There are nine days left until Election Day. We will know if there is a clear winner in the presidential race in just over one week. But even if Joe Biden wins and one national nightmare comes to an end, the nation will continue to face complicated issues that will not be easily addressed by a change in leadership.
Four years ago, it was eleven days before Election Day when Jim Comey announced the FBI’s new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, turned the presidential race on its head, and effectively put Donald Trump on a path to winning the presidency. While some may debate whether or not Comey’s letter led to Clinton’s defeat, Donald Trump himself is quite confident that it led him to victory. It is the reason why he has been demanding Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray to open an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. The ‘October Surprise’ worked before, and he believes it can work again.
Even as Joe Biden continues to maintain a wide lead in national polls – averaging 9.1% at FiveThirtyEight and 8.0% on RealClearPolitics – Democrats, along with a fair share of Republicans and independents, remain terrified that Trump will once again grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. That fear is not unreasonable. While FiveThirtyEight currently gives Trump only a 12 percent chance to win a second term, 2016 was nothing if not a lesson in polling and political probabilities. A twelve percent chance is not zero, and many things can happen only twelve percent of the time.
The difference this time around is that Donald Trump has four years of governance under his belt. This week, Gallup released a poll indicating that 56% of Americans believe that he does not deserve to be reelected, compared to 43% who think he does. The 43% number is consistent with Trump’s approval rating, which rarely exceeded 44% over the entire course of his presidency. That number is significant because a president’s approval rating is widely viewed as the most reliable indicator of how he will perform on Election Day. Indeed, if you look through polls taken over the past several months – nationally and in the battleground states – 44% stands out as a ceiling that Trump has struggled to exceed.
The reality remains that Trump has lost ground across nearly every demographic group he held an edge four years ago. Biden has made strides among the military, the elderly, and white women, and closed the gap with less-educated white men. Yet many Democrats are scarred from the 2016 upset and the fear that lightning may strike twice.
Absent being able to engineer another October Surprise (so far, Rudy Giuliani’s Hunter Biden gambit appears to have had little impact), the final presidential debate was Trump’s last opportunity to reframe the narrative away from the pandemic and his job performance. While Donald Trump was more restrained than in the first debate in September, the poll results were no better. In focus groups of undecided voters, Trump was depicted as “surprisingly presidential” at best, nasty and humorless at worst.
Trump’s comfort with cruelty is not something to which his most-loyal supporters turn a blind eye to. Instead, it is what many of them love about him – painting his as authentic and outside the political establishment. He has engendered within our politics a dynamic of roiling bitterness and resentment that reverberates at his rallies. Dating back to his early flirtations with David Duke, Trump has sanctioned brought behavior relegated to the fringes of society into the mainstream. While people were shocked to see white supremacists march in Charlottesville early in Trump’s presidency, little shocks us anymore – even when we see images of men with assault weapons lurking threateningly in state capitols. It barely occupies a news cycle when the FBI end plots to kidnap a state governor or kill Joe Biden. We can fully expect active voter intimidation – if not violence – around polling places over the coming days.
Donald Trump has exacted a high moral cost on his supporters. They have learned to think and do things they likely never would have thought or done before. One example is the price paid by his supporters in the evangelical community. For forty years, evangelical leaders have undertaken a strategic effort to support Republican candidates in exchange for the GOP commitment to building a conservative judiciary and Supreme Court. This effort reached a new level in 2016, as evangelical support for Donald Trump was more unified than for any President in memory. Yet it was an alliance that came at a steep price. While Trump delivered the judges and justices he promised, the moral stature and credibility of those evangelical leaders who stood by his side and prayed in the Oval Office have been ground into dust as they have become complicit in tolerating deeply inhumane practices. The silence of those leaders as infants and children has been torn from their parents’ arms and held in prisons along our southern border reflects their compact with Trumpism. Giving cover to his cruelty is the price they paid to win the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Over the past four years, Donald Trump has given succor and support to white nationalists and conspiracy theorists of all stripes. All the while, members of the Republican Party have held their tongues out of fear of political backlash. An interview last Sunday between Fox Business News anchor Maria Bartiromo and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson provided a glimpse into the growing influence of conspiracy theories in Republican rhetoric. Bartiromo and Johnson, each prominent members of what was once the center-right political mainstream, bantered freely about Hunter Biden in terms that touched on elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory. It seemed more akin to Alex Jones’s InfoWars than a mainstream news network.
QAnon – a conspiracy theory whose main villains are a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats involved in pedophilia and child sex-trafficking – has emerged as a growing force in Republican politics. According to recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey research, 50% of Trump supporters believe that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings,” and only one in six Trump supporters don’t think it is true.
With nine days to go, polls continue to suggest that Joe Biden is favored to win the presidency. Yet even if he does, the bad news comes in the shape of the world that he would inherit on January 20th. Over the past four years, Donald Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the soul of the country. We were divided before he arrived, but it has only gotten worse during his time in the White House. We have watched him and his supporters – in Congress and elsewhere – work deliberately to exacerbate those divisions.
After November 3rd, we will need to rebuild some semblance of normalcy to our politics and our country. Even if Biden enters the White House, deeper, more complicated realities remain. These are issues concerning far more existential topics, such as finding a shared sense of truth. The nation will face the arduous task of figuring out where we go from here.
David Paul is the founder and President of the Fiscal Strategies Group, a financial advisory firm specializing in municipal and project finance. Prior to forming the Fiscal Strategies Group, Dr. Paul was a Managing Director and member of the Board of Directors of Public Financial Management, Inc. Dr. Paul also served as the Vice Provost of Drexel University, and as the CEO of Mathforum.com, a mathematics and math education website and virtual community that is now part of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.