The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the presidential campaign in the US. In a normal election year July, the party out of power crowns its nominee, and the party in power does so a few weeks later. The conventions give the candidates a chance to introduce themselves and their choice for vice president. They hope to get a bounce from the convention that will help build momentum for the fall campaign.
Because of the pandemic this year, the Democrats moved their convention to August and much of it will be held by distance, forcing former Vice President Joe Biden to give his acceptance speech without cheering crowds. President Donald Trump wants a traditional in-person convention and forced the Republicans to move the convention from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida may force another change because many delegates no longer want to travel to the convention.
The pandemic has also brought campaigning in person to a near halt. From mid-March to end of May, Joe Biden was holed up in his Delaware home, making media appearances from a studio in his basement. He has since made a few appearances but continues to rely heavily on his basement studio. As a sitting president, Donald Trump has been able to dominate the news, but his first post-pandemic political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, did not attract a large crowd. The pandemic is making it difficult to hold the large rallies that helped energize his 2016 campaign.
Since October 2018, nearly every head-to-head poll between Trump and Biden has shown Biden in the lead. The lead widened toward the end of last year as impeachment dominated the news. It narrowed earlier this year as Joe Biden struggled in the early Democratic primaries and Trump’s popularity bumped up in the early days of the pandemic. Since April, as Trump’s popularity has fallen, Biden lead has grown again as the pandemic has dragged on. The Electoral College map has moved in Biden’s favor, and some pundits have begun to speculate about a possible landslide Biden victory in November.
After a rough start in the early primaries, Joe Biden has adapted well to the changing dynamics of the race. He succeeded in getting Bernie Sanders, his main rival for the nomination, to drop out of the race and endorse him. As a result, the Democrats are more united behind the presumptive nominee than they were in 2016 or 2008, the two previous contests without a sitting president as the nominee.
Since the pandemic hit, instead of competing with Trump for attention, Biden has given him space to damage himself with too much talk and tweeting. He has also protected himself from gaffes and mistakes that caused negative media coverage in the primary campaign. Over time, he has developed an image as a steady leader, which has broad appeal in unsettled times.
As of this writing, Biden is the clear favorite, but he faces three challenges. The first is enthusiasm. Democrats are united behind him because they want Trump out, not because Biden inspires passion and enthusiasm. In most cases, the candidate with the most enthusiastic base wins. To stir enthusiasm, Biden needs to pick a running mate that connects with minority and younger voters. His promise in March to pick a woman has turned out to be a good move.
The second challenge is to not let Trump define him. To define Biden as old and lacking the stamina to be president, Trump has given him the nickname “Sleepy Joe.” Recently, Trump has tried to define Biden and the Democrats as beholden to a “left-wing cultural revolution” that poses an existential threat to the country. Conservative politicians in the US have used red-baiting effectively for over 100 years, and Trump knows this.
The third is controlling gaffes in the three planned debates with Trump. Biden’s debate performances in the Democratic primary campaign were weak, and a bad performance would only reinforce the “Sleepy Joe” definition that Trump wants to project. As the oldest presidential candidate in US history, Biden needs to reassure voters that he is up to the job.
To move the needle closer toward a landslide, Biden needs to focus on recovery from the pandemic and on reforms to address the social ills that the pandemic has laid bare. His proposals need to be ambitious yet realistic. This will naturally give Biden an edge because Trump has yet to say (or tweet) what he would do with four more years.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.