Good Friday Morning, except Donald Trump’s security team, who somehow missed Hope Hicks being near or in contact with someone with COVID-19. Now Hicks has it, and the President and First Lady are in self-quarantine and testing positive for COVID-19 too.
Trump first tweeted the news late Thursday night, saying, “Hope Hicks, who has been working so hard without even taking a small break, has just tested positive for Covid 19. Terrible! The First Lady and I are waiting for our test results. In the meantime, we will begin our quarantine process!” He followed that up later, saying:
Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!
On Hannity, Trump talked about and condemned white supremacists and the KKK and discussed the Hope Hicks/quarantine situation (the discussion was pre-positive test news). This story will end up dominating the news. And depending on whether or not they get symptoms, it could impact future debates. If they’re asymptomatic, he should be good to go for the next debate in two weeks. If he gets symptoms, all bets are off on future debates and events.
I write the introduction section for these newsletters last. I had everything edited and set before the Trump positive test news dropped. Everything below remains true not including the news. But this news will, without question, impact this election. It’s impossible to say how. This Trump/COVID-19 story is an early October surprise, on par with the Access Hollywood tape, but obviously far more serious. I pray they are asymptomatic and have a speedy recovery.
If you’re looking for my post-debate reactions, check out episode 56 of the podcast, linked below. I recorded it the night of the debate and went through the notes I took during it. Listen on the website or where you get your podcasts.
Where you can find me this week
Please subscribe, rate, and review my podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play — the reviews help listeners, and readers like you find me in the algorithms. Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter and become a subscriber at The Dispatch, where I’m a contributor.
Democrats reap the whirlwind on Supreme Court nomination battle – The Conservative Institute.
Amy Coney Barrett is on the leading edge of the abortion debate – The Conservative Institute.
The state of the race: October 2, 2020 (32 days left).
It’s October, so we’re in the last month of the campaign and 32 days (as of Friday) away from the election. The third quarter of the final 100 days of the race is wrapping up. Having learned smaller continuous stories is better than big splashes, both the Atlantic and New York Times timed their October surprise hits on Trump’s remarks on the military (Atlantic) and taxes (NYT) as a running series with new developments released every few days. Everyone wants to have the story that “knocks out Trump.” Everyone wants to claim the title of October Surprise.
In 2016, I wrote a quick synopsis of recent October surprises:
[In] 2000, a story hit five days before the election that George W. Bush had been arrested for a DUI in 1976. Bush’s campaign manager at the time, Karl Rove, estimated that the revelation cost Bush 2% in the polls and cost him a chance at winning five states. The story caused some people to vote for Gore and made roughly 3 million Evangelical voters to stay home.
In 2004, Bush received a boost this time after Osama bin Laden released a video at the end of October attacking Bush. Bin Laden accused the President of being a tyrant and that the Patriot Act was a bad piece of legislation. This video helped give Bush a boost in the polls and sent him past Kerry.
In 2012, the Romney campaign dealt with two significant events. The first was Hurricane Sandy ravaging the Atlantic coast. And the release of a tape where Romney gave his infamous “47%” speech. The combination of the two events push the news cycle into Obama’s camp and helped him keep a safe lead.
Politico wrote up a list of fifteen other October surprises going back to the 19th century. 2016 had its shocks, both early and late. The Access Hollywood Tape and Wikileak hacked emails of Hilary Clinton both dropped early in October. But the biggest surprise was the most unexpected: FBI Director James Comey wrote a letter to Congress on October 28, 2016, reopening the Clinton investigation due to new emails because of Anthony Weiner.
I’d make two points about these “October surprises.” First, the national media has started dropping their “October surprise” hits earlier in the cycle, aiming for more of a “September Surprise.” That makes sense if you’re focused on impacting early voters. But not every state votes early (states like Pennsylvania). And as 2016 showed, the movement towards Trump at the end of October was likely accelerated by the Comey letter, helping push late-deciders towards Trump.
The second point is this: the more impactful October surprises don’t hit early, like the ones mentioned above, they hit late. Bush’s DUI story and the Comey letter in 2016 both appeared late in the cycle. I have no idea what to expect this cycle, just as I didn’t a clue last time. But I can say: it’d be shocking if we didn’t encounter some seismic story that shifted the race. It is 2020, after all.
Biden is unquestionably in the lead.
I start with the October surprise discussion for two reasons. First, we’re finally in October. Second, Joe Biden is unquestionably leading the race. If Trump wins, he needs some external development — like the Comey letter — to rise in the polls, while trimming Biden’s lead down. If everything remains the same, Biden will win, most likely in a landslide that gives Democrats control of the Senate (Democrats could have a 50-53 seat advantage).
And when I say Biden is leading the race, he’s easily outpacing Hilary Clinton. Clinton usually had a 3-6 point advantage over Trump in the averages, which dropped precipitously to the 2-3 point range by election day. RealClearPolitics has Biden leading by 7.2 points right now, which has fluctuated between 6-8 points for most of the year. Nate Silver said of FiveThirtyEight’s poll averages:
Since we launched our general election polling averages on June 18, Biden has never led by less than 6.6 points nationally. Literally only one national poll — a Rasmussen Reports poll that put Trump ahead by less than a full percentage point — has shown Trump leading by any margin during that period. It’s been an exceptionally stable race.
The path to a Biden win is remarkably simple, and it’s why Biden has avoided publicity. The Biden plan is straightforward: run the ball three times and punt it back to Trump while playing prevent defense and run out the clock. Biden will not take any risks, and at this point, it’s pretty evident he’s not capable of big gambles. Biden could easily walk away with the entire upper Midwest plus Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada and waltz to the White House. Florida and Ohio aren’t crucial to the Biden plan.
Biden has led in all those states, and he’s close in many others. National Republicans have dumped money into South Carolina to help Lindsey Graham in his race, which is a terrifying notion if you’re a Republican. South Carolina should not be in a toss-up category, nor should Texas or Georgia. And suppose those races go sideways on Republicans. In that case, we’re talking a wipeout of the Republican Party on par with anything Reagan did to Democrats. That would put Trump in the same category as Jimmy Carter.
There are warning signs across the board for Republicans. Things are close in Texas, Georgia, Iowa, weirdly close polls out of Alaska and South Carolina. Either Trump pulls this thing out of a hat with rabbits, flowers, and pigeons, or it’s a historic wipeout for Republicans.
How Trump can still win.
All that said, it’s still not out of the question for a Trump win. Nate Silver gives Trump a 20% shot at winning, which is still notable while lower than the 30% Trump had 2016. In Silver’s model, that’s still a 1 in 5 shot at winning the election, which isn’t far-fetched at all.
How does that happen? I tend to agree with Sean Trende’s take on the race. He highlights several points in a piece at RealClearPolitics, but I’d focus on the first one: Trump’s job approval rating. If Trump can increase his job approval rating, he should outperform the polls. Trende writes:
Exit polls show that presidents typically receive a vote share that is roughly in line with their job approval. This isn’t particularly surprising: Elections tend to be referenda on the party in power. If you like the job the President is doing, you vote for him. If you do not, you vote against him. So when Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, his job approval in the RCP Average was 50%; he won with 51% of the vote. When George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, his job approval was just shy of 50%; he won with just under 51% of the vote. Presidents tend to get the votes of those who think they are doing a good job, and maybe a hair more.
The reason 46% makes sense for Trump is because we are pretty sure that he can win with 46% or 47% of the vote. After all, he did so in 2016 (Gary Johnson may have siphoned off some of his support, but Jill Stein likely did the same Hillary Clinton), and it appears from polling that the Electoral College/popular vote split is about the same today as it was in 2016, if not a bit larger. So what is Trump’s job approval doing today?
It is rising, and at a fairly steady clip. He isn’t at the 46% threshold yet, and it’s likely he’ll level off in the next few weeks, but that isn’t a given.
This is, frankly, a much better position for Trump to be in than the two most recent presidents who lost their reelection bids. President George H.W. Bush’s job approval was consistently in the mid-to-high 30s post-Labor Day, while Jimmy Carter’s job approval was in the low 30s. Trump’s job approval isn’t good, but it is closer to that of recent presidents who have won than to recent presidents who have lost.
Finally, in this vein, one of the more perplexing features of 2020 is that Trump’s job approval has outpaced his vote share in head-to-head polls. Who are these people who approve of the job he is doing but don’t plan on voting for him? My guess is they are eventual Trump voters, who either won’t admit to themselves or to the pollster that they are going to vote for him. Perhaps Trump will lose a substantial number of people who approve of the job he is doing, but I’m not sure I’d bet on it.
Trende wrote that on September 17, which was a few weeks ago. But Trump’s approval rating has continued to climb. RealClearPolitics has Trump’s job approval rating sitting at 45.5% in the averages. In the head-to-head polls against Biden, Trump sits at 42.9% in the aggregate. That’s a difference of 2.6 points where Trump’s support is lagging his job approval. That suggests Trump’s numbers could be slightly depressed, and he’s closer to 45% against Biden. That is a far stronger position, and closer to where he finished in the final results of 2016.
If Trump loses, it’d have to be because people approve of his job, but vote for Biden instead, which makes very little sense. It’s more likely that people who approve of him also vote for him. And here’s the tip-off Trump’s job approval is essential: if you look at the Trump-Biden head-to-head results in the battleground states, Trump sits at 45.1% to Biden’s 48.6%, which is only a 3.5 point difference — precisely in line with 2016 results. It’s worth noting, too, Hilary Clinton finished with 48.2% of the national vote in 2016, and Biden is only slightly ahead of that mark in battleground states.
In 2016, Hilary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Trump overall. Dave Wasserman warns Democrats not to treat 2016 like a fluke. He says, “In 2020, it’s possible Trump could win 5 million fewer votes than his opponent — and still win a second term.” Democrats pile up a lot of meaningless votes in states like California, Texas, and New York. That inflates their position nationally while being useless in states that matter.
All this together means, in the swing states, Trump’s job approval is dictating his position. That makes perfect sense and falls in line with every election where we’ve tracked this data. If you think the current guy is doing a good job, why would you vote against him? Trump isn’t in the same position as other one-term Presidents. He’s far closer to a 2004 Bush or a 2012 Obama (and my comp for this race is 2004).
And here’s the thing: Trump has room to grow on the job approval. His last peak on that number was the end of March/early April (around Easter) when he very nearly hit 48% job approval on a national level. The battleground states showed a 2.5 point Biden lead with those Trump job approvals. Even then, Trump was underperforming his job approval.
In short, if Trump can edge up his job approval and get a beneficial poll error in his favor in the 1-3 point range, which Sean Trende points out could be in play, then Trump is positioned to pull off the electoral college upset — again.
The most important state of all in all this is Pennsylvania. If Trump can take that state, all he needs is one more to hit 270 electoral votes. If he can pull off one of the midwest states, New Hampshire, or Arizona, then he’s home free and wins another term. Pennsylvania is important because it doesn’t have much in the way of early voting. The mail-in ballot situation is setting up to become this year’s 2000 Florida. Go ahead and memorize/learn about this term now: naked ballots. If this election goes sideways, everybody and their momma will have opinions on naked ballots, just like they did hanging chads.
That’s the state of the race right now. Trump is losing, but there’s a way for him to claw back. He needs his job approval to line up with polling and voting numbers. And it would help Trump greatly if Biden got hammered by an October surprise that tilted the field in Trump’s favor. The Romans said, beware the Ides of March. For Americans, it’s October.
Links of the week
UNH professor accused of posing as a woman of color on Twitter – Benjamin Domaingue, TNH
American cyclist suspended over a pro-Trump tweet – Reid Wilson, The Hill
Losing a Baby – Alexandra DeSanctis, National Review
The Stupidest Fact-Check in the History of Fact-Checking: USA Today versus the Babylon Bee on whether or not RBG is alive – Dan McLaughlin, National Review
Joe Biden won’t admit it, but his proposal would hike taxes on the middle class – Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner
What That Was About: Post-Debate Analysis – Sean Trende, RealClearPolitics
Scars, Tattoos, And License Plates: This Is What Palantir And The LAPD Know About You: Newly revealed documents show how Los Angeles police were trained to use the flagship product of the most secretive company in law enforcement. – Caroline Haskins, BuzzFeedNews
CNN’s Stelter Pleads Ignorance on Steele Source Bombshell: ‘I Literally Do Not Know’ – Tobias Hoonhout, National Review
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!