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How Trump could win

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President Trump went into this week’s Republican convention trailing Joe Biden by an average of about eight points in national polls; he likely ended the week in roughly the same place.

In this era of deep, hardened partisanship, neither side is likely to get the sort of boost that pollsters used to call a “convention bounce” — maybe a convention blip if they’re lucky.

The race has moved through the summer with the steadiness of an ocean liner: The size of Biden’s lead has remained virtually the same since mid-June, in sharp contrast to the volatility of the 2016 race.

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But no law says that can’t change. A path to a Trump victory clearly exists. With the conventions over, now’s the time to examine what it might look like.

First, change the subject

In interviews, Democratic and Republican strategists and outside analysts all agreed on the starting point: Trump probably can’t win so long as the coronavirus dominates voters’ attention.

That means Trump doesn’t fully control his electoral fate — the prerequisite, declining concern about the virus, depends on events he has a limited ability to shape.

The Gallup poll has asked voters for years to list the “most important problem facing the country today.” In mid-August, 35% said the coronavirus and another 22% said “the government” or “poor leadership.” As John Sides of Vanderbilt University said, those two issues alone provide the basis for an anti-Trump majority.

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During the convention, Republicans took a stab at portraying Trump as the hero, not the goat, of the coronavirus story, but changing minds on that issue isn’t likely.

Trump has been making the same arguments for months about his handling of the pandemic — that his partial ban on travel from China saved “hundreds of thousands” of lives, that his administration ordered “the largest national mobilization since World War II” in response to the disease, that officials are working diligently to speed research into a vaccine.

The public isn’t buying it.

A poll by the Pew Research Center in early August, for example, found that only 37% of Americans gave Trump good or excellent ratings for his handling of the virus, while 63% called his performance fair or poor. Asked how the U.S. response compared to that of other wealthy countries, 62% in the Pew survey said the U.S. had done worse, only 13% said better while 25% said about the same. Similarly, a Monmouth University poll, also taken shortly before the conventions, found that 57% said Trump was doing a bad job on the virus, compared to 40%, who said he was doing well.

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Since Trump has largely failed to persuade the public to see his actions as a success, his best hope lies in getting them to pay more attention to some other issue.

That’s why, at the convention, speakers like Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic advisor, referred to the pandemic in the past tense and why Trump insisted on giving his acceptance speech before a large crowd of people not wearing masks. It’s also why Trump has repeatedly hyped any signs of progress: His first step toward political recovery requires convincing the country that the pandemic is mostly behind us.

Democrats know that, of course, which is why vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris traveled to Washington on Thursday to give a speech a few hours before Trump’s in which she ripped into the administration’s response to COVID-19.

“Instead of rising to meet the most difficult moment of his presidency, Donald Trump froze. He was scared,” she said.

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In the end, though, neither party can truly control how the public sees the pandemic — the virus itself holds the deciding vote. The relentless spread of disease into Republican parts of the country in late spring had a lot to do with Trump’s decline, and the path of the pandemic in September and October could be the biggest single factor in the public’s mood as the election approaches.

On that score, Trump has some reason for optimism. The tide of disease appears to have ebbed in Arizona, Texas and other Sunbelt states that it ravaged this summer, although cases are now on the rise in other areas, including Iowa, Kansas and the Dakotas.

There’s at least a possibility that the fall could look significantly better than the spring, and as Mike Murphy, the long-time Republican strategist, and now fierce Trump critic, said, many voters who have spent months in worried semi-isolation will be desperate to believe in good news.

The next step for Trump would be to get voters to focus attention on an issue on which he believes he has an advantage.

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As I wrote this week, Republicans made clear at their convention that they think crime and urban unrest will drive swing voters their way.

For now, that’s a tall order. In Gallup’s poll, only 4% of Americans listed crime or violence as the country’s most important issue, as Sides noted, putting the issue in fifth place behind the virus, poor leadership, economic problems and racism.

If that’s still true on election day, Trump will almost surely lose. If the number of people citing crime as the top problem rises significantly over the course of the next several weeks, it could be an early sign of a Trump resurgence.

Then there are the presidential debates, scheduled to start Sept. 29. Ordinarily, debates really don’t change many minds, but this year, they could play an outsized role. The same polls that show Biden leading also show many voters with doubts about his age and stamina. Republicans have pushed hard on that, portraying the former vice president as weak and doddering.

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That GOP effort has a strong possibility of backfiring, said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “They risk lowering the bar too far” so that a successful debate for Biden would require little more than showing up and avoiding looking feeble.

Regardless, however, the debates probably offer the last best chance for Trump to persuade wavering voters of the central theme that he’s adopted for his campaign — that Biden is a hapless puppet of his party’s left wing.

Finally, as Democratic strategists are painfully aware, Trump doesn’t have to erase Biden’s entire lead in the polls. Trump’s reelection strategy does not depend on winning a majority — something he didn’t achieve in 2016 and is very unlikely to get this year.

Trump lost the vote to Hillary Clinton by just over 2 percentage points in 2016, but gained an electoral college majority by eking out tiny wins in a few key states. This time around, he could probably lose the nationwide vote by an even larger margin and still win those states if everything fell his way. If the vote gets close, then all the other factors that keep Democrats up at night — problems with mail-in voting, Republican efforts to persuade Black and Latino voters not to show up, long lines at the polls and the like — could come into play.

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So that’s the path: declining worry about the virus, rising concern about crime, a strong debate performance, a Biden stumble. A lot would have to fall Trump’s way.

It’s at least equally likely that events will head in the opposite direction — economic conditions could worsen this fall as government support runs out; Democrats have additional issues, such as Trump’s moves on healthcare, that they could exploit more fully; a resurgence of the virus in late fall can’t be ruled out. In those cases, Biden could end up with an even larger victory than the one toward which he now seems to be on track.

But while the path for Trump may be an unlikely one, it’s certainly possible. By early October, we should know if it’s begun to unfold.

Convention analysis

As you might expect, as we did for the Democratic convention, my colleagues and I tried to go beyond the immediate headlines of who just said what to give some broader analysis of the Republican gathering.

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Eli Stokols examined how the coronavirus has overshadowed Trump’s legacy in office.

Noah Bierman examined one of the biggest chapters of that legacy — Trump’s efforts to change U.S. policy toward North Korea, where things got worse on his watch.

Noam Levey looked at why Trump’s campaign promise to combat opioid addiction fell flat: The reasons prefigured the failures of his approach to the coronavirus.

Trump and Biden agree on one thing, Janet Hook wrote: This election is about the person more than the policy.

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Chis Megerian looked at the contradictions in the GOP’s convention messages.

I wrote about how the Republicans hope to mine urban unrest to get white suburban votes.

Hook looked at which GOP rising stars spoke at the convention and what their speeches tell use about the divisions over the party’s future.

And on the convention’s final night, I wrote about how how Trump stands alone atop a party remade in his image.

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Michael Finnegan examined how the GOP’s claims about the COVID-19 pandemic do not match reality.

Matt Pearce looked at the unusual extent to which the convention became a Trump family show.

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Major speakers

Miss any Republican convention speakers or key moments that you’re curious about? We’ve got you covered. In addition to our daily wrap-ups of the convention, here are the speeches we wrote about:

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On the issues

America First vs. America in the world: As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, on most foreign policy issues, Trump and Biden are a world apart.

As the Republicans stressed law and order, Biden condemned the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., but also urged protesters to stay peaceful, Pearce reported.

Melissa Gomez reported that ethics breaches at the Republican convention warrant Hatch Act inquiries, experts say.

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Why the House GOP stands with Trump

Many Republican members of Congress are willing to complain about Trump in private, but in public, they’ve almost all fallen into line. How come? Jennifer Haberkorn answered that question by looking at the last GOP House member on the Pacific Coast, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, who is the only Latina in the Republican caucus.

Federal Reserve shifts course

Fed officials this week announced plans to keep interest rates low, even if inflation rises. Don Lee looked at who stands to benefit.

Stay in touch

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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