Tom with the BTRTN September 2020 Month in Review…and into early October, this
We have just witnessed two weeks that defy
imagination. And yet, none of the epic
events – not the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nor the outing of Donald Trump’s
taxes, nor Trump’s stunning savagery in his opening debate with Joe Biden, nor
Trump’s contraction of COVID-19 – were, at the end of the day, terribly
surprising. One could reasonably argue
that they were all inevitable – it is simply the confluence of their
occurrence, and all so close to Election Day, that leaves us reeling.
Not only reeling, but, more than ever, without a clue as to
where it all will land. As predictable
as those events might have been, the outcomes that could arise from them range
from A to Z. Most notably: will Trump
recover, physically? Can he recover,
politically, from the blows delivered by his taxes, his widely-panned debate
performance, and the return of COVID as a campaign issue? And will Amy Coney Barrett actually ever be
confirmed as a lasting Trump legacy on the Supreme Court?
The “lifetime term” conferred on newly appointed Supreme
Court justices seems so noble and inspiring, protecting the justices from the
indignity of groveling for reappointment, keeping them above the political
fray, their decisions beyond reproach.
But that lifetime term has the unfortunate bi-product of turning their
inevitable physical decline into a grisly death watch, especially when the
balance of the court seems at stake. And
no decline has been as carefully monitored as that of liberal hero Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, who defied calls to retire throughout Barack Obama’s terms in office
to keep her seat in safe liberal hands for decades to come. She stated her indifference to timing,
arguing she had plenty left in the tank, despite many serious bouts with cancer
as she moved through her 80’s. She was
clearly willing to take the gamble that a post-Obama retirement or death would
The state of Ginsburg’s health became of even greater
concern when Antonin Scalia died in 2016 and Mitch McConnell refused to
consider Barack Obama’s center-left pick, Merritt Garland, in Obama’s last year
in office. When Trump was elected,
Scalia was replaced with a more like-minded conservative justice, conservative
Neil Gorsuch in 2017. And those same
concerns skyrocketed when Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018 and was replaced with
another conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, tipping the court decisively rightward. As the months slipped by in 2020, there was
some relief as liberals sought comfort in McConnell’s apparent precedent with
Garland. Surely any action to fill a
vacancy would be deferred until after the election.
But with every health scare came more angst, and ultimately,
and devastatingly, Ginsburg lost her gamble when she died on September 18. Mitch McConnell moved quickly and
successfully to solidify GOP support for a quick confirmation process, to be completed
either entirely before Election Day or in the lame duck session before the new
Congress convenes. He was completely
unmoved by his own precedent, and almost the entire GOP caucus sided with him
on his timetable.
Trump, for his part, wasted little time – waiting only until
Ginsburg was buried – to select arch-conservative Amy Coney Barrett as his
nominee. She comes with an impeccable
pedigree, and Trump introduced her at a giddy White House ceremony crammed with
GOP dignitaries, and like all Trump events, devoid of proper social distancing
and protective masks, the only tools we have in the toolkit to fight the spread
of the virus as of now. Videos of the event
looked eerily pre-COVID, like those that have surfaced of the crowded pool in
Missouri and the spring break beaches in Florida. Viewers can only whistle, “What were they
thinking?” More on that event later.
The next bombshell was the long-awaited breakthrough on
Trump’s taxes. It seems incredible that it
took journalists so long to secure copies of his past federal returns, given how
many people had access to them, across law firms, auditors, banks and courts. The odds on those taxes never seeing the
light of day seemed small, and, finally, The New York Times broke the story on
September 27, just two days before the first debate. The tax returns told the tale of a very wealthy
man paying virtually no taxes over the span of a decade, and in a battle with
the IRS over a contested deduction of over $70 million.
The optics were disastrous, and the Trump camp struggled
with a response. How do you explain a
billionaire paying far less taxes than the working class people he claims to
champion? Trump’s de minimus tax payments were not illegal per se (with the potential exception
of the contested deduction) and claims of his precarious financial position
were doubtless overstated (while Trump might owe $400 million in debt, he also,
according to Forbes, has well over $3 billion in real estate assets, some of
which could, theoretically, be liquidated to raise cash). But still, this was a terrible story for the
Trump campaign, and one could readily understand why Trump has fought so
strenuously to keep his taxes out of the public eye.
Thus Trump came into the debate with an exceptionally weak
hand, with his mismanagement of COVID-19 as Exhibit A, the devastated economy
Exhibit B, and his taxes as Exhibit C. These
had all contributed to his standing in the polls, trailing Biden by 7 points
nationally and by material amounts in crucial swings states such as Michigan,
Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump could
and would take comfort in his SCOTUS story.
But clearly he and his campaign strategists decided that the best
approach for the debate was neither to defend his record nor paint a vision of a
second term, but rather to simply savage Biden, attempting to overwhelm him
with constant interruptions and personal attacks. The aim was to have Biden crumble under the
assault and thus be exposed as a doddering old fool, unequipped to deal with
the pressures of the position. Biden
seemed to know this was coming – perhaps not in quite the actual magnitude of
the attack, but he was ready. Not so Chris
Wallace of Fox News, the moderator, who later admitted that he had been
unprepared for the onslaught and struggled mightily (and failed) to manage Trump and
maintain some semblance of order.
And thus American voters and the entire world were treated to a
spectacle never before seen on a presidential debate stage, not even from Trump
himself. At the outset, Trump ran
roughshod over the debate rules, incessantly and loudly interrupted Biden and
ignored moderator Wallace, in a breathtakingly rude display. Biden did well under the onslaught. He managed to keep both his cool and his
train of thought, alternately laughing off Trump’s excesses and ripping off
memorable lines, including one with which all Democrats could gratefully
identify: “Will you just shut up, man?”
Biden was far from perfect, but he met the challenge.
Apart from the form, the substance of Trump’s
rants was ghastly as well. Most notably,
Trump refused to denounce white supremacists despite many openings by Wallace
to do so. He created a catchphrase of
his own, when invited to denounce the Proud Boys, the well-known group that was
behind the Charlottesville marches:
“Stand back and stand by.” This
was interpreted by many, including the Proud Boys themselves, as a call to wait
for Trump’s signal to wreak havoc on the left.
Trump also refused to commit to accepting the results of the election,
continuing his assault on the norms of our democracy.
The pundits afterward had a field day, summed up by Dana
Bash’s simple conclusion that what we had just witnessed was a “shit show.” GOP regulars were appalled in their off the
record commentary, and every scientific poll had Biden as the clear winner,
including CBS at 48/41 and Morning Consult at 50/37.
But each of those epic events – the death of Ginsburg, the
release of the taxes, and the disastrous debate – paled before the events of
October 2, when it was announced that Trump, as well as the First Lady, had
tested positive for COVID-19 (this followed the revelation that senior Trump
advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive).
This absolutely stunning news pierced the veil of invincibility that
Trump had worn, and reinforced his own cavalier attitude toward the virus, the
downplaying of it that he had admitted to Bob Woodward in February was a
conscious strategy. Every aspect of his
management of the virus hinged on the assumption that the actual threat of the
virus was minimal, that the paramount concern was the health of the economy,
and things like business closures, virtual education and masks were impediments
to the spinning of the wheels of commerce to which he had hitched his
presidency and reelection.
Trump’s White House is notable for its culture of laxness, long
on testing but woefully devoid of masks and distancing in the cramped West Wing. This mirrored GOP mores on Capitol Hill; like
White House staffers, GOP congressional staffers grumbled that masks were viewed
as a sign of weakness, and virtual work was frowned upon. In other words, Trump, his staff and his
party paid lip service to the virus at best.
So was it really a surprise that Trump himself would catch the virus at
some point, and so many of his defiant followers would fall with him?
Many people with COVID are asymptomatic, and others suffer only
mild symptoms. But Trump, an obese male septuagenarian,
is a walking compendium of risk factors, and in the first 24 hours after the
news broke, it became clearer and clearer that Trump’s illness was more
severe. Trump was first described as
having “mild symptoms,” but that gave way to news that he was being given experimental
drugs (Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody “cocktail,” which is still in clinical
trials), and then, finally, to the image of Trump being medivacked from the
White House to Walter Reed Hospital. By
then it was clear that we were in the midst of the worst presidential health
crisis in 39 years, since Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C. in 1981.
While Trump’s worsening condition was coming to light (sketchily,
as initially there were no formal medical press briefings), word came that
others in Trump/GOP circles were testing positive as well, including three GOP
Senators (Lee of Utah, Tillis of North Carolina and Johnson of Wisconsin), two
more staffers (Kellyanne Conway and Campaign Manager Bill Stepien), debate prep
specialist Chris Christie, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and Notre Dame President
Reverend John Jenkins. Eight people who
now have COVID had attended the previously mentioned Amy Coney Barrett
announcement event in the Rose Garden at the White House, which rapidly became
known as a super-spreader event, the virus meeting little resistance from the
hubris of the GOP with its lax anti-virus habits. (Ironically, Barrett herself was infected
with COVID in August and had recovered.)
Who knows where all this is headed. Of course Trump’s health outcome could go in
either direction, and the same is true of all of these infected
individuals. We can only wait to see how
this plays out. But there are an
incredible number of political ramifications that have and will arise as a
result of these cases — and other cases that will doubtless come to light in the
next week. Among them:
and the campaign. The
illness jeopardizes Trump’s ability to campaign; he had recently decided to
resume in-person rallies, and those are now being cancelled. It is possible Trump will not be able to do
any more, depending on the speed of his recovery – and even if he does, will
anyone attend? Remember Tulsa…
Biden responds. First
and foremost, will Biden become infected?
He stood a mere 13 feet from Trump during the debate, when Trump was
presumably contagious, with Trump constantly facing him and spewing venom in
his direction. Biden has tested
negative, but that is no guarantee that he will not come down with COVID in the
With respect to Trump’s virus,
Biden has uttered all the right words, continued his campaigning, but pulled
negative Trump ads off the air. Will
that continue, given that the Trump team has left their negative ads on the air?
How will Biden make the case against Trump while the president convalesces? Don’t forget, Biden has plenty of money to
spend. He outraised Trump in August with
a record-shattering haul of $365 million to Trump’s $210 million, and that was
before the absolute deluge of funds that came in right after Ginsburg
died. How will he spend it, and on what messages?
debates. Will Trump be well
enough to debate again? Will Biden
choose to face him? Might they switch to a virtual format? Will a weakened
Trump adopt a milder approach? Or seek
to prove his “vitality” with another brawl?
And should the VP debate, scheduled for this Wednesday, go ahead as
scheduled? Mike Pence is a “contact,”
given his proximity to many of those now infected (Mike Lee sat directly behind
him at the Barrett event). And, of course, Pence is next in line to the
presidency, and should take extra precautions anyway.
themes. Of course, every
day the news cycle is focused on COVID-19 is a bad day for Trump. COVID mismanagement is clearly his worst
issue. Trump had been handed the gift of
the SCOTUS process to switch the October dialogue to the courts, a far better Trump
issue. Now that will not happen; it will
be all COVID, all the time. This is much
like James Comey’s machinations near Election Day in 2016, which turned the
final news cycles of the campaign back to Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Trump has insisted that the
country is “rounding the corner” on the virus, but there is no data to support
that claim. While COVID cases and deaths
were both down about 20% in September versus August, there were still over one
million new cases in the US and over 24,000 deaths in the month, as the
country passed the surreal marks of seven million cases and 200,000
deaths. With an average of well over 30,000
cases and 800 deaths per day, plus the looming threat of a second surge in the
fall, it was hardly time to be declaring victory. Plus, Trump was again explicitly disagreeing
with his own advisers in terms of the readiness of a potential vaccine for widespread
public use (Trump: end of 2020; CDC head Redfield: mid-2021).
Thus, COVID remains a third
rail issue for Trump, one on which the country has rendered a negative verdict
on his management of the pandemic. The
fact that he himself, and so many of his lackeys, are now stricken with it –
with no Democrats similarly affected as yet – reinforces Trump and GOP
Barrett confirmation process. With all of these GOP Senators falling – two
of them on the Senate Judiciary Committee – the confirmation process could be
delayed and even derailed. The Senate COVID
positives could result in delays in the Judiciary Committee hearings on the
nominee, pushing the final Senate confirmation vote ever closer to Election
Day. The committee met on Thursday
behind closed doors, and we now know several of its members were contagious,
and virtually none of the other members wore masks. If the GOP cannot confirm Barrett before
Election Day, they run the risk of defections in the lame duck session if Biden
wins and the Democrats flip the Senate.
One could see some of the more moderate GOP Senate members (Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Alexander, Sasse, etc.) declining to participate
in a charade, recognizing the absurdity of confirming Barrett in the belief
that they were acting in accordance with the will of the American people –
right after a Democratic sweep.
The White House continues to shoot itself in the foot with
respect to communications about Trump’s condition, with Chief of Staff Mark
Meadows issuing an update that directly contradicted that
of Trump’s doctors at Walter Reed. Those
doctors finally held a press conference in the afternoon, a shaky one in which they obfuscated about whether
Trump had been administered supplemental oxygen at any time (he was) and
confused the timeline of his illness. Trust in the Trump White House, never high, has hardly been helped by
these snafus, and the clear sense is that all formal communications emanating from
it are driven by Trump’s wishes rather than the truth.
There are now 30 days to go until Election Day. It is hard to imagine, but at the point in
2016, the Access Hollywood video had not as yet leaked, nor had the WikiLeaks
dump, nor either of the Comey letters. We’ve
already had enough shocks for many Octobers, and it is only October 4th.
TRUMP APPROVAL RATING
Same old same old with Trump’s approval rating, once again
at 43% for the month of September. This
marks the 33rd consecutive
month that Trump’s approval rating fell in the 40-45% range. This level does not bode well for his re-election
prospects. Only George W. Bush won
re-election with less than a 50% approval rating – a figure Trump has yet to
attain – and Bush’s was 48% (also a level Trump has yet to attain). And with 30 days to go — and millions of Americans voting early every day — it is a long
way from 43% to 48%.
TRUMP APPROVAL RATING
TRUMP’S HANDLING OF THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS
Trump’s handling of the coronavirus remains in the low 40’s
for September, just a tick mark higher than his low point in August.
TRUMP HANDLING OF CORONAVIRUS
TRUMP VERSUS BIDEN HEAD-TO-HEAD
Joe Biden continues to hold a commanding lead over Trump in
national head-to-head polls, now at +7 points.
TRUMP VS BIDEN HEAD-TO-HEAD NATIONAL POLLS
The Democrats continued to hold a healthy lead in the
generic ballot, which is a very strong predictor of November performance. If the Democrats still hold a 6-point lead
come Election Day, they stand to pick up roughly 10-15 more seats to add to
their overwhelming majority in the House.
GENERIC BALLOT – LAST 12 MONTHS
The Trumpometer remained in historically disastrous
territory in September at -328. The -328
Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are an
astounding 328% lower than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per
the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below).
There was modest improvement in several key drivers from
August, when the index was at -343.
Consumer confidence improved and the unemployment rate dropped. Gas prices were flat and the Dow Jones
The “Trumpometer” was designed to provide an objective
answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980
Reagan campaign: “Are you better off
than you were four years ago?” The
Trumpometer now stands at -328, which of course means things are far worse than
that, even worse than the -53 recorded at the end of George W. Bush’s time in
office, in the midst of the Great Recession.
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
% Chg. Vs. 1/20/2017 Inaug. (+ = Better)
Price of Gas
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BTRTN calculates our
monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct
daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You
Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and
does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average
but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we
take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot
and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Trumpometer aggregates a set of
economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of
aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017,
on an average percentage change basis… The basic idea is to demonstrate
whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took
office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones
Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and