Why the campaign is frozen: Trump, Biden and industrial-strength Teflon

Let’s indulge in a thought experiment:

If I had told you three months ago that a terrifying virus would invade America, infecting a million and a half people, killing 90,000 and throwing 35 million folks out of work, what would you have thought about President Trump’s reelection chances?

My first thought would have been that he’d be on the ropes, that any president would find it nearly impossible to win a second term in the face of such a devastating calamity.

My second thought would have been that Trump might be soaring in popularity if he was seen as leading the country in crisis--just as war can boost a commander-in-chief’s fortunes as people rally behind the leader.

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And yet neither of those things has happened.

I’ve heard people who can’t stand Trump say in utter exasperation: What would it take? Meaning that if a pandemic can’t toppled a previously impeached president, then maybe nothing can dislodge him. If proudly announcing that he’s taking hydroxychloroquine against the advice of most medical experts doesn’t turn public opinion, he must be invulnerable.

On the other hand, I’ve heard Trump supporters say the media and political establishment refuses to give him any credit for the progress that’s been made on testing and medical equipment, that he’s being unfairly blamed for every death even though any administration would have been overwhelmed by Covid-19.

So where does that leave the election, especially since Joe Biden has largely been sidelined by the pandemic and is quietly embracing a low-profile strategy?

Well, it’s kinda frozen.

Matthew Continetti looks at polls in the Washington Free Beacon and says “not only has there been no big shift. There has been no shift.”

In the RealClearPolitics average, Biden led Trump by 7 points on March 11, and he led by 5 points on May 14.

Trump is getting pounded by the most sustained negative media coverage than any president since Nixon, and it doesn’t move the needle.

During the same period, Biden got no bump when Bernie Sanders and other top Democrats endorsed him, and his lead didn’t evaporate when Tara Reade made her sexual assault allegations.

My view is that politics in this country have become almost completely tribal. Most people are so locked into their viewpoints, pro-Trump or anti-Trump, that they rationalize and excuse behavior that they would find intolerable in a figure on the other side.

If Barack Obama had spent two months downplaying the virus, boasted of taking a controversial drug, fired a bunch of inspectors general and pressured Ukraine for political dirt, conservatives would be demanding his ouster every hour.

And liberals constantly overlook Biden’s various gaffes and flaws because they so badly want Trump gone--even to the point that some feminist writers say they don’t care if the former VP committed sexual assault as long as he can evict Trump from the White House.

Stories, scandals, controversies and investigations come and go, and the president’s support remains in a very narrow range. When the virus crisis began, Trump’s polling average was 44 percent. On May 14, it was 46 percent.

“Americans feel more strongly about Trump, either for or against, than about any other candidate since polling began,” Continetti writes. “His supporters give his approval ratings a floor, and his detractors give his ratings a ceiling. There is not a lot of room in between.

“For years, Trump voters have said that they are willing to overlook his faults because they believe the stakes in his victory and success are so high. Heard from less often have been Trump’s opponents, who are so desperate to see him gone that they dismiss the failings and vulnerabilities of whoever happens to be challenging him at the moment.”

As for Biden, one reason that he defied the media’s obituaries by winning the nomination--and this continues today--is that he is a well-defined public personality after 45 years in Washington and two terms as vice president. It is harder to change the image of someone that people think they know, with all their strengths and weaknesses, through attack ads and social media insults.

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Joe Biden is basically confined to his Delaware basement while Trump and his well-funded campaign eviscerate him, and his numbers haven’t moved much either. (Of course, national polls are a blurry snapshot because the Electoral College, as in 2016, will decide the election.)

So are both candidates so thoroughly coated in Teflon that they can’t be seriously scratched?

I liked this Continetti line: “Watching the numbers hardly budge over these past months, I have sometimes wondered what could move them. War? Spiritual revival? Space aliens?”

Barring an interplanetary invasion, the candidates are competing for a strikingly small number of persuadable voters. The election is likely to be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the reopening; his team wants it to be a verdict on Biden’s fitness for office.

And the press, which was wrong about Trump four years ago and wrong about Biden three months ago, is left covering a virtual race that just doesn’t seem to budge.