Newsmakers with JR
100 Days to Go: Six Key Questions About Trump vs. Biden - The Calbuzz Election Forecast
In just 100 days, the voters of America will decide whether or not to award Donald Trump a second term as president, delivering a verdict on his handling of a deadly pandemic, record unemployment and nationwide protests over race.
One hundred days is a lifetime in politics.
To help navigate the unceasing flood of news coverage about the contest between Trump and former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden over the next three-plus months, Newsmakers periodically will hear from veteran California political reporter Phil Trounstine, for analysis, background and context.
Phil has seen and lived the world of national and state politics from every conceivable perspective: as a journalist, including many years as Political Editor of the San Jose Mercury News, he's covered eight presidential campaigns, many U.S. Senate, gubernatorial and other races in California and authored "Movers and Shakers," a book about urban political power; in academia, he founded and directed the Survey and Policy Institute at San Jose State University; as an insider, he even served a stint as Director of Communications for former Governor Gray Davis.
We forgave him for that brief foray into the Dark Side, however, and in 2009, he and
Jerry co-founded Calbuzz.com, churning out over 1,300 posts about state and national politics on a site the Washington Post called the best non-partisan political web operation in California.
In a Newsmakers conversation on Sunday, the two discussed and dissected six crucial questions about the 2020 presidential election.
1-How will voters define the election - as a referendum on Trump or a choice between him and Biden?
On the most fundamental level, the outcome of every election rests on which campaign message a majority of voters accept as their decision point criteria of choice.
This year, Biden's fundamental pitch is simple: the election is an up-or-down judgment on Trump's first-term performance, and the nationwide chaos and confusion over the virus, the damaged economy and social unrest provides ample evidence that the incumbent has failed the test of leadership, while the former Vice President's values and experience make him a better alternative.
Trump has a more complicated task: The political base which provides him cult-like loyalty is necessary but not sufficient to win re-election, so he must convince the independent and suburban white voters who backed him in 2016 - but now are moving to Biden - that it is the Democrat who is unfit for the White House, by attacking him, variously, as senile or cognitively impaired, too weak to stand up to the socialist lefty wing of his party and an apologist for anarchists and violent protest.
So far, voters aren't buying what Trump is selling.
2-How reliable are the polls?
As every school child knows, a presidential race is not a national election, but 50 separate state elections, plus the District of Columbia, with 270 electoral votes needed to win, regardless of the popular vote.
In 2016, every major news organization and mainstream pundit (not to mention Calbuzz) forecast a victory by Hillary Clinton, who consistently led Trump in national polling and won the popular vote, but infamously lost when he drew a political inside straight and won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 77,000 votes.
This time out, Biden not only is leading every national poll, but also holds an edge in those three swing states, as well as in places Trump won four years ago, including Arizona and Florida; handicappers forecast that if the election were held today, the Democrat might approach 400 electoral votes.
The election, however, is not today.
3-How bad will the election meltdown be?
Throughout the primary season, the pandemic has disrupted normal voting operations in state after state - New York and Georgia are still counting ballots weeks after their primaries -- which has led to a push in many places for mail-in voting in November.
Trump, however, for months has railed against vote-by-mail as a Democratic ploy to "rig" the election, a volatile stance that represents an effort to begin delegitimizing the election result in the event he loses.
Biden meanwhile is warning about foreign interference in the election, while officials in both parties worry about other issues, like the impacts of a possible Covid surge, new technologies and ballot counting processes; voter suppression efforts; funding shortages in elections departments; misinformation and disinformation campaigns on social media, among other factors.
It all adds up to a "disaster" waiting to happen.
4-What if Trump loses but won't leave?
As president, Trump from the start has shattered countless political norms, from claiming the Constitution gives him unlimited power to spewing tens of thousands of lies in his public utterances and enabling and benefitting from a culture of financial corruption.
So it is not surprising that, as Biden has alleged, many Democrats fear he will become the first president in the nation's history who might not honor the long tradition of the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.
Trump jet-propelled these concerns when he declined, during a recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, to state that he will accept the results of the election, which has led to increased speculative scenarios involving questions of what military leaders might do under such a chain of events.
Let us pray.
5-Who will Biden pick as a running mate?
Following the dictum of never interfering with an enemy who is the process of damaging himself, the presumptive Democratic nominee is running an extraordinarily low-key campaign, not altogether unfitting for extraordinary times, from the basement of his home,
Biden's scarce presence in the daily news cycle is just one reason his selection of a vice-presidential nominee will carry more weight and gain more attention, as the first major decision defining him as a presidential contender; another factor is his age - 77 - and the probability that he will serve only one term, a likelihood which he has repeatedly signaled. This all means his pick will judged, even more than usual, for their readiness to take over the presidency from day one.
Biden has promised to select a woman for vice-president, and is under considerable political pressure to choose a Black woman, not only because of the national unrest over racial issues, but also because female African-Americans are the most loyal faction among reliable Democratic Party voters.
Don't bet against Kamala Harris.
6-Can Democrats win the Senate?
At the beginning of the year, most political professionals gave the Democrats very little chance of wresting control of the Senate, because they would have to flip at least three seats (four if, as likely, they lose a seat in Alabama that a Democrat won under unusual circumstances in a special election two years ago -- or if they don't win the presidency along with its tie-breaking Senate vote of the vice president) in a year when the map looked favorable for red-state Republican incumbents.
Now, Trump's plummeting poll numbers and mishandling of the pandemic, have changed the political calculus, and Democratic candidates are viewed as strong contenders for GOP seats in Arizona, Colorado and Maine, with Republican incumbents in Iowa, Montana and North Carolina viewed increasingly as vulnerable.
Among several other Never-Trump Republican groups, the Lincoln Project is campaigning against some of these GOP incumbents, pointing to their cravenness in failing to stand up to Trump on a host of issues, from impeachment to Russian bounties on Americans in Afghanistan.
Sic temper tyrannus.
In the end, of course, the election might be decided by what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would describe as "unknown unknowables" -- news events that could range from a massive surge in the pandemic to the death of a Supreme Court justice, the imposition of martial law or countless other possibilities.
Calbuzz will track the race through November, and Phil Trounstine will be checking in regularly with Newsmakers on the state of the campaign.
Click below to see our first discussion with Phil .... and the podcast version is here.
Images: Trump-Biden (N.Y. Post); Phil Trounstine; Hair in the wind; Shutterstock; The Scream (adapted); Trump the Joker (N.Y. Daily News); Kamala Harris (NBC News); Winners & Losers; Collector's item: Calbuzz pin.