Arnon Mishkin: Trump vs. Biden race is suddenly shifting – and that gives president this key opening

By Arnon Mishkin | Fox News

Since March the Trump campaign has sought to move voters from thinking about the election as “do I want a Trump second term?” to “Who’s better – Trump or Biden?”

For the past year, President Trump has been stymied by a campaign that makes the election a referendum on his presidency.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession, the Trump campaign sought to move voters from thinking about the election as “do I want a Trump second term?” to “Who’s better – Trump or Biden?”

But to date, the polling suggests nothing has worked.

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Attacks on former Vice President Biden for being too close to China…too close to Ukraine…too tough on crime (author of the 1994 crime bill)…a supporter of “defund the police” and a captive of the Sanders/AOC wing…or even just plain dotty have not measurably moved the polling.

Instead, Biden – arguably the most plain-vanilla presidential candidate the Democrats have nominated in two generations – has been almost Teflon in his ability to quietly dodge attacks. Voters may not have loved him – but the election was about Trump.

One could see the strength of the Democrats’ strategy in polling that many Republicans cited as indicated Biden’s weakness: Trump voters were very enthusiastic about voting for Trump while Biden voters weren’t really enthusiastic about Biden – but they certainly were enthusiastic about voting AGAINST Trump. In other words, the election was simply a referendum on Trump.

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Here’s the challenge for most incumbents – they’re at a disadvantage in a referendum-type election. Every voter has a reason to be disappointed in every incumbent. For every voter, there’s at least one or two things that can make one think “the status quo could be better.” That’s particularly true when the status quo is a pandemic with double-digit unemployment.

Now, in the face of urban unrest following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police, Trump has sought the mantle of “law and order” – and while there is very little evidence (yet) in the polling, he may now finally be on the sound strategic ground of forcing a choice between Biden’s view of America and President Trump’s.

Initially, the Trump strategy seemed to backfire – as his calling out the National Guard and the military caused people to recoil. Indeed, from the end of May (at the time of his photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House), Trump was less than five points behind Biden in the RealClearPolitics national average. By the time of the two-party conventions, he was down by eight – and Biden had hit 50% support.

But Trump kept at it – like a gambler who knew this was the only hope for a campaign that – as in 2016 – was close to being written off by many.

The bet seemed clear – if the public could be convinced that this was not just a matter of unrest far away from them – but riots close to home – they might swing away from Biden.

So far, there are only a few signs in the polling of the wisdom of this strategy.

The clearest was a Wisconsin based poll from Marquette Law School. In mid-June it found that 68% of Wisconsin registered voters approved of the “Black Lives Matter” protests, 25 points more than disapproved of them.

By mid-August (before the shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent protests), approval had declined to 48% — the same number as those disapproving of “Black Lives Matter,” with even more significant declines among whites.

The president has continued to emphasize the need to send the National Guard – or more – into cities such as Portland and Kenosha – and criticizes Biden for not strongly condemning the protests. He has appeared to endorse the protests by others who are marching in both cities to attack the “Black Lives Matter” protests.

Biden responded last Sunday by tweeting out a condemnation of the violence, saying “the deadly violence we saw overnight in Portland is unacceptable. Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right.” And he flew out to Pittsburgh to say “Donald Trump can’t stop the violence we’re seeing today – because for years he has fomented it.”

It’s too early for polls to suggest whether either candidate is benefiting politically from this latest violence. But one thing is clear. Trump has successfully changed the primary subject from COVID and the economy into a question about urban violence.

And, most important of all, he is forcing voters to move from simply thinking of the election as a referendum on Trump – into a choice of Trump’s view of the need to crack down on the urban protests, into Biden’s approach to dealing with them.

Finally, unlike a pure referendum of Trump, that is a choice that could lead to a Trump advantage.

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