Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.
The week in numbers
In good news for President Trump, the Cook Political Report made two changes to its elections forecast, moving Florida from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up,” and moving Nevada from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat.” Trump advisers view Florida in particular as must-win. The shifts reflect Mr. Biden’s potential weakness with Latino voters, and Trump’s poll numbers stabilizing after months of protests after the killing of George Floyd.
The Biden campaign continues to dominate the airwaves, spending $32 million on broadcast television over the past week, while the Trump campaign spent only about $10 million. Spending is nearly even on Facebook, as the Biden campaign spent $3.7 million over the past week while the Trump team spent $3.2 million on the platform.
A Monmouth University poll released this week showed Biden holding a seven-point lead over Trump among likely voters nationwide. Among all registered voters, just 37 percent said they were certain they would vote for Trump, versus 43 percent who were sure they would be voting for Biden.
But an NBC News/Marist College survey of Florida offered some rare positive news for the president on the polling front: He and Biden were tied at 48 percent each among likely voters in the state, with Trump supported by 50 percent of Latino voters (albeit a particularly hard demographic to accurately poll).
Catch me up
For the president, the week began with him defending himself against a report in The Atlantic and ended with him defending himself against a report by the veteran journalist Bob Woodward.
Both story lines — one about his alleged disrespect for the military, the other, about purposefully playing down the deadly nature of the coronavirus — threatened to undermine his standing with voters whose support he is counting on, especially servicemembers and seniors. Mr. Trump, himself, was once again the story, less than 55 days away from the election — a time when veteran political strategists said the person who the race is a referendum on is frequently the person who is losing.
Mr. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president, tried to capitalize on the negative news reports during an appearance in Michigan, where he blamed the president’s handling of the pandemic for the ongoing recession. In contrast, Mr. Trump, also in Michigan, tried to push a message about a great American comeback, complete with the revival of packed, old-school Trump rallies he’s now holding regularly at airport hangars in battleground states.
Nothing sticks to this president, but with just weeks left before Election Day, every negative news cycle counts a little bit more. Here’s how this one played out.
For Mr. Woodward’s first book about the Trump presidency, Mr. Trump did not participate in the project and (are you sitting down?) there was no plan from the White House communications department in 2018 to try to shape the narrative. That left senior officials freelancing, in an effort to preserve their own reputations, and others speaking to Mr. Woodward simply out of fear that they would be the only ones who didn’t.
For Mr. Woodward’s second book, Mr. Trump seems to have overcorrected, this time participating in 18 freewheeling on-the-record sessions with the author. “I gave him some time,” Mr. Trump told Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, earlier this week. “But, as usual, with the books he writes, that didn’t work out too well, perhaps.” Why did he do it?
Mr. Trump thinks he can charm anyone. His desire to speak at length with Mr. Woodward underscores what has always been the reality of Mr. Trump’s relationship with the news media, despite shouts of “fake news.” Mr. Trump loves talking to journalists — especially famous ones — and is driven, in large part, by his desire to earn positive coverage from the establishment.
But he may have been the one charmed, by Mr. Woodward’s status (even if he hasn’t read his books).
And he doesn’t seem to care. Unlike other authors who have written unflattering accounts of the Trump White House, Mr. Woodward has yet to receive the book pre-sales bump that typically comes after the president denounces an author and their work on Twitter. Mr. Trump seems resigned to the fact that he got played, perhaps because most of the damaging content appears to come straight from the president’s own mouth. Instead of denouncing Mr. Woodward, Mr. Trump is defending himself.
How Biden’s campaign responds to Trump’s scandals
In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has faced a challenge familiar to Hillary Clinton — how to weaponize Mr. Trump’s scandals. New revelations about the president’s conduct have dominated headlines and cable news chyrons, including his disparaging comments about members of the military reported in The Atlantic, as has the book by Mr. Woodward and another by Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer and confidante.
But making those stories last is hard, and breaking through to voters is even harder. Here’s how Mr. Biden is trying:
Dispatch surrogates, not the candidate: Following the release of The Atlantic article and highlights from Mr. Woodward’s book, Mr. Biden’s campaign held a media conference call with high-profile surrogates, including Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. In doing so, the campaign sought to prolong a news cycle on damaging information to its opponent. Biden advisers also continue a tack they’ve pursued since Mr. Biden became the nominee: While his primary campaign was focused on Mr. Trump and electability, his general election strategy has often left attacking the president to others.
Focus on the virus: When Mr. Biden does target Mr. Trump, it has usually been on issues with which he feels most comfortable. He has tried to make this election a referendum on how Mr. Trump has handled the pandemic, and has weaponized new information that bolsters his argument that the administration shirked its responsibility. But the campaign has stayed away from the more gossip-driven elements that animate Mr. Trump’s opponents on social media. Books like the one written by Mr. Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, and Mr. Cohen’s account of his time with the president have rarely found their way into Mr. Biden’s campaign messaging.
Presidential contrast: Unlike Mrs. Clinton, who was dealing with the possibility of Mr. Trump becoming president, Mr. Biden is dealing with the reality. And as the scandals have continued into his administration, Democrats believe that voters who were willing to take a chance on Mr. Trump changing in office are now ready for a course correction. This is another element of how the Biden campaign seeks to use Mr. Trump’s words against him, by arguing that Mr. Biden would bring calm and stability to the White House, rather than the stream of norm-busting headlines.
Both campaigns agree: The Midwest is best
With both candidates in Michigan this week, and top surrogates including Donald Trump Jr. and Jill Biden in Minnesota, the travel was a sign of how much attention both campaigns are paying to the Midwest. The intense interest in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania has dwarfed other regions. There are many ways to get to 270 electoral votes, but here’s why Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden think this campaign will be won in the country’s industrial center.
White working-class: Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are both figures who have staked their appeal on having a specific connection with white working-class voters, a demographic that was not enthusiastic about Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. Advisers to Mr. Biden believe that’s a population their candidate is better set to succeed with, and states with industrial backgrounds like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are a good way to test that appeal.
Black voters: There are more Latino voters in the general election, but Democrats and Republicans have probably spent more time focusing on Black voters in this election than any other minority group. Mr. Biden has leaned on his personal connection with former President Barack Obama, and Republicans have pitched Democrats as irresponsible stewards of Black urban communities. More than other battleground states like Florida or out West, the industrial states have cities with Black turnout that could determine the statewide totals. These include places like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Mr. Biden’s campaign is not expanding the map: Early in the race, some Democratic operatives pleaded with the Biden campaign to expand the traditional battleground map and invest in states like Texas and Georgia that have had demographic shifts beneficial to Democrats. However, if the candidate’s travel schedule is any indication, the campaign is focusing efforts on the traditional battlegrounds — for now. Mr. Biden’s campaign just announced another Midwest trip, to Minnesota, in the coming week. It shows a willingness to defend states Mrs. Clinton won in 2016 over expanding the map to new states that have long proved fool’s gold for the party.