The Trailer: Trump and allies have lowered expectations for Joe Biden

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Sunday speech on the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lasted 22 minutes, from the moment he removed a black face mask to the moment he walked away from a National Constitution Center lectern. In conservative media, much of the coverage focused on a verbal blunder that took four seconds.

“It’s estimated that 200 million people have died, probably by the time I finish this talk,” Biden said, referring to victims of the novel coronavirus.

The Democratic nominee corrected himself minutes later — he’d said “million” when he meant “thousand.” But for the Daily Mail, the story was that Biden “made ANOTHER gaffe.” For the Washington Examiner, it was that Biden said “60 percent of the U.S. population is dead.” In Fox News’s prime-time programming the next day, Marc Siegel, a physician who has not treated Biden, baselessly speculated that Biden had endured years of “silent strokes” and might be taking “speed” or “Adderall” before the moments where he’s coherent.

“Imagine if President Trump said that!” Siegel said, referring to Biden’s one-word stumble. “Imagine how the wolves would be all over him if he made anything like that mistake!” 

President Trump actually had made stumbles like that ― repeatedly misstating the date of the 1918 flu outbreak, mangling the pronunciation of “Yosemite.” But in the final days before the first Trump-Biden debate, as the Democrat eschews public events for private practice sessions, the president and his allies continue to portray Biden, infamous for making gaffes for much of his career, as too old and incompetent to function. The attacks, from the campaign, conservative news outlets and Trump supporters on social media, are based in falsehoods, and many of them have been not just pointed out as wrong by fact-checkers but removed by social media companies. Trump has even asserted, falsely, that Biden might skip the debates, rather than show up and be humiliated by the president.

The GOP’s rapid response teams clip the worst moments from Biden’s appearances — analogies that go nowhere, frustrated mutterings of “anyway!” instead of finished sentences. And when the candidates meet in Cleveland, that could matter. The tradition of raising expectations for a president’s opponent has been blown away with the churn of “basement Biden” content.

“For a number of different reasons, I don’t think Joe Biden ever should have run for president,” Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), 65, told a radio interviewer in his state last week, ahead of the release of his report on the financial entanglements of Hunter Biden, which failed to show that they influenced the then-vice president’s behavior. “Just take a look at the compilation videos of the obvious age deterioration. It’s sad.”

The strategy hasn’t reversed Trump’s deficit in polls. It has not gotten the sort of sustained pushback organized by other Democratic presidential campaigns — Barack Obama’s “fight the smears” micro-site, the Correct the Record PAC formed to help Hillary Clinton. The campaign has responded to rumors, typically, by sharing media fact checks or to accusations of Biden’s decline by joking about Trump’s interview with, ironically, physician Marc Siegel, when the president talked at length and in detail about his own cognitive test, which had proved he was not in any stage of dementia. More subtly, the campaign has run ads that feature Biden himself talking at length, coherently, including one that consisted entirely of the candidate’s well-received DNC acceptance speech. 

But Biden does stumble over words, and the conversation about his acuity has shaped coverage of his campaign. In the candidate’s interviews with local news networks — he has not done one with English-language national media since August, after the Democratic National Convention — reporters who get just a half-dozen questions tend to throw one in about his sharpness. On Wednesday, Raleigh’s WRAL had less than six minutes with Biden, and spent part of that time on the “fitness” question.

“The president clearly has attacked you, calling you weak, saying you’re unfit for the job,” said reporter Cullen Browder. “For those voters who buy into that, who may question whether you’re physically, mentally fit, how do you respond to them?”

“Watch me,” said Biden, before listing some of the president’s more famous gaffes, his typical response to the question. “I’m not the guy who said that the attack that took down the twin towers was on 7/11.”

The former vice president, who turns 78 weeks after the Nov. 3 election, was always vulnerable to questions like this. Polls during the Democratic primary found voters more nervous about the electability of a candidate in his 70s than the electability of a female candidate. Polling on the candidates’ mental fitness — rarely, if ever, asked about in previous elections — found good and bad news for Biden. 

Fox News, the only outlet that’s asked several rounds of questions about “the mental soundness to serve effectively as president,” found this month and this summer that Biden actually fared better than Trump, who is 74. Democrats worry about Trump’s fitness for office but tend to focus more on stability than acuity. In this month’s poll, voters judged the Democrat “sound” enough for the presidency by a six-point margin, while viewing Trump as unsound by a four-point margin.

But from July to September, among registered voters, the proportion who thought Trump was mentally sound had risen by a net four points; the proportion who thought Biden was sound had declined by a net four points. (Like most pollsters, Fox tightened its screen from “registered” to “likely” voters after Labor Day.) 

That came after millions of dollars in Trump ads that portray Biden as “diminished” and “weak,” perpetually showing him on-screen either kneeling or looking confused. And Biden’s fitness been part of the conservative media conversation, one that takes for granted that the mainstream media covers up for Democrats, refusing to ask them hard questions or show their blunders. A year ago, even some of Biden’s opponents in the primary questioned whether he’d lost a step; when Biden secured the nomination, the friendly fire ceased.

The Trump campaign and an army of the president’s fans have created super-cuts of bad Biden moments. Some have been genuinely confusing; some, like Biden not realizing his wife and sister had switched places on a stage behind him, were easily explained. It has also built a conveyor belt of fakery, with the Trump campaign even getting flagged for sharing bogus videos that purport to show Biden falling asleep mid-interview or admitting that the president is right about him. 

It played out again this week, with the Biden campaign largely sitting back and watching. On Sept. 15, Noticias Telemundo published a video interview between Biden and José Díaz-Balart, with the host’s questions mixed in with voter questions delivered on a small screen. Biden began to answer the first question, about deportations during the Obama-Biden administration, before a technical error took the voter off-screen. “I lost the lady,” Biden said. 

Five days later, a conservative video editor shared the clip, but cut out the question, asking Diaz-Balart if Biden “was reading his responses — even though just a few more seconds of tape revealed that he wasn’t, and the idea that a reporter would sit back as Biden read prepared answers relied on a false, paranoid view of how media works. The deceptive edit got hundreds of thousands of views, and more when Eric Trump, the president’s son and an active campaign surrogate, shared it with the assertion that Biden was caught reading answers from a teleprompter.

The video was debunked, but Trump’s campaign has spent weeks insisting, without evidence, that Biden reads prepared answers to prepared questions. In June, Biden was accused of dodging news conferences, emphasizing the objective truth that Trump takes more questions than his opponent. When Biden did take questions, a Fox News reporter asked about his “cognitive decline.” But when the Democrat didn’t stumble, Trump accused him of reading “the answers from a teleprompter” and being given the questions in advance.

Since then, Trump’s campaign has occasionally warned that Biden has more experience on a debate stage than Trump, that he was seen as the winner in his 2008 and 2012 debates, and that he was underrated going into the final debate of the primaries, a one-on-one showdown with Bernie Sanders in which he made no mistakes.

That message has been drowned out by the campaign’s mockery of Biden, led by the president, and emphasized by its rapid-response team. In the past few weeks, the Trump campaign spent more than $100,000 on a Facebook ad insisting that Biden was using a teleprompter in an April interview with CBS late-night host James Corden, even though Corden himself had debunked the idea. (Biden, lifting a picture frame, revealed a remote camera setup that showed Corden’s lines.)

“Can’t handle an interview?” the Trump ad read. “Can’t handle presidency.”

Had the campaign not done this, it would have been resisting its candidate, and the tenor of pro-Trump media. Derision of Biden is a mainstay of Fox News programming; earlier this month, the network invited a former White House stenographer, Mike McCormick, to share his theory that Biden was a “shell” of his old self and “doesn’t have his heart or his gut anymore.” (McCormick’s self-published book about Biden, released shortly before the end of the Democratic primary, asserts that “Biden will never be the leader of the Democratic Party or the president of the United States.”)

The president, meanwhile, has asserted that Biden cannot answer questions without being given the answers, that he does not know where he is and that he is injected with drugs to look alive for interviews. None of that was surprising, as Trump suggested in 2016 that Clinton’s energy on the debate stage may have also been the result of chemical enhancement. What’s new is the primacy of attacks on his opponent’s mental fitness.

All of it has lowered the stakes for Biden and made the debate a higher-reward, lower-risk opportunity for the Democrat than it otherwise might have been. As Biden proved in 2019, when he made memorable mistakes in the first, crowded primary debates, an actual onstage screw-up does damage, no matter how it’s spun. If Trump’s campaign never questioned Biden’s sharpness, and if he stumbled onstage, the stumble could still define his performance. 

Lowering expectations actually adds more risks. Ahead of the sole 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the Democrat had successfully raised doubts about Reagan’s age and fitness. They were wiped out in less than two hours, with Reagan’s polling finding the percentage of voters who considered him a “strong leader” jumping from 42 percent to 61 percent by Election Day. In 2000, Democrats who’d derided George W. Bush’s intelligence were hurt when the Republican didn’t embarrass himself, and the campaign succeeded in portraying Al Gore as a dismissive snob.

“This reminds me of 2000, only the parties are reversed,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (Pa.), an early Biden endorser. “The [Bush] campaign did an excellent job of lowering expectations. For some reason, Gore’s campaign didn’t. I welcome Trump’s campaign lowering expectations for Joe in the debate. I will take it.” 

Reading list

The GOP’s internal polling shows some risks in a rapid confirmation push.

Voting: Who needs it?

A long-expected investigative report lands with a thud.

The data that does (and doesn’t) make Democrats sweat.

New reporting on how racist extremists view the president, and how he views them.

Why older Black voters are all in for Biden, but younger Black voters aren’t sure.

Will the coronavirus still be a voting issue in November?

Voting wars

The president’s latest comments about whether he’d participate in a “peaceful transfer of power” inspired the latest and bitterest wave of questions about whether he’ll accept an election loss — and whether he would want a Supreme Court with two or three of his appointees to rule in his favor in ballot contests.

“You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster,” Trump told Brian Karem of Playboy magazine. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”

Biden quickly condemned that, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who had already scheduled a Thursday speech about the election’s stakes, said at George Washington University on Thursday that Trump had confirmed his threat to democracy.

“A landslide victory for Biden will make it virtually impossible for Trump to deny the results and is our best means for defending democracy,” Sanders said.

But the Trump campaign has made its opposition to mass mail-in voting a key argument of its campaign, even as the GOP urges voters to request and send in mail ballots as soon as possible. In an unusual move, the Justice Department announced Thursday that nine military ballots in Pennsylvania were “discarded,” but recovered after “an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections.” 

Luzerne County went strongly for the president in 2016; all nine ballots, according to the DOJ “were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.” Within hours, Trump himself had made a reference to the report, saying, incorrectly, that there were “eight ballots in a wastepaper basket.” Only later did the DOJ clarify that it was reviewing ballots sent to members of the military in August, and it deleted its first statement to correct it: Seven ballots were cast for Trump and two were sealed. 

The Trump campaign quickly accused Democrats of “trying to steal” the election — though the DOJ did not explain what had happened to the ballots and definitely didn’t accuse Democrats of meddling with them.

Also on Thursday, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida introduced the Verifiable, Orderly, & Timely Election Results (Voter) Act, which has no chance of passage in the Democratic-run House. Scott, whose own 2018 victory hung in the balance for days over questions about ballot integrity, said that the bill would ensure that election results are announced quickly, by creating national standards for signature requirements and ballot deadlines —”all ballots validly cast in an election for Federal office shall be counted and reported within 24 hours after the conclusion of voting on the date of the election.” The bill would also prevent anyone but a voter’s family member or caregiver from handling a ballot (to prevent “ballot harvesting”) and prevent mail ballots that show up after the end of Election Day from being counted.

“We can’t wait weeks or months to find out the results of this election or any election in our future — a scenario made all the more likely by the Democrats’ push to change laws late in the game and eliminate standards that protect against fraud,” Scott said in a statement.

Scott’s bill would also require that “mail-in ballots received prior to the date of the election shall be counted beginning at the time polls open on the date of the election.” That could read as a change to Florida’s law, which allows ballots to be processed 22 days before the election. A Scott spokesperson said that the early processing, which has dramatically sped up Florida’s count, would continue. 

“This bill would establish uniform standards for vote-by-mail systems across the country, so any conflicting state laws would be pre-empted,” they said. “The bill does not address procedures for processing ballots, such as verifying voter signatures and recording the total number of ballots received prior to election day.” The reluctance of other states to begin this processing before Election Day is the major reason for worries about a slow count. 

Ad watch

Joe Biden, “Anthony J.” Most of the Biden campaign’s recent paid ads have focused on the economy, the one issue where the president still leads even in places where the Democrat is running strong. They’ve also, increasingly, highlighted Black Americans, like Anthony Jefferson, who stars in this spot and says his Pittsburgh hair salon lost eight employees during the height of the pandemic. The pitch: Biden has a plan for $150 billion in grants “to build it back better.”

Al Gross, “Corner” The quasi-Democratic nominee for Senate in Alaska (he’s running as an independent with the party’s support) has quickly turned around a spot about a story that has impacted the state for a decade: the Pebble Mine project, opposed by a cross-ideological coalition of environmentalists. The recording of executive Dan Collier boasting about how he exploited his ties to Republicans to advance the project handed Gross material to attack the Republican incumbent: “Dan Sullivan hides his support for Pebble Mine. Hides his 97 percent party line voting record.”

Poll watch

The president elected in November: 59%
President Trump: 41%

Since the court’s vacancy opened up, polling has tilted in one direction: A majority of voters would prefer for the seat to be filled by whoever gets elected president. Asked the same question by CNN’s pollsters, four years ago, a majority of voters wanted Barack Obama to fill a vacant seat. Some of the difference can be explained by partisan sentiments — the term-limited Obama was popular, and Trump is not. Some is probably because of the timing, with a nominee named in March and confirmed before November fitting more with tradition than a nominee named in September and confirmed a month later. But Republicans expect an actual nominee, and subsequent Democratic opposition, to change the numbers.

Donald Trump: 49%
Joe Biden: 48%

The Post’s wave of swing state polls this week were some of the best the president had gotten all year. By 15 points, voters trust Trump more than Biden on “handling the economy,” and by four points they trust him more on “crime and safety.” Biden leads narrowly or decisively on other questions, but the government’s handling of the coronavirus has faded as a top voting issue. 

Donald Trump: 51%
Joe Biden: 47%

Our first look at Florida also resulted in the best poll Trump’s seen in the state since the start of the coronavirus. Unlike what we’ve seen in most other polls, Trump actually runs ahead of his approval rating, by four points; he holds an 11-point net positive rating on the economy, the latest in a string of successes for his argument that the coronavirus was a blip, and he can rebuild from it.

Donald Trump: 45% (+1) 
Joe Biden: 44: (-1)

The race here has remained close, with not much variance, even as the president’s approval rating and the number of voters with the coronavirus as a top concern has declined. Down the ballot, Democrat Cal Cunningham has a clear lead in the race for U.S. Senate, and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is leading his reelection race. But Cooper’s approval on the coronavirus, the issue that disrupted the GOP’s initial plans to hold a convention in Charlotte, has been falling since the start of summer.

Joe Biden: 48%
Donald Trump: 47%

Quinnipiac’s first look at this state with a “likely” voter screen finds a race identical to its poll of registered voters this summer: Biden up by one, well within the margin of error. But there’s been a shift in Trump’s advantages with gettable voters. He leads or ties Biden on every issue tested except for “handling the coronavirus” and fixing “racial inequality.” But every lead is in the single digits, even his handling of the economy. Both Biden and Trump have favorable ratings below 50 percent, but Biden’s got a 12-point favorability advantage with college-educated White voters; in 2016, that group broke for Trump by 25 points.

Donald Trump: 50%
Joe Biden: 45%

This is the best poll in months for Trump in the Lone Star State, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Trump leads Biden on every issue except racial inequality; the president even leads on handling of the coronavirus, a rarity in swing-state polls. Trump’s also viewed markedly more favorably than Biden. Why is it close? A massive gender gap, with men favoring Trump by 14 points, and women favoring Biden by 15 points, and a strong Biden advantage, once again, with college-educated White voters. 

This differs from polls that show a closer Texas race in one big way: Trump gets 19 percent of Black voters and 43 percent of Hispanic voters. In 2016, Trump pulled 11 and 34 percent of the vote with those electorates, respectively; in 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz won 11 and 35 percent of those voters.

In the states

Did a few thousand Minnesotans accidentally cancel a House election by voting for a pro-marijuana party two years ago? In a word: Yes.

Adam Weeks, the nominee for the Legal Marijuana Now Party in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, died this week, with the election already underway. It’s not the first time a Minnesota candidate has died while ballots were being cast; in 2002, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) was killed in a plane crash, and Democrats hurriedly nominated former vice president Walter Mondale to replace him. 

That led to confusion about ballots already cast for Wellstone, which, to Democrats’ detriment, were not counted for Mondale. The state subsequently changed the law, requiring a new election if a “major party” candidate died within 79 days of Election Day. The old problem — what to do with votes for a dead candidate — was gone, because the parties no longer would replace that candidate on the ballot. It would be settled by a special election instead.

How did the Legal Marijuana Now Party, a 22-year-old left-wing party, gain “major party” status? Minnesota grants that status to any party that gets more than 5 percent of the vote in the previous election, and in 2018, as Democrats swept Minnesota’s statewide races, 5.3 percent of voters opted for the Legal Marijuana Now Party’s candidate for state auditor.

That created a problem for Democrats this year, and the party filed an FEC complaint against Weeks, whose social media posts suggested that he supported Republicans and who was not filing required paperwork about his finances. (In Montana, a lawsuit against the Green Party, which got on the ballot with Republican help, got them removed.) While Rep. Angie Craig (D) won the seat in 2018, she’d lost it in 2016, thanks in large part to a left-wing third-party candidate. Republican nominee Tyler Kistner was running a serious race against Craig, but as of July, the Democrat had five times as much cash on hand, and the seat was not seen as a top Republican target.

Now, according to Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon, the letter of the law prevents votes in this race from being counted. While the election will proceed and votes up and down the ballot will be tallied, votes in the 2nd District won’t.

That will create a February 2021 special election in the district, which could be competitive; Trump won 47 percent of the vote there, edging out Clinton thanks to a high share of votes for third-party candidates. More than that, if the presidential election is thrown into the House of Representatives in the event of an electoral college tie, the vote would take place on Jan. 6, 2021. Each state will vote as a bloc based on the votes in its congressional delegation. Right now, Democrats have a 5-3 majority in the delegation, but that could change in six weeks.

In November, if Republicans were to hold their three current seats and win the state’s 7th District — the most Trump-friendly seat held by a Democrat — they’d have four seats in the delegation, with Democrats holding three seats, and one seat vacant. Were Democrats to flip the 1st District, one of their top targets, they could hold four seats, if they lost the 7th District, or five, if they held it.

Candidate tracker

We might not see much of Joe Biden until this coming Tuesday. The Democratic nominee, who has alternated days on the campaign trail with days off, went dark Thursday; if he follows a schedule similar to Clinton’s in 2016, he’ll spend the weekend in debate prep. Biden’s campaign held a conference call on health care Thursday, but the main Democratic messaging of the day came from Bernie Sanders.

President Trump, who has eschewed traditional debate prep, headed to North Carolina on Thursday to lay out health-care plans, including his proposal — much mocked by Democrats — of an executive order to save customers with preexisting conditions from insurance discrimination. (That’s already law under the Affordable Care Act, which Trump’s administration is suing to invalidate.) He’ll travel to Florida, Georgia and Virginia in the following days, with a rally near Harrisburg, Pa., on Saturday evening. That’s similar to his 2016 schedule before the first presidential debate, which Trump was widely seen as losing to Clinton; he held a Saturday rally in Virginia that year, walking offstage less than 48 hours before the debate.

Trump started Thursday with a visit to the casket of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, accompanied by the first lady and greeted by boos, which the White House lightly condemned. Vice President Pence was headed to Minnesota for a “Cops for Trump” event; Kamala D. Harris was in the Senate.

Countdown

… five days until the first presidential debate
13 days until the vice-presidential debate 
… 21 days until the second presidential debate
… 28 days until the third presidential debate
… 40 days until the general election 
… 81 days until the Electoral College votes