Fortunately for Donald Trump and his supporters, a lot can happen in the final two weeks of a presidential election. Four years ago at this time, Hillary Clinton was leading by 6.8 points in national polls and eventually lost. Eight years earlier, Barack Obama was leading by a nearly identical 6.9 points and won.
Mr. Trump is surely taking comfort in this history, and many Republicans expect this year to be a repeat of 2016, when surveys underestimated Mr. Trump’s support in swing states that he ultimately carried. But placing your faith in the inaccuracy of the polls is risky for at least two reasons. First, polling for the 2018 midterm elections, as well as for off-year gubernatorial races and special elections, has been largely accurate. Second, a repeat of 2016 would require not only widespread polling errors but errors that once again all work in Mr. Trump’s favor, which is certainly possible but not very likely.
Joe Biden has led the current race for months, and the Real Clear Politics polling average currently puts him 8.6 points ahead. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has him up by 11 and the most recent Fox News poll has him leading by 10. More significantly, Mr. Biden is ahead in the battlegrounds that are expected to decide the race, including in states that Mr. Trump won in 2016, such as Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Mr. Trump is underperforming with seniors and suburban women, which is one reason Republicans lost control of the House two years ago. But his biggest problem is that Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton.
It’s hard to argue with how the Democrats have played their hand in 2020. Mr. Trump wanted to run against a divisive leftist firebrand. Instead, he found himself facing an amiable journeyman who is best known for his pragmatism and ability to play well with others. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump has spent the campaign trying to redefine his opponent, which has left less time to make the case for his own re-election.
The Trump campaign sees Thursday’s debate as the president’s final chance to change the direction of the race, and the question is whether Mr. Trump will cooperate. Attacking Anthony Fauci and Hunter Biden, or calling for his political rivals to be jailed, may go over well at his rallies, but it’s not clear how it gets him any closer to a second term. The president’s problem isn’t a lack of enthusiasm among his supporters, it’s a lack of supporters, which is why he’s trailing.
Mr. Trump obviously shouldn’t take his base for granted, like Mrs. Clinton did to her regret in 2016, but neither should it be his focus between now and Election Day if he hopes to win. Earlier this week, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates asking that foreign policy be included among the topics up for discussion on Thursday.
Whether or not the commission complies, Mr. Trump ought to find a way to talk about his accomplishments abroad and contrast his approach with that of Mr. Obama and the former vice president. Mr. Trump’s counterterrorism victories include the demise of both Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The president has pulled the U.S. out of a nuclear deal with Iran that allowed the mullahs to increase defense spending and finance mayhem in Syria and Iraq. And after decades of boycotting Israel, several Arab nations have agreed to recognize the Jewish state.
The president might also build on the fact that voters don’t blame him for the onset of Covid, and they continue to give him high marks for the pre-pandemic economy. Mr. Biden and the left have attacked the Trump tax cuts as a sop to the rich, but the reality is that poverty and income inequality subsequently fell. “In the first three years of the Trump presidency, median household incomes grew, inequality diminished, and the poverty rate among Black people dropped below 20% for the first time since World War II,” the Journal reported last week. “The Black jobless rate went under 6% for the first time in records going back to 1972.”
The last thing Mr. Biden wants is a debate on the issues. He knows the progressive agenda—from a ban on fracking to elimination of private health insurance to packing the Supreme Court—is unpopular with most voters. Unfortunately for Republicans, Mr. Trump has spent much of the race obliging his opponent by running on character instead of substantive policy differences. No matter how well Mr. Trump performs on Thursday night, it may be too little, too late.
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