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Biden leads with six months to go, but much could change before Election Day

FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
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With six months until Election Day, former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump in several battleground states, but uncertainty about the speed and extent of the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and lingering trauma over Trump’s unforeseen 2016 victory gives Democrats plenty of reason not to put too much faith in the numbers they are seeing in early May.

Recent polls give Biden an edge in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona—all states Trump won in 2016 that Democrats are angling to turn blue in 2020. A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday suggests even Texas could be a toss-up at this point, with Trump and Biden tied at 43%.

“It’s certainly something that rightfully has caused alarm in the Trump camp but it's still so early. Until I see polling consistently at like 53% for Biden, I think this is still a very, very fluid election,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political media consultant and adjunct professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Trump also consistently trailed 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton six months out from the election, but the dynamics are different this time. Democrats recognize the stakes are higher, Trump is not seeing the boost in support a president leading the nation through a crisis typically would, and the state of public health and the economy could change drastically by November, so a snapshot of public opinion in late April may mean even less than usual.

The president has reportedly bristled at internal polling showing Biden ahead in swing states, and he has insisted public polls showing similar trends are fake. Though his favorability surged in some surveys early in the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s numbers have largely shifted back to low-40s range where they had been for most of his presidency.

A Public Religion Research Institute survey released last week found Trump’s approval rating in battleground states has dropped from a relative high of 53% to 38% since late March. The survey also found those in counties with high rates of COVID-19 cases are 10 percentage points less likely to view Trump favorably than those with lower rates.

Nordlinger expects the strength of the economic recovery between now and November and perceptions of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic will be the two biggest factors in voters’ minds. While negative attitudes toward 2016 Democratic nominee Clinton were a boon for Trump, his campaign has so far struggled to turn attention to Biden’s potential shortcomings.

“If this is a referendum simply on Trump’s four years, he probably loses, but what Trump is going to do is make this a comparison between Biden and him,” he said.

For better or worse, Trump continues to monopolize the spotlight as he seeks to frame his administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak as a success. A CBS News/YouGov survey released Sunday found Biden leading Trump nationally among likely voters by 6 points, but it also showed nearly half feel they have not seen enough of Biden during the crisis, compared to 53% who say they have seen too much of Trump.

Letting Trump be Trump has worked reasonably well for Biden so far, but it is clear he will need to campaign more openly and lay out a positive case for his candidacy eventually. Some Democrats say that taking on Trump will require a shift in strategy from the primaries, where Biden had limited resources but a huge advantage in name recognition over most of the field.

“In order to break through and be heard, he will have to up the tempo of his campaign, fully utilize his army of powerful surrogates and embrace a new suite of virtual, data-driven tools and creative tactics,” former Barack Obama campaign advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe wrote in The New York Times Monday.

They recommend a focus on social media, a much more aggressive and nimble attack strategy against Trump, more effective use of surrogates, a virtual get-out-the-vote campaign, and preparations for a possible digital convention.

“Even in normal times, you have to put every point on the board you can, every day, to win the presidency. And these are not normal times. We are a deeply polarized country. Even in the crisis, Mr. Trump’s base of support has proved durable and Mr. Biden’s margins in key battleground states are thin,” Axelrod and Plouffe said.

Heading into the general election fight, Biden trails far behind Trump and the Republican National Committee in fundraising and organization, but it is unclear how much difference that will make. Despite the Trump campaign’s massive money advantage, Democratic PACs savaging the president for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic outspent Republicans in key swing states in April.

“We’ve been able to run millions of dollars of thoroughly researched and tested ads, largely unanswered, and Trump’s numbers in these states have been eroding badly,” Josh Schwerin, an adviser to pro-Biden Super PAC Priorities USA, told The Washington Post.

The Trump campaign is launching a “mid-seven-figure” ad campaign highlighting Trump’s leadership and optimism about an “American Comeback” this week. The spot focuses on Trump’s ban on travel from China, praise from Democratic governors, and the strength of the economy before the outbreak.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States is writing the greatest comeback story in history,” Brad Parscale, Trump 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement. “The President, along with the unyielding resolve of the American people, will Make America Great Again.”

While there has been some consternation among Trump aides about waiting too long to launch an offensive against Biden, Nordlinger said the next six months will be “an eternity” in politics and there will be plenty of opportunities to trash Biden when there are not thousands of Americans dying every day from coronavirus complications.

“We’re up against potentially the greatest national challenge since World War II. Is this really the time to be attacking your opponent?” Nordlinger asked.

According to The Washington Post, recent RNC internal poll of 17 swing states found voters see Trump as more of an outsider and in slightly better health than Biden, but about 45% of respondents described each of them as “weak or confused.” Though they favor Trump on handling the economy, they view Biden as more compassionate, calm, intelligent, and competent.

Biden is navigating a crisis of his own right now, attempting to put a rest to claims that he sexually assaulted a Senate staffer in 1993. He has denied the allegations and most prominent Democrats have stood by him, but if additional evidence or other credible accusers emerge, it could prove more difficult to keep his tenuous coalition together.

In a Fox News op-ed Sunday, Justin Haskins, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, pointed to recent polls showing low enthusiasm for Biden among young voters and his difficulties appealing to the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. While Trump is unlikely to win over either of those groups, he expressed skepticism about Biden winning them over.

“Biden was and is a terrible candidate. He is a gaffe-machine, a longtime establishment politician with his fair share of controversies and scandals and despite moving extremely far to the left over the course of the 2020 election cycle, he has yet to be adopted by the progressive or socialist wings of the party,” Haskins wrote.

Biden may bolster his prospects of uniting the party Monday with an endorsement from progressive activist group Indivisible. Few members of the group favored Biden in the primaries, but about 95% support him now.

"We’re going to keep up the fight for a more progressive platform, but in the fight against an evil agenda motivated by greed and racism, there can be no middle ground. Joe Biden must win, and Donald Trump and those who empower him must lose," said Indivisible co-founder Leah Greenberg in a statement, echoing the views of many on the left who did not consider Biden their first choice.

Another wild card is Biden’s vice-presidential pick. The new CBS/YouGov poll found Democrats favor Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to serve as Biden’s running mate, but giving up her Senate seat to move to the White House could endanger Democrats’ chances of retaking the majority if Biden wins.

“I think vice presidential picks have far more opportunity to hurt you than they do to help you,” Nordlinger said, pointing to the fallout from Sen. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008. Given Biden’s age and tendency for gaffes, he said Biden would be best served picking a proven leader on the national stage who is not prone to making mistakes.

While polls suggest the former vice president holds an advantage in key states at the moment, Nordlinger sees two points working in Trump’s favor as the election gets closer. One is that conservatives no longer harbor doubts about him that they held in 2016, and the other is that there is little Democrats can say about him that will hurt him more than what voters already know.

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“He’s as unpopular as you can possibly make him. He’s immune to attacks from Democrats,” he said. “Joe Biden is not. Joe Biden is almost at his peak now.”

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