It’s only been a little more than three months since George Floyd’s tragic death. But on the political calendar, it seems like decades have passed.
In the spring, the nationwide demonstrations that spread in the aftermath of Floyd’s death put Donald Trump on the defensive, as the national conversation focused on questions of racial justice and police reform. Initial polling showed that most Americans did not approve of the way their president was addressing these concerns, but as the summer wore on and unrest continued in Portland, Seattle and other cities, those same polls showed Trump gradually gaining ground and then surpassing Biden on the question of which candidate would be more successful at subduing violent crime. As the calendar now turns to fall, the police shooting of Jacob Blake greatly intensified the spotlight on these questions, and the timing of the shooting and the subsequent protests allowed Trump to use his party’s convention to highlight his side of the argument for several days with minimal pushback from Biden’s campaign.
And now a presidential campaign that was going to be about a worldwide pandemic and the accompanying economic devastation has now turned in an entirely new direction. This is the week that the presidential campaign has shifted its focus from the coronavirus to crime. More accurately, this is the week that Donald Trump wrestled criminal justice and law-and-order issues back to center stage. How Joe Biden responds to this challenge could define the election’s outcome.
It’s now clear both candidates are engaging in this debate with all the force their respective camps can muster. Trump appears to be embracing the notion that public safety issues are the best remaining hope he has of winning back the older voters and suburbanites who have moved away from him over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and that conflating peaceful protesters with rioters and looters will be the most effective way of convincing them to return. Biden has come to realize that he can not allow Trump to tie him to those who are responsible for the violence, and has begun to condemn the bloodshed – and the president -- more aggressively.
When the GOP convention opened last week, crime was barely a footnote on most voters’ list of concerns. At that time, Biden’s personal approval ratings were not only much higher than Trump’s, but well above Hillary Clinton’s numbers from the 2016 campaign. By the time the convention closed, Trump’s favorability was largely unchanged. But Biden’s had begun to fall, most notably among independent voters. Trump was elected four years ago as the lesser-of-two-evils candidate, as he won the votes of those who disapproved of both him and Clinton by a sizable margin. Biden is winning those “double-haters” now, but if voters continue to think less of him, Trump may have an opportunity to regain their support.
Biden’s challenge is two-fold. The young progressives and voters from minority communities who are least enthusiastic about his campaign care deeply about police reform and racial justice. Biden will continue to differentiate between peaceful protesters and violent rioters, but those voters will be exceedingly wary about anything he says that could be construed as overly pro-law enforcement. But it is a distinction that he must draw, while establishing an equally stark divide between good cops and those who abuse their authority. Trump benefits when those lines are fuzzy: the pressure is on Biden to establish those boundaries as explicitly and unambiguously as possible.
More challenging for Biden will be his need to redirect the campaign dialogue back to the coronavirus and the recession. Trump will continue to attempt to force the nation’s attention toward continuing unrest in Kenosha, Minneapolis and other cities, which presents Biden with a difficult challenge. He must simultaneously convince voters that he is committed to racial justice, condemns violence, supports law enforcement and that while he cares deeply about all of these issues, he believes none of them are as important as the pandemic and the economy.
That is an even more complicated a task than it sounds. The candidate who controls the issue debate will control the election. Trump’s trip to Wisconsin this week demonstrates how hard he will fight to maintain that control. Biden’s objective is not to only to win the public safety discussion, but then to move beyond it was well.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter. He has a Center bias.
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