A new national Ipsos/Reuters poll finds that Democratic candidate Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump 48% to 35%. As CNN notes, “While Biden has led Trump in almost every Ipsos poll this year, his advantage this week is the largest in 2020.”
This poll was taken before Trump’s gaffe-filled campaign rally on June 20 in Tulsa, where he said things in jest that could easily be used in many attack ads against him. As The Hill notes, “President Trump on Saturday quipped that he encouraged administration officials to slow down testing capacity for the coronavirus because the increased identification of cases made the country look bad.”
“Testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump said. “We’ve tested now 25 million people. It’s probably 20 million people more than anybody else. Germany’s done a lot. South Korea’s done a lot.” “Here’s the bad part,” he continued. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people. You’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please!'”
The Hill notes that “the president’s remark” about slowing testing “appeared to be in jest.” And there is no sign of federal officials or agencies slowing down the testing.
But some newspaper web sites made it sound as if Trump actually meant what he said. And attack ads against him will likely claim he meant it seriously. It was deeply foolish of him to say something like that, even in jest. Trump is apparently “furious” about the small size of the crowd, which may reflect sagging support. He should be furious at himself for saying things that any politician would know would be harmful to his chances of getting reelected.
This is not his only blunder. On June 16, Michigan Live reported that “President Donald Trump’s support among Michigan voters took a sharp dive in polls taken immediately after protesters were forcefully removed so Trump could have his photo taken holding a Bible outside a historic church” in front of the White House. As it notes, two surveys of Michigan voters taken by EPIC-MRA found a rapidly widening gap between Trump and Biden. One poll conducted from May 30 to June 3 found Biden leading by 12 percentage points, but the second poll, which started and ended just one day later, recorded a 16-point lead for the former vice president. “Pollster Bernie Porn attributed the quick drop to public backlash and negative press resulting from Trump’s staged photo on June 1,” notes Michigan Live. Voters nationally also reacted negatively to Trump’s strange photo op and the tear-gassing of the protesters near the church.
The “tear-gassing of protesters” (the government claims it was pepper spray) was not the only instance in which the administration displayed contempt for the First Amendment. Yesterday, a judge rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to get an injunction barring the release of former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book, The Room Where It Happened. Such injunctions are deemed an impermissible prior restraint, in violation of the First Amendment, under the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. United States (1971).
The government may yet be able to force Bolton to turn over to the government any profits he makes from the book, which the government says contains classified information. “Defendant Bolton has gambled with the national security of the United States. He has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability,” Judge Royce Lamberth concluded. “But these facts do not” justify an injunction against the book’s release.”
As NPR notes, “The Justice Department had sought a temporary restraining order against Bolton and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, citing what it called the presence of classified information in Bolton’s manuscript. But the book already has been widely reported on, and it is scheduled to be released Tuesday.”
“We are grateful that the Court has vindicated the strong First Amendment protections against censorship and prior restraint of publication,” the publisher said. “We are very pleased that the public will now have the opportunity to read Ambassador Bolton’s account of his time as National Security Advisor.”
Even before the recent bad polls, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Biden leading Trump by more than 9%. Polls also show Republicans likely to lose control of the Senate, and lose at least six seats. If they lose that many, the Democrats may have the votes to abolish the filibuster in 2021, and virtually exclude Republicans from the legislative process.
Republicans rely heavily on the coattails of a popular Republican president to get reelected and overcome the headwinds of liberal media bias. Unlike Republicans in Congress, who are relatively unknown to voters and can thus be caricatured by the liberal media, a Republican president can reach voters directly through televised addresses to the nation, like the State of the Union. As a result, voters come to know what a president is really like, not just the caricature of him by the media. That makes it hard for the liberal media to demonize a likable Republican president, even when he is quite conservative like Ronald Reagan. Historically, Republican presidents have usually outperformed down-ballot Republicans due to this ability to communicate directly with America. By endorsing and supporting Republican congressional candidates, a popular Republican president can also get some of them elected despite a hostile press.
But Trump is not popular, and in no position to help other Republican candidates. He is easily caricatured, and in fact is a self-caricature. Despite the advantages and free bully-pulpit that presidents enjoy, Trump is nearly as unpopular as the typical Republican Senate candidate, and soon, he will be more unpopular than Republican candidates for lower offices, if trends continue. That means that Senate Republicans in close races cannot rely on the president’s popularity to get reelected, or hope that his popularity will rub off on them. Instead, many Republicans are likely to be driven out of office by angry voters who hate Trump and thus plan to vote as they did in 2018 — against all Republicans. the 2018 “Blue Wave” resulted in Republicans losing control of the House of Representatives, after 40 Republican Congressmen were defeated in the election.
It would have been better for the Republican Party if Trump had been impeached and replaced by Vice President Pence. Pence knows how to avoid gaffes and how to stay on message and not enrage voters. The Republicans would be less likely to lose control of the Senate if Pence were president. They would also have had a better chance of winning the presidential election, since Pence knows how to say reassuring and unifying things, which is what voters wanted during the Coronavirus crisis. Politicians — even incompetent politicians — often benefit from a crisis, as long as they can behave in a way that reassures voters. But Trump did not do this, and committed lots of gaffes about COVID-19 instead.
Across the world, political leaders got a bump upward in the polls because of COVID-19. Even when they responded incompetently to the crisis, resulting in death rates higher than in the U.S., their public approval ratings rose. In times of crisis, people tend to rally around their leaders, even when their leaders’ policies backfire. Many people are basically herd animals who want to love their leaders, especially if their leaders can fake being nice or competent.
But Donald Trump got no bump. To profit from the crisis, he needed to say soothing or inspiring things, act like a unifying figure, and look like he knew what he was talking about. Instead, he complained endlessly about the media and his political opponents, insulted journalists in press briefings, and constantly boasted about himself and his performance. This made him seem petty, and not like a unifying leader.
By contrast, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got a huge bump in the polls from his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, even though Cuomo’s mismanagement of the crisis killed thousands of people. For a time, his approval rate rose to 87%.
Cuomo’s administration forced nursing homes to take in people infected with COVID-19, and generally refused to supply these densely-populated nursing homes with personal protective equipment needed to protect against COVID-19. That caused the virus to spread like wildfire through nursing homes and kill thousands of people. Cuomo said it was “not our job” to help these nursing homes get protective equipment for their staffs when they were ordered by the state to accept people with coronavirus. As a result, COVID-19 spread to other residents, many of whom died.
Yet Cuomo became more popular during the pandemic because he made it seem like he was in command of things and knew what he was doing and took the crisis seriously in his daily press briefings.
As Tyson Brody notes, “The polling between Trump and Cuomo reveals the very funny but grim fact that Trump could have still allowed thousands to die, bickered with his own government, blamed the media, and generally done a bad job, but would be CRUISING if he could have held it together in the pressers.”
As political-science professor Jacob Levy notes, if Republican senators had voted to impeach Donald Trump, their situation would be far better, because the blandly soothing Mike Pence would be president, and he would be getting the same “rally-round-the-flag bump” that most of the world’s leaders are getting:
Seems like a good day to remind Republican Senators that they could have gone into this crisis with a newly-inaugurated bland bureaucratic Mike Pence who would have gotten a 30-point rally-round-the-flag bump.
This is clearly true. Pence’s remarks at Trump’s daily COVID-19 briefings were soothing and paid tribute to healthcare workers and others in a way that listeners might find inspiring coming from a president.
Trump’s policy blunders in addressing COVID-19 aren’t why he didn’t get a bump in the polls. As Professor Levy notes, political leaders don’t have to be competent to get a bump in their poll results:
The size of the rally effect isn’t strongly correlated with actual quality of decision making. Most of it has to do with giving the impression that there’s a basically functional adult human being in charge and taking things seriously.
And Trump doesn’t convey that impression. His pettiness keeps him from seeming “presidential.”
Never mind that many past presidents might have handled the pandemic more incompetently than Trump. Trump’s handling of COVID-19 has been vastly better than President Woodrow Wilson’s disgraceful mishandling of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed at least 675,000 Americans. Wilson covered up deaths from the virus — which more likely originated in the U.S. than Spain — and thus helped it spread throughout not just America, but the world.
But President Wilson was an inspiring orator who could stay on message, and avoid gaffes. So his reputation suffered little from his mishandling of the Spanish flu. He seemed competent, even if he actually wasn’t.