Former Vice President Joe Biden has had a luxury for the past several weeks — he’s been able to sit back and watch his opponent hurt himself.
The latest news, analysis and insights from our bureau chiefs in Sacramento and D.C.
President Trump’s White House briefings have turned into a daily advertisement for the Democratic ticket, capped by Trump’s extraordinary session last week in which he appeared to suggest injecting bleach as a coronavirus cure.
That has set White House communications aides scrambling to find some less self-destructive outlet for the frustrated president — they plan to send him on the road next week for a speech in Arizona — and appears to have steepened Trump’s slide in polls.
In the past week, polls by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign have shown him losing to Biden in a raft of swing states. A GOP poll of Georgia voters that became public Friday showed the two effectively tied in that state, which is at the far reaches of the Democrats’ wished-for list.
But as Biden’s campaign aides know from experience, six months is a very long time in politics in which a lot can change. While Trump is suffering losses now, Biden continues to have some significant weaknesses to shore up.
New poll details Biden’s challenge
The biggest immediate problem Biden faces is to win over voters who favored Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries. He’s taken several steps in that direction — moving to the left on some key issues and winning Sanders’ endorsement — but he hasn’t yet closed the deal.
We got some useful data on the size of Biden’s potential problem from a new California poll conducted by the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, with which The Times has worked on California polling for the past two years.
The poll has extensive data on the economic pain caused by the coronavirus crisis and how it has hit poor and minority communities hardest. It also details Gov. Gavin Newsom’s high approval ratings.
The survey also looked at the presidential race and, not surprisingly, showed Biden winning California easily, 61%-29%, pretty much the same margin as Hillary Clinton’s victory over Trump in the state in 2016.
The key group to look at, however, are the roughly 11% of voters who said they either wouldn’t vote in a Trump-Biden race or would vote for a third party.
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Because the Berkeley IGS poll has a huge sample, 8,800 registered California voters, we can take a closer look at that fairly small group. Doing so shows that among 18-to-25-year-olds, 17% said they would vote for someone other than Biden or Trump, and 5% said they would not vote. That’s significantly higher than the rate among voters overall.
Among voters 26-35, 14% said they would vote for someone else and 3% would not vote.
And among voters who identify themselves as “very liberal” — the furthest left category in the poll — 10% said they would vote for someone else, and 2% would not vote. By contrast, among those who identify as “very conservative,” just 3% said they would vote for someone else, and almost all said they would vote.
UC Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler, the co-director of the Institute for Governmental Studies, notes another indicator: The poll asked about support for “Medicare for all,” and among those who said they strongly favored that plan, which was a centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign, 10% said they would vote for someone else, and 3% said they would not vote in a Biden-Trump contest.
The bottom line, as Schickler said, is that the poll provides evidence that young voters, especially the youngest, continue to be a problem for Biden. The evidence is a bit weaker regarding ideology, but does suggest that the right wing is more united behind Trump than the left is for Biden.
The potential third party vote is important because it was key to Trump’s victory last time. In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson nationwide took 1.1% and 3.3% of the popular vote, respectively.
Stein’s vote totals exceeded Trump’s victory margin in some states, including Michigan, where her vote was more than four times larger than Trump’s margin, and Pennsylvania, where it was just barely bigger.
We can’t know for sure how many of Stein’s votes would have gone to Clinton or how the Libertarian vote might have gone, but since Trump has never shown an ability to get to 50% of the vote, his path to reelection probably requires a significant third-party showing.
The Berkeley IGS numbers suggest the potential is there for a similar third-party vote this time. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the potential will be realized.
Here are three important reasons why it may not:
California has a bigger left-wing bloc than almost any other state. It was among Sanders’ best states in the primaries, and its political center of gravity is considerably to the left of places like Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
Because California is so solidly Democratic, voters who have qualms about Biden can indulge themselves at the polls without worrying that the state’s electoral votes might end up in Trump’s column.
For both of those reasons, the number of Sanders voters flirting with a third party in California almost surely exceeds the share in most other states.
Third caveat: Historically, the third-party vote almost always shrinks during the course of the fall campaign.
We’re likely seeing the peak of third-party vote intention now, assuming that Biden’s campaign continues on its current course of mending fences with the Sanders camp. Meanwhile, however, the California poll numbers suggest why that mission remains urgent.
Biden responds to assault claim
The allegation by Tara Reade that Biden sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s when she briefly worked for his Senate office has put Democratic activists in a difficult spot, as Evan Halper and Janet Hook wrote.
Several news organizations have looked into Reade’s accusation that Biden backed her up against a wall, put his hand under her skirt and penetrated her with his fingers. They haven’t found evidence to prove her charge, but the investigations haven’t refuted it, either. They have turned up several people who say that Reade told them at the time about at least some parts of what she now alleges.
As Biden’s campaign points out, this one allegation against him pales, both in number and in the severity of what he is accused of, when compared with the numerous allegations against Trump, which include rape. Several of the Trump allegations have extensive evidence to back them up, including Trump’s own words in the now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Nonetheless, Democrats set a standard over the past several years of demanding that women who claim a sexual assault be believed even in the absence of corroborating evidence — most notably in the debate surrounding the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. That stance, adopted in an effort to break the silence around sexual assaults, has painted them into at least a rhetorical corner.
Over the past week, as Biden’s opponents on both the left and right pushed Reade’s allegation, some prominent advocates for survivors of sexual assault began to try to get out of that corner by shifting their language. Instead of saying that all women should be believed, they’ve moved to the politically safer demand that all women should have a right to have their accounts heard and seriously examined.
In the meantime, pressure mounted on Biden to respond. As Hook reported, he did so on Friday morning: “They aren’t true. This never happened,” he said, referring to Reade’s claims.
His statement almost certainly won’t put the controversy to rest — that isn’t really a thing anymore. It may, however, give Biden’s supporters something to hang on to as they move into the general election.
They may as well get accustomed to handling such responses. The campaign over the next several months is likely to feature many more personal attacks as Trump seeks to drive up the share of voters with a negative impression of the former vice president.
Shrinking the safety net
U.S. economic statistics this week provided the first clear sign of a recession as the government’s quarterly data on economic activity showed that the gross domestic product shrank 4.8% in first quarter, Don Lee reported.
That’s only the start of the economic slide, since most of the first three months of the year were not affected by the coronavirus crisis. Economists expect the GDP to decline in the second quarter at a much higher rate.
As the economic pain worsens, the Trump administration and some states have continued to try to shrink the nation’s economic safety net. As Noam Levey reported, the administration has adopted plans for reimbursing medical providers which significantly hurt doctors and clinics that treat Medicaid patients.
The payments will be made under a formula that steers most of the money to hospitals and doctors whose patients have commercial insurance. That’s likely to force some clinics that serve primarily low-income patients to close, Levey reported.
And Lee reported on how budget cuts and restrictive policies have hobbled the unemployment insurance system at the exact time tens of millions of Americans are seeking help.
Ramping up the VP selection
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of four prominent supporters Biden tapped to help vet potential running mates, Seema Mehta reported.
Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate, and the campaign is expected to formally vet several, including Biden’s former campaign rivals Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Several other senators and governors will probably be on the list, as well.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Rep. Justin Amash, the conservative anti-Trump congressman from Michigan, announced that he would try for the Libertarian Party nomination for president.
Trump welcomed Amash to the race, suggesting that he would siphon votes away from Biden. But as Michael Finnegan wrote, that’s no sure thing. Amash might not get the Libertarian nod — other candidates are already seeking the party’s nomination. And even if he does, he’s as likely to pull votes from Trump as Biden, many political analysts believe.
Cranking up the anti-China rhetoric
Congress is looking at options to punish China over its failure to inform the world in a timely fashion about the coronavirus outbreak that started there, Lee wrote.
U.S. election years tend to feature a lot of China-bashing. This one could set records. Already, lawmakers in both parties are pushing a bunch of ideas for sanctioning China, including authorizing lawsuits against Beijing and trying to deprive the Chinese of American movies.
The case that won’t go away
Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor for all of three weeks, was at the center of the administration’s first major scandal, one that set a lot of other things into motion. The FBI’s pursuit of Flynn led to Trump’s firing of the bureau’s former director, James B. Comey, which led to the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III to conduct an investigation.
Now, three years after those events, and more than two years after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, he continues to fight for exoneration.
As Chris Megerian notes, Flynn has become a favorite of conservative media commentators, who see him as an innocent victim of investigators’ pursuit of Trump — a case that’s harder to make on behalf of Paul Manafort or Roger Stone, Trump’s two other most prominent convicted associates.