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Let Trump Be Trump?


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Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

I spent much of yesterday calling voters in swing states, starting every conversation by asking one simple question: What do you think of Joe Biden?

Every single person responded by immediately launching into their feelings about President Trump.

“Over the past four years, I’ve seen orange face just destroying everything we had,” said Donald Stovner, 58, in Las Vegas. Mr. Stovner, who lost his job as a network engineer in June, plans to back Mr. Biden, though he says the former vice president “isn’t my first choice.”

“You either like or him or hate him, at least you know where you stand with Trump,” said Brian Christen, 55, a room service waiter in Las Vegas who says he’ll be voting for the president.

In the 2020 campaign, Mr. Trump is like an electoral black hole: a political force so strong that nothing can escape its pull.

Much of his disruption of the political space-time continuum can be attributed to the presidents addiction to the spotlight, even when it’s unflattering. No scandal, resignation or tell-all book revelation is too small or too damaging for the president to resist weighing in on himself and feeding the flames. At the same time, his campaign has been unable to press a consistent narrative against Mr. Biden, careening between labeling him as too feeble, too “stupid” and too radical to be president.

For months, Mr. Biden and his team have bet that the president is on a self-defeating path. The pace of the former vice president’s travel, while picking up, has been relatively light. His events are smaller affairs where masks and social distancing are mandatory. While the Trump campaign knocks on doors, Mr. Biden’s organizing has been entirely virtual.

Democrats spent years slamming Hillary Clinton for her failure to visit Wisconsin in the fall of 2016 even as Mr. Trump did; Mr. Biden has made just one trip to the pivotal battleground state this year. The president plans to make yet another visit to the state tomorrow evening.

The “let Trump be Trump” strategy raises an obvious question: Is Mr. Biden making enough of an affirmative case for himself? And, in a year dominated by such a polarizing president, does it even matter?

Democratic campaign officials defend their approach, saying the limited schedule demonstrates the contrasting leadership styles of Mr. Biden and the president.

“We feel very comfortable that we are reaching our voters,” the Biden campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, said in an interview with Politico. “But we also need to make sure we’re role modeling what’s safe.”

She added, “People will die” because of the kinds of unmasked, mass rallies being held by Mr. Trump. (Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, has defended the president’s campaign events by criticizing the racial justice protests and Las Vegas’s reopening. “If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States,” he said, of the indoor rallies, which defy state, local and federal guidelines.)

But Mr. Biden, too, is courting danger by not being present on the campaign trail.

If he wins, a new Biden administration will have to push its agenda through Congress, a difficult task that could be made even harder if he squanders the opportunity to build support for his plans during the campaign.

And if he loses, Mr. Biden’s low profile will certainly be cited as a reason for his defeat.

Whether or not the Democratic strategy proves to be correct, it certainly reflects the reality of this race. Barring a dramatic event that fundamentally reshapes the race (it’s 2020, can’t rule it out!), this two-man contest is all about one.

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Today The Times’s Nate Cohn launched a new polling diary to help enlighten us all the way until Election Day on what the polls are telling us. We spoke with Nate about what trends he’s seen over the last few weeks and what to watch for as November nears.

Did anyone get an enduring bounce from the party conventions in August?

About now is the time when convention bounces start to fade. President Trump did appear to get a small one in the days following the Republican National Convention, but right now it’s too soon to say whether his bounce will fade or endure. Our polling averages have Mr. Trump making a very slight gain in the last week; we think he trails by about six percentage points nationally.

Have the battleground states tightened?

We have seen races tightening somewhat in Florida, a race crucial to Mr. Trump’s re-election hopes. But Mr. Biden seems to be holding firm or even making gains in battlegrounds in the Upper Midwest in particular. Several high-quality polls show Mr. Biden with a lead of five points or more in Wisconsin in recent weeks, including one today from ABC News/Washington Post. That’s about as clear of a picture as you’re going to get in a battleground state so far from an election. (That same poll showed Mr. Biden up 16 points in Minnesota, an incredibly strong result for him there.)

Is the virus still the top issue for voters, or has that shifted amid Trump’s “law and order” push?

The Times’s own polls of Minnesota and Wisconsin found that the president’s focus on law and order has succeeded at refocusing the election away from issues he’s weaker on, to an extent, but that has not yet persuaded voters to prefer him. In those states, voters who said they thought law and order was just as important as the coronavirus believed that Mr. Biden supported defunding police (he doesn’t), and said that Mr. Biden had not gone far enough to condemn protesters. Yet Mr. Trump still didn’t hold a clear edge on who would handle law and order or violent crime; voters said that they thought Mr. Trump encouraged violence and that Mr. Biden would do a better job handling protests and unifying the county.

The revolution begins in the towel section of Target. (For real, though, WEAR A MASK!)

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