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Gary Pearce: Unsettled times with uncertain politics

By Gary Pearce

Political pollsters often use a caveat that their audiences often ignore: “If the election were today.”

The 2020 election is not today. It’s exactly six months away. There are clear trends today, and many of them favor Joe Biden and Democrats. But Democrats who are sure that President Trump is going down — and taking the Republican Party with him — need to remember history and get real.

Recently I listened in on a state-of-the-election briefing by one of the best pollsters in the business – Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native. Hickman and I go way back; we worked together for Governor Jim Hunt in the 1990s. When he talks, I listen.

Americans are feeling “unsettled” by the COVID-19 crisis, he said in the briefing, but some things are settled. “People want a new tone in their politics.

There’s more of a sense that we’re all in this together.”

There’s more awareness of social and economic inequalities. There’s more feeling that government action – and spending – are needed. And people’s faith in medical and scientific experts has increased.

Those trends seemingly should help Biden and Democrats this year, Hickman said.

He noted that President Trump’s approval ratings have fallen back to about 40-45 percent. Trump got only a small – and temporary – bump early in the crisis. “Compare that to previous presidents in times of crisis. They had dramatic increases.”

Now, “every day Trump has a press briefing, it helps Democrats,” Hickman said. Polls in battleground states consistently show Biden leading.

But Hickman raised a warning flag about polling during the Covid-19 crisis: “It’s unclear whether polls are working like they should.” In normal times, poll calls are made from centralized call centers. Quality control is high. Today, callers work from home. There’s not as much oversight.

He added that many polls today are made by automated calls, which legally can call only land lines, not cell phones. Some polls are done online, but only 50-60 percent of Americans are regularly online.

Then there’s the predictable unpredictability of presidential campaigns.

In 2016, Hickman said, “The key swing group was 20 percent of voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Through most of the campaign, a majority of them supported Clinton.”

But they switched in the final 10 days, after FBI Director James Comey reopened the investigation of Clinton’s emails. Trump won 65 percent of them.

Today, Hickman said, 65 percent of the voters who dislike both Trump and Biden say they’ll vote for Biden. But, again, that can turn on a day’s headlines – and turn battleground states and the Electoral College upside down.

On top of all that uncertainty, I sense uncertainty – even among Democrats and Biden fans – about Biden as a candidate.

He can talk too much and say too little. For all his years in politics, he’s still largely untested. In fact, he flunked the test in the 1988 and 2008 presidential races.

This year, Biden’s candidacy was faltering until Jim Clyburn endorsed him and moderate Democrats coalesced behind him on Super Tuesday. That dramatic shift was fueled by fear of Bernie Sanders.

Now Biden has been forced into the basement of his Delaware home. For better and for worse, he has dropped off the radar. His campaign lags way behind Trump’s in fundraising and online.

He is grappling with a 1993 sexual assault allegation. Hunter Biden lurks in the wings. And the debates lie ahead.

Maybe the polls are right. Maybe Trump is done for. Maybe Biden and Democrats win big if the election were today.

But it’s not today. No maybe about it.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and adviser to Governor Jim Hunt.

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