In the wake of the national political conventions, many are waiting for the traditional post-convention bounce for one of the candidates. It might be a long wait.
In 2020, like in 2016, we are watching two candidates who have been known to the public for the better part of two generations. Attitudes toward both are pretty much set. That means campaigns — even ones that spend a billion dollars — are probably not going to make that much difference at the voting booth.
Voters know these men well, or as well as they care to. The only question that remains is which one they think is needed at this moment.
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that voter involvement in the conventions was minimal. The conventions had roughly the same number of television viewers, with the Democrats’ nightly average of viewers (21.6 million) just nudging out the Republicans (19.4 million).
President Trump’s acceptance speech from the White House was viewed by 23.8 million television viewers, fewer than the 32.2 million who watched in 2016. Democratic Joseph R. Biden’s acceptance speech in the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, was viewed by 24.6 million.
So, only about 20 million viewers watched each convention. Even if there were no overlap between the audiences, that suggests that only 40 million people — out of what will probably be 130 million voters — thought the conventions were worth watching.
Many of those who viewed the Republican convention did so on Fox (7.1 million, or about 40% of the total). This suggests that despite some excellent programming designed specifically to appeal to the undecided, much of the convention was preaching to the converted.
Given all that, it should come as no surprise that the race remains static, as it has been for almost a year now. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Mr. Biden leading by 7.5 percentage points. Six months ago, on March 3, that lead was 5.4 points. Twelve months ago, it was 9.1 points.
There is no doubt a shadow vote for Mr. Trump. There is no doubt that the Republicans will have an advantage with respect to enthusiasm and therefore turnout. Those may be worth as much as 2 points, but they are not enough to close the current gap.
Mr. Trump’s campaign says that the survey results indicate a closer race now than they did at this point in 2016. That’s not right. At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s average lead was about 4 points. Moreover, Mr. Trump led the Real Clear Politics average both at the end of May and again at the end of July that year.
The most recent nationwide survey in which Mr. Trump has led Mr. Biden was in the middle of February. He has never led in the average at any time.
That said, it is now apparent that the Biden campaign’s internal polling indicates some vulnerability, as Mr. Biden has detoured off message to suggest that the violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and elsewhere is a direct result of the president’s policies and his personal style. Obviously, it has become untenable for Democrats and Mr. Biden to pretend as if widespread riots aren’t happening.
That poses a problem for the Democrats. They very much want both to hide Mr. Biden and to keep voters focused on their solitary issue, which is, of course, the coronavirus. Having the candidate talking in public about the riots does nothing except to emphasize them, their origin and purpose, and expend valuable time that could be used to talk about the coronavirus.
For his part, Mr. Trump’s team is trying to turn the election into a referendum about what must be done next with respect to the economy and law and order. If the election is a referendum on the management of the coronavirus, the president will lose. If it is a referendum on the management of the economy and the unrest, the president will win.
Voting starts in less than three weeks.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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