Events in Kenosha threaten to provide the change of narrative that Donald Trump desperately needs to regain control.
The ‘I am not Trump’ card
There was a reason why Joe Biden’s speech at the Democratic National Convention warranted so much attention. In this campaign, one candidate (Biden) believes he has everything already locked in place. His biggest selling point is his relentless criticism of his opponent — something that has registered well with the electorate. In contrast, the other candidate (Trump) is desperate for events to change the narrative of the campaign. As a result, the former has made limited appearances in public to date.
One central reason why voters support Biden is that he doesn’t share Trump’s policy ideas or temperament. This forms the fundamental premise on which the Democratic campaign is built upon.
To help highlight these essential differences, Biden has sought to do as much as he can to make himself the antithesis of everything Trump is. After a week of the party outlining what had gone wrong in America, Biden’s offering to fixing the country’s woes was himself. Or more accurately, his character.
The image represented was that of a man who had been through personal tragedy and carries the requisite character to pull America together. From the Democratic Convention he told American voters:
‘Of those of you who have lost the most — I have some idea how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel like you’re being sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes’.
From this we can see that the quality Biden wishes to accentuate the most, is his steadfast character. His greatest strength and charge against Trump rests precisely on his own superior character. And it seems this is something that voters have already decided upon. According to Gallup Poll, ‘views of Donald trump across four key characteristics are largely stable’. This includes negative opinions on ‘caring about the needs of people like me’ and being ‘honest and trustworthy’. Equally, opinions on Biden as an individual have been shaped since he joined the Senate in 1973. He is an opponent any campaign would struggle to redefine.
For this rather conservative strategy to be effective though, Biden needs the narrative to remain constant. This means it needs to stay focussed on Trump’s flailing response to Covid-19, and to the unabating topic of racial discrimination. According to pollster Robert Griffin, these are the two biggest issues in US politics at the moment.
But events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, threaten to derail this and provide Donald Trump with the change of narrative he has been waiting for. After the death of George Floyd questions on racial discrimination and police brutality were brought to the fore. In contrast, after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, pictures of rioting, looting, and burning buildings dominated the airwaves.
The political conversation was now about violence and law and order, rather than racial discrimination. This is significant. On the issue of race, 56 per cent of voters believe Trump has made race relations worse. But when it comes to questions of law and order, Biden is far more vulnerable to attack. According to JP Morgan analyst Marko Kolanovic, polls could ‘shift five to ten points from Biden to Trump if the perception of protests shifts from justice to violence’.
Many of the riots are occurring in Democrat-controlled cities and in areas where local officials have refused the help of federal forces. In Oregon, the Democratic governor Kate Brown called the federal agents an ‘occupying force’. Portland mayor Ted Wheeler declared, ‘we do not need or want their help’. Wheeler told protestors ‘if they launch the tear gas against you, they’re launching the tear gas against me’, before being forced to retreat to his office after protestors turned against him.
Looking at the Democratic Party’s slide further to the left down the ballot and at grassroot levels, in multiple states Democratic governors are struggling to balance law and order, with cries from some of their supporters ‘to defund the police’. In a new Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, 77 per cent of Americans are ‘extremely or very worried’ about crime in the nation’s cities. Of this group, 42 per cent say protestors are the main reason for the rise in crime, with 85 per cent of all respondents believing those rioting and looting should be ‘prosecuted’. Fifty-one per cent believe inner-city prosecutors are not trying to find and prosecute the rioters. While 78 per cent said those destroying public statues should be prosecuted.
When it comes to protests on racial issues, Biden is comfortable. When the narrative is about violence in America’s cities, he sits on very precarious ground.
Trump lands an Ace?
Over the last month, Donald Trump has tried with little success to label Biden a puppet of the radical left in his party. This was made harder when Kamala Harris was chosen as candidate for vice president — someone whom Bernie Sanders’ former campaign press secretary accused of being a ‘top cop’.
Yet the violence being seen in places like Kenosha may help Trump. If TV screens and Facebook feeds are filled with videos of burning cities, voters will be more likely to enter the polling booth with law and order, rather than racial issues in mind. It is notable that at least in the Harvard CAPS and Harris Poll voters are blaming city officials. City officials who are mostly representatives of the Democratic Party.
Biden’s chance of securing an election victory are especially vulnerable to America’s rate of violence. If cities continue to burn as we approach election day, this candidate’s chances will have become nanoscopic. Hence the aggressive comments made on the issue this week in Pittsburg:
‘I want to be very clear about all of this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted’.
Election strategists talk of ‘outside events’ that threaten their carefully planned campaign narrative. The pandemic is one such event, the violence in Kenosha another. In both cases, no one could have foreseen them and gaining control is almost and impossible task.
Joe Biden needs the narrative of this election to remain fixed on the pandemic and race. Trump’s flailing response to Covid-19 blew a hole in his reelection strategy. But another ‘otside event’ may have just helped save his campaign.