WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have emerged from their presidential nominating conventions with each candidate believing he has a head of steam. Trump’s job approval ratings and standing in polls are perilously low for an incumbent, but Biden and other Democrats vividly remember 2016, when Trump made an against-all-odds October comeback and defeated Hillary Clinton.
Five key questions as the 2020 campaign moves toward the fall home stretch:
WHAT WILL A COVID-19 CAMPAIGN LOOK LIKE?
Expect a flurry of travel and speeches as the candidates spend the next nine weeks desperately trying to move the needle and win new votes against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
Trump is set to launch an aggressive travel schedule with multiple events a week, according to advisers. After an arena rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, early this summer drew a paltry crowd, his campaign has settled on a new format in the age of the coronavirus: packing smaller crowds into open-air airport hangars. The campaign has also been handing out masks at its events and, on Friday, told attendees they would be mandatory, per local regulations. He’s also planning a series of policy speeches and is expected to continue to use the powers of his office — including signing executive orders and issuing pardons — to help his prospects.
Biden is planning to ramp up travel to battleground states after Labor Day after spending most of the spring and summer at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, holding mostly virtual events, with only occasional travel to tightly controlled gatherings. Campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond said the former vice president will be active but emphasized that Biden's events still will follow public health guidelines. That means no indoor, crowded rallies and lots of mask-wearing. Expect plenty of roundtables, meet-and-greets and question-and-answer sessions. If there are larger gatherings, the drive-in watch party outside Biden’s nomination acceptance address could be the blueprint.
WHOSE VERSION OF THE OTHER CONVINCES MORE VOTERS?
Trump will continue trying to win back suburban, female and older voters, and win over independents and people who didn't vote four years ago, by painting the election as a stark choice between law and order and anarchy and between a radical, socialist takeover and economic prosperity. Never mind that Biden has spent decades in the political establishment and California Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate, is a former prosecutor. Trump will use every scare tactic he can muster.
If his 2016 race is any indication, expect Trump to launch a scorched-earth strategy if he feels he’s losing come October. Realizing his only shot then was to drive up Clinton's unfavorable ratings to match his own, Trump’s campaign used every trick they could think of, including inviting women who accused Bill Clinton of rape and unwanted sexual advances to appear at one of the debates.
Attacks on Biden’s family? Accusations he’s drugged up or senile? There is no line Trump won’t cross to win.
Biden will continue to hammer Trump as a fundamental threat to democracy and try to make the case that the president is a selfish, corrupt figure incapable of empathy. Biden will sell himself as a steady, experienced hand with a progressive policy agenda on issues including climate action and criminal justice -- just not as progressive as Trump tries to make him when he blasts Biden as the front man for a “radical” takeover.
Biden’s campaign believes that he is enough of a known quantity that voters beyond Trump’s base simply won’t buy the president’s descriptions of the former vice president. If they are right, they see Trump’s base-driven campaign as one that opens up a wide coalition -- from progressives who aren’t in love with Biden to anti-Trump moderates Republicans -- for the Democratic ticket.
CORONAVIRUS AND AN OCTOBER SURPRISE?
Biden has defined his White House bid from the start as a moral and competency case against Trump. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the approach. Biden’s campaign believes there’s no cover for Trump with the coronavirus death toll surpassing 180,000 and climbing, cases nearing the 6 million mark, unemployment hovering in double digits and Congress at an impasse on further economic aid.
In remarks Thursday before Trump's nomination acceptance speech, Harris summarized the campaign’s thinking: “Trump’s incompetence is nothing new,” she said, “but in January of this year, it became deadly.” She said the incumbent “failed at the most basic and important job of a president ... to protect us.”
Trump is hoping for a late development that could be a campaign game-changer: The release of a vaccine that would mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic on his watch, before Americans vote. His administration has been doing everything it can to accelerate the process, along with hyping new therapeutics, even when it's not clear they work. “We’ll produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner,” he said in his convention keynote. It’s unclear, however, whether science can deliver on his timetable.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE THE DEBATES?
The conventions largely succeeded in fulfilling both campaigns’ objectives, so the debates -- scheduled for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 -- will be the most high-profile opportunities for the candidates to highlight contrasts, animate core supporters and cajole the small but critical slice of persuadable voters.
Biden and his team say they relish the idea of confronting Trump face to face. “The debates will give the V.P. the chance to call Trump on all of his B.S.,” Richmond said.
It also will be another chance for the 77-year-old Democrat to work to dismantle Trump’s framing that Biden is too old for the job. Richmond said that narrative could backfire on Trump, himself a 74-year-old who regularly mangles syntax and offers meandering answers.
Some in Trump’s camp seem to agree. After months of trying to cast Biden as feeble and mentally diminished, they're now talking up Biden’s abilities as a way to try to lower expectations on Trump's side.
“Joe Biden is really good at debates,” Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller has been saying, portraying Biden as much more skilled than Hillary Clinton.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO HAVE A WINNER?
It might not be on election night.
The campaigns and national parties are engaged in lawsuits across many states, arguing over rules for absentee voting amid the pandemic, and that litigation could continue if results are close on Nov. 3.
Republicans and Democrats alike are pushing their supporters to ask for absentee mail ballots, even as Trump continues to question the integrity of the election before a single vote is cast.
Don’t expect that landscape to change between now and Election Day -- or even for several weeks afterward. Trump has refused to say whether he’ll accept the results if he loses, and Clinton has warned Biden not to concede if the election is remotely close.
One thing is clear, though: The Constitution sets Inauguration Day as Jan. 20, and barring catastrophic developments, either Trump or Biden will take the oath of office that day.