July 5, 2020

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If Donald Trump’s down, how dirty will he fight to win?

Looked at objectively, it’s an odd choice. On 3 November, the American public, whose median age is around 38 and whose makeup is increasingly ethnically and racially diverse, will be asked to pick one of two elderly white men, each well into his 70s, to run the country for the next four years.

If one of the candidates was much younger – think Bill Clinton versus George HW Bush in 1992 – it might be a big deal. But since both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are relatively old, any negative impact will likely cancel itself out. If Biden wins, he will, at 78, be the oldest president ever to take office, breaking the previous record set Trump who was a mere 70 in 2017.

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A candidate’s power to excite the electorate matters more than age. This ability to enthuse is a quality Biden has yet to demonstrate. Lockdown has so far shielded him from the wisdom and scrutiny of crowds, and from the risk of making more of his signature gaffes. Biden-mania has yet to materialise.

When it comes to Trump, any temptation to use his senior citizen status as a metaphor for an ageing superpower past its prime should obviously be avoided. Trump exudes vim and vigour at campaign rallies. But the last one, in Tulsa, when only diehard fans turned up, left him looking tired and worn out.

Exciting or otherwise, both candidates will face questions about their health as the campaign hots up. Biden suffered two brain aneurysms in 1988, and was reportedly fortunate to survive unimpaired. Recent news reports claim to have detected physical unsteadiness in Trump, whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi describes as “morbidly obese”.

The impact of personal stuff like this should not be underestimated. Bush, then aged 67, lost more than his lunch in 1992 after he vomited into the lap of the Japanese prime minister at a banquet in Tokyo, then fainted, all in front of the TV cameras. Bush, cruelly mocked, was defeated later that year.

Right now, however, political not personal considerations are dominating the election run-in – and for Trump, the polls are truly sick-making. The latest Real Clear Politics national average shows Biden ahead 10%. Worse still for Trump, he lags significant margins in so-called battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida that will decide the electoral college.

A triple whammy of pandemic, economic meltdown, and protests about racial injustice has battered Trump, who started the year as favourite. In six battleground states surveyed in a New York Times/Siena College poll, Trump gained only 41% approval for his management of the Covid-19 emergency and 31% for the George Floyd protests.

Any president’s popularity would have wilted under such a barrage. But commentators suggest Trump has made matters worse failing to grasp the national mood. Many American lives are in crisis, but Trump, obsessed his own prospects, just doesn’t get it. This empathy gap could be his undoing.

Overall, Trump’s job approval rating now stands at minus 13.3%. Even his loyal fans at Fox News have him on minus 11%, amid a steady loss of support among non-college-educated white male voters, the bedrock of his fabled “base”. A majority of all white voters believes Trump has been too aggressive on race and too passive on jobs.

As Trump’s support fractures, Biden’s is coming together, with 93% of voters who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 now backing him. Polling also suggests supporters of leftwingers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are rallying to the centrist Biden. Gallingly for Republicans, he even leads among voters aged 65 and over.

It’s early days. Trump could pull a lot of stunts before 3 November. But right now, it’s Biden’s to lose. Not bad for an old guy.

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