PLUS: Vice time
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Tuesday October 6 2020
US election
Hello and welcome to this week's US election newsletter from The Times and The Sunday Times.

What does President Trump's dramatic emergence from hospital amid his struggle with coronavirus mean for the presidential election? That's the question being asked in Washington, and it's the question we pose this week.

Plus: what to watch out for at the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris tomorrow night.

Please let us know any thoughts, feedback or questions you have about this newsletter by emailing

Exclusive Times+ online event: Join us on the evening of Thursday, November 5 for a detailed analysis of the US Presidential election results. Chaired by Times Radio's John Pienaar, our stateside panel includes: PJ O’Rourke, American political satirist, Sarah Baxter, American diarist and former deputy editor of The Sunday Times and Henry Zeffman, Washington correspondent for The Times.To register visit
Henry Zeffman and Josh Glancy
Washington Bureau – The Times and The Sunday Times
Terminator Trump
Josh Glancy

Last night’s triumphant presidential return to the White House, accompanied by the requisite social media explosion, is the scenario many Democrats feared when President Trump came down with the coronavirus.

What if, thanks to some combination of exceptional medical care, a strong constitution and an abundance of good luck, Trump beats the virus quickly and then comes roaring back onto the campaign trail like the Terminator, blasting a defiant message about the great American comeback and his unimaginable fortitude? That’s now looking like a strong possibility.

In public, Democrats of course wished the president a speedy recovery, but privately many hoped the virus might at least keep Trump off the debate stage in Miami next week. And, less cynically, some hoped that contracting the virus along with half his inner circle might instil some gravity towards the pandemic in Trump. Quite the opposite: he’s doubled down on his “it’s just the flu” parallels.

Of course his illness isn’t over. Even Trump’s panglossian doctors acknowledged that the president is not “out of the woods” yet: Covid has been known to fluctuate and lull its victims into a false sense of recovery.

But, for now at least, Trump’s great American comeback message is very much on. What then might the effect be on the election?

What if nothing changes?
The safest conclusion to make about major news developments and the 2020 election is that they don’t actually matter that much. That may sound bizarre, but the presidential race has been extraordinarily stable for months. Biden’s lead on the RealClearPolitics average has fluctuated between five and ten points ever since March, when he became the de facto nominee.

At the moment it stands at a healthy nine points, putting him outside the margin of even a large polling error. The Biden campaign is seeing encouraging battleground polling too. The latest New York Times/Siena poll has them up by eight in Arizona and they are averaging a fairly comfortable six points ahead in Pennsylvania. Trump is underwater among seniors and women. In fact, he’s underwater in general. If not for the shock of 2016, and the unpredictability of a pandemic election, pundits would already be writing his political obituary.

The Covid-related polling doesn’t look good for Trump either. A Reuters/Ipsos survey taken over the weekend showed that 65 per cent of respondents agreed that “if President Trump had taken coronavirus more seriously, he probably would not have been infected”. Just 34 per cent thought that Trump has been telling the truth about the virus, while 55 per cent said that he was not. If Trump’s condition worsens at all over the next few days, that will further undermine his standing.

These figures map onto a broader dissatisfaction with how Trump has handled the virus. In a poll by Redfield and Wilton for The Times and The Sunday Times, 43 per cent of respondents said they think Biden is more likely to do the most to see an end to the pandemic. Only 31 per cent felt that way towards Trump.

“It’s hard to see how this is good for him,” Republican strategist Alex Conant told me. “If he can get back on the campaign trail and is feeling great then maybe he can spin this as something positive. But he wanted the last few weeks of the campaign to be focused on the economy. Now it is very clear that Covid is going to dominate the news.”

Lazarus Trump?

But what of Trump’s optimism? His ability to demand the spotlight at all times? Aren’t Americans tiring of the pandemic and desperate to go back to normal? Might they not admire the sheer bravado of his Covid defiance, if it’s backed up by a quick personal recovery? Certainly the Maga nation has a new spring in its step. Could this be Trump’s Lazarus moment? It worked in 2016, when the Access Hollywood tape of Trump’s “grab em by the p****” comments had him dead and buried, until he came back to scrape a narrow win.

It’s all possible. In our Redfield and Wilton poll, Trump matches Biden for who is more likely to lead a strong economic recovery out of the coronavirus crisis: both are on 39 per cent. If Trump can make this election about the economy, he stands a good chance.

A key difference though between now and 2016 is that Trump’s opponent is far less unpopular. He regained his footing after Access Hollywood primarily by going on the attack against Hillary Clinton. He was given an enormous boost by the Wikileaks revelations about ructions inside the Democratic party, and the drip drip of stories about Clinton’s email server, which culminated in the infamous “Comey letter” of October 28.

Unlike last time, Trump just hasn’t been able to land anything like these kinds of hits on Biden. So unless he can pull a late rabbit out of his box of tricks, it’s looking like a long way back.
Vice time
Henry Zeffman
Mike Pence was very nearly not vice-president. Donald Trump seems to have wanted to pick Chris Christie, the bombastic former New Jersey governor, but decided that the electoral attributes Pence brought to the table were too great.

“You’ve got to understand, Chris”, Trump told Christie when he phoned him to tell him he had chosen Pence. “He’s out of central casting.”

Christie is now in hospital being treated for coronavirus after helping Trump prepare for last week’s debate, while Pence is shouldering more of the campaigning burden for the Trump campaign than ever before.

Centre stage
For a start, Trump’s grapple with coronavirus means Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate between Pence and Kamala Harris is the most significant in memory.

Vice-presidential debates are not typically major events. In 2016 just 36 million Americans tuned in, less than half the 84 million who had watched the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. The only really memorable moment from a vice-presidential debate was Lloyd Bentsen’s regal slapdown of Dan Quayle in 1988. But Quayle’s candidate, George HW Bush, beat Michael Dukakis handily.

This time might be different. While Trump is out of hospital quicker than expected and insists he will be at the second presidential debate next week, that very much remains to be seen. There is a chance, even if it seems to be getting smaller, that this is the last televised debate of any sort of the election.

And even if it is not, Pence is now carrying the ticket in a way he never has done before. Trump may be back tweeting and recording videos but he has not appeared unscripted in front of a live microphone yet. Perhaps he will not for some time. In the days after the debate, Pence will be the main event at rallies in Arizona and Nevada. It remains to be seen whether the anarchic ardour of a Trump event can be transferred to his very different number two.

But it is not as if Pence needs to merely hold the fort. The Trump campaign is losing. There is no evidence at all of a sympathy vote for Trump emanating from his medical condition. At some point in the next 28 days the campaign needs to find a way to turn the election around. So any blows he can land at the debate would be a great help.

On 2016’s evidence, at least, Pence is a pretty good debater. He was widely deemed to have beaten Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate. Pence’s smooth calm left the good-natured Kaine unusually tetchy.

Tough match
The problem for Pence is that Kamala Harris is a good debater too. In fact her debating skills were responsible for her most notable interaction with Joe Biden before he chose her as his running mate. Famously, in the first Democratic presidential debate last year, she attacked him for his warm relations with segregationist senators in the 1970s, and his own past views on school bussing.

The debate is the most important moment of Harris’s vice-presidential candidacy so far. Her selection as running mate has probably been successful, but it is a success born of an absence of negative effects. Her selection did not deplete Biden’s poll lead. Trump’s attempts to characterise her as a sort of younger, female, west coast Bernie Sanders have not really landed. And in her excursions on the campaign trail she has not committed any gaffes which detract from the main Democratic message.

On Wednesday night — from 2am on Thursday morning in the UK — Harris will be in focus, against a vice-president under greater scrutiny than ever before too. And unlike last week, they might even let each other speak.
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