Everything is a little off about this election, even its traditional fall kickoff. It isn’t only because coronavirus wiped out gigantic Labor Day celebrations for candidates to attend.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, fell on the latest possible date, Sept. 7, while Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, will be on the second-earliest possible date, Nov. 3. So even the campaign’s final stretch will be truncated. Still, it’s a good time to take stock of the race.
Trump partisans don’t believe it, but national polls show former Vice President Joe Biden continues to be ahead. The race has tightened, though, especially in battleground states. Anxious Democrats are wondering if this could be the sixth contest in history and second in a row in which the Electoral College winner loses the national popular vote.
Shifting concerns about Covid-19 may turn the race even more in Mr. Trump’s direction. A Sept. 7 NBC/SurveyMonkey poll found that 52% say the pandemic is more of a health crisis, down from 56% in a July 7 survey, while 47% said it’s more of an economic crisis, up from 43% in July.
If this trend continues, the election will be less about Mr. Trump’s handling of Covid-19 and more about who will be better at restarting the economy. Team Trump would like that, as four August polls found the president retains the advantage on who would do a better job on the economy, by an average of 49% to 43%.
Then there’s Mr. Biden’s reliance on appeals to national unity. A new ad says: “This is our chance to put the darkness of the past four years behind us, to end the anger, the insults, division, violence and start fresh.” Such calls resonate on a deep level with many Americans, especially when the country is as divided as it is now.
Yet appeals to unify have been most effective when tied to a clear direction. For example, Ronald Reagan won by urging Americans to unite behind an economic program to restore prosperity and a policy of “peace through strength.”
Mr. Biden’s unity appeal is a pledge to restore normality to the presidency. That may be sufficient; witness Democratic suburban yard signs proclaiming “I’m So Gonna Vote.” Then again, the Trump campaign’s emphasis on law and order has raised questions about whether Mr. Biden is weak on this essential issue and, more broadly, too weak to resist the pull of his party’s left wing.
Also, the debates start Sept. 29 in Cleveland. These are part of the campaign, not the campaign itself. Elections aren’t truly settled by memorable debate moments, like Michael Dukakis’s cold-blooded answer in 1988 to a question about whether he’d favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and killed, or Gerald Ford’s proclamation in a 1976 debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” These moments merely accelerated each candidate’s slide as missteps chewed up valuable days.
There will be other important points between now and early November. Senate Republicans are readying another Covid relief package. While White House chief of staff Mark Meadows marshaled Republicans to keep working on more aid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has refused to negotiate and made outrageously expensive demands. This gave Mr. Trump a line of attack, perhaps like President Harry Truman had with the “do nothing” Republican Congress in 1948. But if Senate Republicans fail to marshal 51 votes for a reasonable bill, they’ll spring Mrs. Pelosi from the trap she created for herself.
Then there’s the end of the government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30. With no budget in place, a shutdown is possible. Will everyone realize it’s in their interest to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government? Or will Mrs. Pelosi convince herself that Mr. Trump will be blamed, even if she makes impossible demands?
There will also be a surprise, perhaps several. There Mr. Biden has a tactical advantage. No, not his jaw-dropping $364 million August fundraising haul. Team Biden is more disciplined, although sometimes stubbornly so, as in its long silence as cities burned and looters rampaged.
Mr. Trump’s campaign manager recently said whichever candidate wins more of the remaining days wins the contest. On Monday Mr. Trump gave an impromptu 45-minute briefing on a gazillion subjects, yet he delivered a focused environmental speech Tuesday in Florida. If the president isn’t focused like Tuesday, the occupant of the Oval Office is set to change.