment — not much more than two weeks — Trump enjoyed a small uptick in his standing with the public as he began to grapple with the enormity of the coronavirus crisis.

That bump — much smaller than the “rally round” effect that previous presidents have enjoyed in major crises — has already begun to fade, according to several polls this week. Trump’s job approval ratings have begun to level off and, in some polls, drop back down to where they were before the crisis hit, belying the fears by some Democrats that the attention given to his daily briefings would give him a further boost.


The drop underscores a key fact about Trump’s presidency: Although he generates chaos around him, Trump’s levels of support and opposition are models of consistency. Since the start of modern polling some three generations ago, no president has ever demonstrated such stability in his job approval ratings.

In Trump’s case, it’s stability at a low level, of course. Unlike every other president in modern times, Trump has never received the approval of more than about 45% of the public. But he’s also seldom gotten less than about 40% (his low point came during the effort to repeal Obamacare in the summer of his first year).

For more than three years, as one controversy after another swirled around Trump, a lot of Democrats have wondered whether the latest one would be the key to unlock the president’s hold on his supporters. By now, it’s long past time to drop that idea.

Some of Trump’s voters may love who he is, but the vast majority support him out of a more powerful emotion — fear of the other side, “negative partisanship,” as political scientists call it.

Trump’s no genius as a political strategist — his ploys fall flat as often as they succeed — but he did have one great insight: As the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, a large share of white Americans, especially those outside of the major cities and without college degrees, have grown ever more fearful of change.

That fear — aimed at immigrants, black people, liberals, city dwellers — provided a powerful organizing principle for politics, which Trump seized early on. From the earliest moments of his campaign, with his claims about Mexican rapists, he has stoked it and played to it.

Now, with the economy in shambles and a pandemic in the land, he’s once again positioning himself as the strong-willed, tough-minded defender of his part of America against an external threat. That type of fear-based campaign sufficed to win a narrow victory in 2016; four years later, it remains a tough challenge for Democrats to overcome.


Biden’s challenge

In national, head-to-head matchups, Biden has maintained a fairly steady 5- or 6-point lead over Trump for most of the past five months.

That’s a significant advantage: Trump has already made a major effort to darken the public’s view of Biden, enough that he willingly courted impeachment by trying to enlist the government of Ukraine in his anti-Biden effort. So far, he has little to show for his efforts.

Both Biden and Trump head into the general election campaign with more favorable images than either Hillary Clinton or Trump had four years ago at this point. That matters a lot because last time Trump won in large part by taking a big majority of the voters who disliked both candidates. This time around, that’s a much smaller group, at least so far.

And although Biden’s lead over Trump isn’t as large now as it was a year ago, the fact that it’s held steady for months suggests limits on Trump’s ability to make the public think worse of the former vice president.

But as Al Gore and Clinton can both testify, winning the national popular vote doesn’t make a person president; the electoral college goes by state.

In the ideal world, we’d have a constant raft of high quality polls of battleground states; that’s not going to happen.

In the absence of that, national polls do provide useful information. Trump lost the popular vote by just slightly more than 2 percentage points in 2016, but because Democrats have such a large concentration of voters in states like California and New York, that 2-point national win translated into extremely narrow losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

It’s fair to assume that Biden will need to beat Trump by more than 2 points nationwide to be confident of winning those states this time around. It’s also fair to say that if Trump loses by 5 or 6 points, he won’t win. The key states are slightly more favorable to a Republican than the country as a whole, but not 6 points more favorable.

More than 2, less than 6 — that spread in the polls is pretty much the ground on which the campaign will be fought from now until election day.

Trump will seek to heighten tensions between his rural, white, Christian base and the rest of the country in the hope of ginning up the largest possible turnout of his supporters.

Some of Sanders’ backers had urged the Democrats to follow a mirror-image strategy of moving sharply to the left to try to maximize turnout of their younger, nonwhite, urban base.

Biden has made clear that’s not the route he plans to take. As Janet Hook wrote, he will try to unify the party. In practice, that means doing two things. On the one side, he’ll try to reassure blue-collar, white voters in states like Pennsylvania, where he was born and has long campaigned, that he remains the same, nonthreatening “middle-class Joe” they long supported. On the other, he’ll seek to promise enough change to motivate the young, black and Latino voters he’ll also need to win.

As a first step in that direction, Biden on Thursday announced two new policies that modified ideas pushed by Sanders. As Hook wrote, one would make Medicare available to people at age 60, rather than the current 65. The other would forgive some college debt.

The balancing act for Biden is a tricky one, but the potential payoff is large. If he pulls it off, Biden not only will win, he’ll have a broader, potentially more stable, majority than Trump has achieved.

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Who gets to vote?

The next few weeks seem likely to feature a major fight over how to carry out the November election in the midst of a pandemic. Democrats want to expand mail-in balloting; Trump and his GOP allies are fine with mail-in ballots for groups that tend to support them — senior citizens in Florida, for example — but have dug in against wider use.

As Evan Halper and Hook wrote, both parties have already started accusing each other of trying to steal the election. Democrats are incensed over Republican success in stonewalling their efforts to postpone the vote in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

The Wisconsin vote, as Mark Barabak and Tyrone Beason wrote, featured hours-long waits at polling places in Milwaukee, fueling Democratic charges that the GOP has tried to suppress voting by black Americans. The election also saw record numbers of mail-in ballots, in both Democratic and Republican strongholds.

At stake in the election, overshadowing the Democratic primary, was a state Supreme Court seat hotly contested between a Trump-endorsed conservative and a liberal with Democratic backing.

Under a court order, Wisconsin officials have to count mail-in ballots that arrive by Monday, so long as they were post-marked by April 7, the day of the election. Voters who applied for a mail-in ballot but didn’t get it by election day — a circumstance that hit thousands of people — had to brave voting in person.

We’ll find out Monday who won.

In the meantime, the fight over expanding mail-in ballots nationwide will play out in Congress where Republicans want more money to bail out small businesses, and Democrats are holding out for additional priorities of their own, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

The issue for Democrats is how much of a priority to place on mail ballots as opposed to other needs, including money for state and local governments, expanded aid for hospitals and broader availability of SNAP and other types of food aid.

The Wild West of medical supplies

The federal government has refused to try to control the distribution of masks, gowns and other protective equipment, leaving states to do battle for coronavirus gear in a market driven by chaos and fear, Anna Phillips, Del Wilber and Jenny Zou wrote. Prices have soared to levels as much as 10 times above those of pre-crisis levels, and there’s almost no transparency into who’s getting rich as a result.

With tens of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake, the scramble to get enough gear to protect doctors, nurses and first responders from the virus seems ripe for eventual scandal.

In Sacramento, as John Myers wrote, lawmakers are demanding more information from Gov. Gavin Newsom about his plan to spend almost $1 billion to buy N95 respirators and surgical masks for the state.

As Noam Levey and Del Wilber wrote, the federal government’s stockpile of protective equipment is exhausted, and many questions remain about how those supplies were distributed and to what extent politics drove the decisions.

While all that unfolds, new data suggest that social-distancing efforts may be working, and the U.S. coronavirus death toll may not be as high as feared, Noah Bierman wrote.

Lasting impact

The coronavirus crisis is already changing medical care in the U.S., Levey wrote. Thousands of primary-care medical practices are facing financial ruin because patients are avoiding doctors’ offices.

That’s accelerated a move by insurance companies and Medicare away from traditional fee-for-service payments, in which doctors get paid separately for each visit and procedure. Instead, they’re experimenting with paying doctors a fixed amount for each patient in their practice, an approach that a lot of healthcare experts have advocated for years.

“I’m a little amazed,” Shawn Martin, vice president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Levey. “The sense of urgency and financial instability brought on by the crisis has accelerated ideas that we have been noodling on for years.”

On another front, the crisis has given the administration an opening to enforce tough anti-immigration policies of the sort long advocated by Trump’s aide, Stephen Miller.

As Molly O’Toole wrote, the Border Patrol, citing coronavirus, has expelled 10,000 migrants in less than three weeks, effectively short-circuiting laws designed to give people a right to claim asylum or other forms of protection in the U.S.

Supreme Court on hold

The Supreme Court has delayed arguments in cases the justices were scheduled to hear this month. Trump may benefit, David Savage wrote. One major case on the docket involves efforts to force him to turn over his tax returns to investigators. The longer it’s delayed, the better Trump’s chances of avoiding any disclosure until after the November election.

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