"It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better," President Trump said this past week – as he returned to the White House press briefing room to give his first coronavirus news conference since April.
And putting aside his long-time reluctance to wear a mask or urge Americans to mask up to prevent the spread of the virus, the president stressed “whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.” He later acknowledged, “I’m getting used to the mask.”
The president’s change of course comes as new COVID-19 cases soar and many states reverse or pause moves to lift coronavirus restrictions. And it comes with just three-and-a-half months to go until Election Day, with public opinion polling that indicates Trump’s increasingly falling behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Sunday marks exactly 100 days until the election. With the clock ticking for the incumbent to shake up his political fortunes, the past two weeks have witnessed the president making other dramatic U-turns. First was Trump’s ouster of Brad Parscale as his reelection campaign manager.
Then, the president abruptly scrapped the large celebratory aspects of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville as the coronavirus surged in Florida. The move was shocking, as Trump moved the convention to Jacksonville from Charlotte just a month ago after North Carolina’s Democratic governor wouldn’t guarantee a full-fledged convention with an arena packed full of party officials and activists.
'This is will be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the very end.'
But while the Trump campaign has long scoffed at polls that failed to predict his victory four years ago, the consistency of their message in recent weeks appears to have had an impact. An average of the latest national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics shows the president trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee by nearly 9 points.
More importantly – the latest surveys in the key battleground states also put Biden ahead. Real Clear Politics averages indicate the president down 7 points in Florida, 6.7 points in Pennsylvania, 8.2 points in Michigan and 6.4 points in Wisconsin. Trump narrowly won all four states in 2016, flipping them from blue to red as he won the White House. Polling also suggests Biden with the slight edge in Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, three other important swing states this cycle. And surveys indicate that once reliably red states such as Texas and Georgia are all knotted up between Trump and the former vice president.
Regardless, the president’s new campaign manager publicly remains very optimistic. And Democrats, laden with the searing memory of 2016's upset, are cautious about overconfidence no matter what the polls show.
“This is will be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the very end,” Bill Stepien predicted on Friday as he held his first briefing in his new role with political reporters.
Stepien said there are “multiple pathways to 270 for the president,” referring to the number of electoral votes needed to win the White House. And he stressed that Texas will remain red, saying, “I would invite the Biden campaign to play in Texas. They should play hard. They should go after Texas really, really, heavily, spend a lot of money in the Houston and Dallas media markets.”
Stepien also pointed to opportunities to expand upon the 2016 map in states narrowly won by Hillary Clinton, such as Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine and Nevada.
Asked about Minnesota – where a Fox News poll released on Thursday indicated Biden with a double-digit lead – Stepien said “we are bullish that Minnesota is a state that can come around.”
He also advised to “take national polls with a grain of salt” and added that around the Trump campaign headquarters, “We don’t pay a lot of attention to them.”
It was the same message – though less blunt – that’s been repeatedly delivered by the president. Making the case that the surveys under-sample Republican voters, Stepien argued that “national polls keep getting it wrong” and “miscalculate the electorate.”
Asked about the Trump campaign’s full-court press against public opinion polling, Biden campaign pollster John Anzalone told Fox News, “If you are litigating polls in public, you’ve got a problem.”
Stepien harks back to the 2016 election – where an average of the final public opinion polls in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with the edge heading into Election Day. Trump became the first Republican to carry those states in a quarter-century – as he won the White House.
But there are two significant differences between this cycle and the 2016 contest. Trump’s no longer the outsider and disrupter, but rather the incumbent sitting in the White House. And polling indicates Biden is more popular than Clinton ever was four years ago.
“At some point, the Trump campaign is going to wake up and realize it’s not 2016 and that voters are judging Donald Trump on his performance or lack of performance for the last three-and-a-half years – but really for the last four months – that’s really where the rubber hits the road here,” Anzalone said.
Presidential elections where an incumbent is running for a second term in the White House are often a referendum on that president – and that’s the case right now in the 2020 showdown between Trump and Biden. The top issues are currently the coronavirus and an economy flattened by the pandemic – and the president’s performance and record on both issues.
Anzalone said Trump’s “being judged by how he’s mishandled three big crises – a health crisis, a police brutality protest crisis, and now an economic crisis as well.”
But the president and the Trump campaign are moving to turn the spotlight back onto Biden. They've countered charges of racism by highlighting the former vice president's own history of controversial racial remarks. They've hammered the argument that the once-centrist Democrat has allowed his message to be hijacked by far-left forces in the party, while suggesting he would do little to deal with rioters clashing with police in cities like Portland, Ore.
“Joe Biden is largely undefined for most Americans. A lot of Americans know of Joe Biden. Far fewer know much about Joe Biden. Our job here every day is to change that and define him for who he is today,” Stepien emphasized.
The president has repeatedly touted his law-and-order approach to the national protests in cities across the country over police brutality toward minorities and system racism – and Trump’s campaign has tried to tag Biden as a “puppet” of the radical left.
"I think it was radical left people that are totally controlling him, like a puppet,” the president charged Thursday in an interview on Fox News’ “Hannity.”
In ads flooding the airwaves and on digital in key battleground states, Trump’s team is trying to label the former vice president as a supporter of the movement to defund the police. Biden has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t support such a move, though has supported redirecting some funding. The campaign’s push appears to be a move to try and restore Trump’s fortunes with suburban voters he captured in 2016 and who later fled the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections.
But the Biden campaign argues the attacks aren’t working.
“Our numbers went up, they didn’t go down. [Trump’s] numbers went down, they didn’t go up,” Anzalone said.
And he argued that people already “have a really good read on who Joe Biden is.”
Another key metric is fundraising.
The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) edged the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) in fundraising the past two months. Biden and the DNC have also taken a big bite out of the once vast cash-on-hand advantage enjoyed by Trump and the RNC, though the latter still has a huge war chest.
Stepien pointed to other metrics, touting that “we have many advantages over Joe Biden. We have a better team. We have a better ground game.”
And he highlighted that Trump’s digital and advertising campaigns are “simply second to none. It provides the president such an advantage down the stretch to be able to contact, reach, and touch voters from afar when traveling is a little harder these days.”
The acknowledgment that the coronavirus has dramatically altered campaigning and how both the Trump and Biden teams are able to get their message out is a crucial point. Biden has been repeatedly mocked by Republicans for campaigning from his "basement," though he's started to get out more. Whether it's been a wise strategy remains to be seen.
Longtime Republican strategist and Fox News contributor Karl Rove emphasized on "America’s Newsroom" that “we’ve got to face the fact that we’re not going to have a traditional campaign this fall where candidates are out on bus tours, have four rallies a day in hangers in different parts of states and regions. Without that, we’re not going to have the ability for the press to confront the candidate every day for questions.”
Rove – who was the mastermind behind both of President George W. Bush’s White House wins and remains one of the GOP’s most revered political strategists – acknowledged that the president’s “behind” and that “he’s got a long way to go.”
But Rove, who informally advises the Trump campaign, noted that with 100 days to go, “fortunately he’s got a lot of time to do it.”