If you want to know who will win the presidency in 60 days, the real question may be this: What crazy story will dominate the news between now and then?
In politics, the battle isn’t just over which candidate you prefer. Often, that determination is downstream from a more urgent question: What issue are you thinking about when you go to the ballot box? This explains why “October surprises' ' (think James Comey reopening his investigation into Hillary’s e-mails) can be definitive (especially for swing voters), and it explains why politicians, at the risk of looking like phonies, parry questions and change the subject.
Let’s say it’s Nov. 3, and the question on everyone’s mind before voting is, “Why are 1,000 people dying every day from COVID-19?” In that scenario, Joe Biden is the clear favorite. But if the question is, “Why is there so much left-wing rioting in liberal cities,” then Donald Trump still has a chance. As you can see, a lot of what a campaign is about is fighting over which topic matters most. And while Joe Biden still has the edge, Trump’s ability to drive media narratives and change the subject (and distract the public) means you can never count him out.
Part of the problem for Biden may be that (for political purposes) COVID-19 happened too soon, while civil unrest is a newer development (and fresh on the minds of voters). The media coverage reflects this. As I write this, the “above-the-scroll” news stories on The New York Times website are about Joe Biden visiting Wisconsin, Facebook trying to limit election chaos in November, and Trump trying to reframe the election as being about “law and order.” (There is one opinion piece about Gerald Ford rushing out a vaccine.) See what I mean? COVID-19 is old news. They haven’t forgotten it, but this is not the screaming headlines we might expect. This invisible enemy is harder to photograph or capture on video than a city on fire (or a hurricane, for that matter).
As Never Trumper Charlie Sykes recently pointed out on his Bulwark podcast, if a thousand people a day were dying in plane crashes, nobody would accept it as inevitable. We would freak-out. It would receive wall-to-wall coverage. Anyone accountable or responsible would be driven from office. Yet, amazingly, Trump (and the fast pace of modernity) has managed to inure us to the COVID-19 death count. It has been, to some degree, normalized. Baked in the cake. Fear of the virus seems to have declined, while fear of street violence has probably increased. Trump has changed the subject to civil unrest—an important issue, to be sure, but an issue where the body count is significantly smaller.
Aside from the potential of alienating his progressive base, this explains Joe Biden’s reluctance to focus on “law and order.” Every day that Biden is talking about looting and violence, after all, is a day he is helping Trump change the subject from issues that Biden wins on (COVID-19 and the economy)—to an issue that Trump has a chance to win on (civil unrest).
This makes sense, and we do it in all realms of life. If you’re single, it might even boil down to this: “If you’re looking for a guy who’s 6’3”, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a guy who’s funny, then I’m your date.” Or if you’re in the job market, maybe it’s this: “If they’re looking for someone with a prestigious degree, then I’m not your guy. But if they’re looking for someone who will hustle and work long hours, then hire me.”
You’ve probably heard about how smart candidates “stay on message,” but what makes it their message? One exercise for determining that is called the “Leesburg Grid.” Essentially, it trains you to put the issues that benefit you in one quadrant, while the issues that benefit your opponent go in another quadrant. Let’s say you are George W. Bush, and it’s the year 2000. If you are discussing the issue of experience, you are losing. It doesn’t matter what you say, if that’s the question—if that’s the issue voters care about on election day—you lose. Conversely, if the question is about who will “restore honor and integrity to the office of the White House,” then Bush wins no matter what Gore says. (It’s ironic that this time it’s Democrat Joe Biden who is arguing that he’s the guy to restore honor and integrity in the White House.)
Now, imagine it’s 2008. If a debate question is “How can you bring about change?” then Barack Obama is going to win. But if the debate moderator says, “Talk about a time when you sacrificed for your country,” then it’s difficult to imagine how John McCain—a former P.O.W.—could lose. This is why the question is usually more important than the answer, and it’s also why having a fair debate moderator is crucial. You can see how this will relate to the upcoming debates.
Again, though, this isn’t just about winning a given debate question. It’s about winning the argument and, therefore, winning the election. So, the real question is: what are people going to care about on Nov. 3 (or in the weeks leading up to it, given the number of people voting early via mail)?
I applauded Biden for forcefully and clearly condemning the looting and street violence, because it blocks what is essentially Trump’s only argument. But there is a danger in getting too bogged down engaging in this debate and looking like he’s responding to Trump’s criticisms. He’s playing a road game—he is playing on Trump’s turf.
Now, controlling the topic doesn’t always work for Trump. We were probably talking endlessly about caravans of migrants heading toward the border in 2018, and that didn’t stop Democrats from swamping Republicans in the midterms. So, it’s not a cure-all. But whoever can drive the narrative is, at the very least, formidable.
By almost every logical metric, Joe Biden should win this race. But Donald Trump is a master of changing the subject, altering reality, and driving media narratives. The more you consider the importance of the candidate controlling the ballot question (here, I mean the question people are thinking about when they vote), the more seriously you will entertain the possibility that Trump may pull off another miracle.