“Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up.”
That was, reportedly, Barack Obama’s assessment of his former vice president, the man he personally worked to make the Democratic candidate, and whom he, his wife, and his party have spent this week pitching as the only thing standing between Donald Trump and the end of US democracy.
Joe Biden had a good night last night, delivering probably the best speech of this year’s Democratic convention. Unlike virtually every other, Biden’s speech rested his case not on abstract appeals to decency and charges that Trump isn’t up to the job, but on promises to improve the lot of working-class Americans, including some actual, specific policies. It seemed to actually exist in the world most Americans occupy right now, one of fear and hurt, where the biggest concern isn’t Trump’s tweets, but whether they’ll be able to find food and shelter, or if they’ll even have a future in a decade’s time.
So why does it all feel so precarious?
Consider some recent events:
- Over the last two months, coronavirus has exploded around the United States, moving South and West, hitting both rural and urban areas, and infecting more than 3 million people and killing more than fifty thousand.
- Over that time, Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has narrowed to varying degrees in several major polls — CNN/SSRS, Washington Post/ABC, and Wall Street Journal/NBC — and his lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average has fallen two points.
- Trump has been undermining the US Postal Service, depriving it of funding while his megadonor postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, engineered a mail slowdown and yanked more than six hundred mail sorting machines off service, potentially disenfranchising the Biden-voting majority that plans to vote by mail in November.
- The New York City Board of Elections threw out more than eighty-four thousand mail-in ballots for the New York Democratic presidential primary due to errors like coming late, invalidating one-fifth of mail-in votes from the city’s Democrats, thirty thousand of them from Brooklyn alone.
Together, these four stories paint a bleak picture of the months ahead. While anything — and in 2020, that really means anything — could happen between now and November, these are all potentially ominous signs for Biden’s ability to close the deal on this election, not to mention the state of US democracy.
Let’s look at the polls first. The most dramatic is CNN’s, where Biden’s lead was slashed from 14 points in June to just 4, and where the former vice president lost ground with every single voter group (sex, race, age, and education), including people of color, except for one: voters over sixty-five, with whom Biden gained 3 points.
While the other polls have shown nowhere near this movement away from Biden, they do show movement: Biden’s lead in the Washington Post/ABC poll dropped from 15 to 12 points since July, while it fell 2 points since then to a 9-point lead in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Coupled with an identical drop in the RealClearPolitics average, it seems pretty clear Biden definitely lost some ground over the last month, even if we can’t put it into exact numbers.
But should anti-Trump voters really be concerned? After all, as Ed Kilgore points out, Biden continues to hold a massive lead over Trump in almost every poll, and he is still handily outperforming where Hillary Clinton was in 2016. And that lead may well widen once Biden gets the customary post-convention bounce.
There are, however, reasons to be worried. Because the fact that Biden lost any ground against Trump at this moment should be nothing short of astounding. Trump’s pandemic response was deathly incompetent by the time it was just him and Biden in the race; it’s only gotten horrifically worse in the four months since.
As just a brief rundown: the virus has spread to Trump-voting parts of the country, killing tens of thousands and turning Republican states into the new virus hot spots; hundreds of thousands of small businesses have shuttered for good, and at least 16 million people are out of work; life-saving government support expired on the eve of rent day, and Congress went on holiday without extending it; Trump has inflamed chaos by sending federal forces to gas and otherwise brutalize protesters, in one case to pose for a photo; he’s pushed to reopen schools as the pandemic raged, leading to at least 97,000 kids being infected in the last two weeks of July alone; and he has acted increasingly erratic in public, attempting to simply pretend the virus isn’t an issue. Trump’s approval ratings have, unsurprisingly, been underwater this entire time.
These are the kinds of conditions that should widen an electoral lead. Instead, after all this, Biden has somehow lost support.
In fact, it’s worse than this, because looking at RealClearPolitics, Biden is actually underperforming compared to Clinton in those key battleground states that delivered the election to Trump in 2016. As of August 19, Biden’s polling average lead is smaller than Clinton’s was at this point that year in Wisconsin (2.5 points lower), Pennsylvania (2.8 points), Michigan (1.8 points), and North Carolina (0.6 points). Clinton lost all of these states in 2016. (Biden is, however, vastly outperforming Clinton in Arizona).
This might be surprising to hear, if you’ve kept up with the election through mainstream media. Because the conventional wisdom — at least if you only read the US press — is that Biden’s peekaboo campaign has been a stroke of strategic genius, giving Trump the rope he needs to hang himself. Biden’s steadfast avoidance of the press and unscripted events, his refusal to sit down for interviews (a mere five in June compared to Trump’s twenty-one), and his leisurely campaign schedule were all supposed to be tactically clever moves perfectly calibrated to the moment, and not something the campaign’s been forced to do with a candidate who has a habit of ritually offending and insulting groups of people or forgetting what he’s saying even as he reads off a sheet of paper.
Trump, meanwhile, has recently thrown himself back into the daily briefings on the pandemic that gave his approval rating a bounce in its early days, his aides and advisers correctly realizing that simply pretending the virus doesn’t exist is a losing strategy. Is this why Trump has narrowed Biden’s large lead? His campaign certainly thinks so. If so, it suggests Biden could be in real trouble should Trump show even some semblance of getting his act together on the pandemic — or even if a vaccine arrives in the nick of time.
Looming over all this is the failure of the US Postal Service (USPS), something that predates Trump. While mass mail-in balloting is the only safe, sensible option for the November election, it’s becoming less and less likely that this will actually be feasible. And even if USPS’s troubles hold back a relatively small number of votes, it could be enough to make the difference in Trump’s favor, part of the reason commentators have been saying that Biden needs to win in a landslide. The Democratic elite realize this: Michelle Obama urged liberals on the opening night of the Democratic convention to “vote early, in person if we can,” and to get comfortable shoes, masks, and even dinner and breakfast ready so they can “stand in line all night” if they have to.
You can reliably read Democratic panic by whether or not they’ve returned to pointlessly attacking Bernie Sanders. The more likely they are to lose, the more they need a fall guy, ideally someone from the Left. Hence, MSNBC’s Jason Johnson blaming Sanders for the USPS’s current ills, charging that his decision to block Obama’s appointees to its board of governors in 2015 is what allowed the new, Trumpist postmaster general to come to the fore.
But make no mistake, this is a Democratic failure through and through. As longtime Sanders aide Warren Gunnels pointed out, three of Obama’s appointees were Republicans and/or wanted to further degrade USPS services, and Sanders was acting at the behest of postal unions and the NAACP. Given that DeJoy was approved unanimously by the current board — including two Democrats, one a union member and another a former Obama official, with a third Democrat resigning in April to protest Trump’s politicization of the service — it’s not clear he would have been blocked even if Sanders had let them through.
Beyond this, the root of USPS’s current troubles is the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which forced USPS to set aside enough revenue to pay out retiree health benefits up to 2056, pushing it to make brutal cutbacks as a result. That bill was cosponsored by two Democrats from solid blue states, written and shepherded to passage in the Senate by Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, and passed the Senate by unanimous consent.
But it gets worse. Because from the very beginning of the US lockdown in March, there have been widespread calls to expand mail-in voting in order to avoid the disaster now facing the country. Congressional Democrats have had multiple chances to secure mail-in voting for November in the coronavirus relief bills, but their leadership frittered those opportunities away until popular outrage forced them to now finally make it an issue, when it may well be too late. This is the Democratic Party of today, one that needs to be pressured even to save itself.
And, unfortunately, the party has handed the GOP a ready-made playbook for voter suppression. It was Biden and the Democrats who insisted on not delaying primary elections during the pandemic so that they could wrap things up before Biden said or did something that derailed his campaign. As a result, in-person voter turnout collapsed in favor of mail-in voting, only for thousands and thousands of those ballots to be thrown away.
The shocking story out of New York — where one-fifth of mail-in ballots were rejected not long after Democrats tried to simply cancel the state’s presidential primary — is just one case. From Michigan to New Jersey to many other states, tens of thousands of mail-in ballots in primary and other elections have been rejected around the country for issues including lateness, such as one Parkinson’s patient whose shaky hand can no longer match his original signature. California alone rejected one hundred thousand mail-in ballots for its March primary.
So it’s more than likely the Democrats will eventually end up doing exactly what Michelle Obama did on Monday night: beg voters to risk their health and stand for hours, possibly even overnight, in order to vote for Biden in person. If so, the race will be a contest of enthusiasm, and of which candidate’s supporters are committed enough to go through the ordeal to get their guy into office.
We know Trump’s campaign is knocking on a million doors a week with mask-wearing canvassers; Biden’s campaign is entirely digital. Trump voters are passionate about voting for their candidate; Biden voters are passionate about voting, just not necessarily for Biden. Trump will use the Republican convention to shore up his already loyal base; the Democrats are using theirs to thumb their noses at the young, progressive voters already skeptical of their nominee. Perhaps none of it will matter in the end; but perhaps it will.
Biden still has a big lead, and maybe nothing much will change between now and November. But for a guy whose sole reason for running was because he was the “designated driver” most likely to unseat Trump, why does it feel like he could lose control of the car at any moment?