With more than 18 million votes already cast, Donald Trump is struggling to find a coherent closing argument for the US presidential election as opinion polls put him in danger of humiliating defeat by Democrat Joe Biden.
Long queues have formed across the country for early in-person voting, a sign that this year could see a record turnout in spite, or perhaps because, of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans and put millions out of work.
But there could still be surprises before election day on 3 November and fears persist that, in the event of a Biden victory, Trump could plunge the world’s oldest constitutional democracy into crisis by disputing the result in court, spreading conspiracy theories online and mobilising militant supporters in the streets.
Biden leads by 17 percentage points in an Opinium Research/ Guardian poll, 16 points in a CNN poll, and 11 points in an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll. The last incumbent president to suffer such deficits was the last incumbent president to lose: George HW Bush, beaten by Bill Clinton in 1992.
Biden’s consistent advantage includes the crucial swing states that will decide the all-important electoral college and raises the prospect that Democrats could regain the White House and Senate and expand their majority in the House of Representatives.
“Trump’s going to get killed,” said Joe Walsh, a former congressman who unsuccessfully challenged the president in this year’s Republican primary. “I think we’ll know election night that he lost. Republicans are going to lose the Senate. It’s probably going to be the highest turnout in a hundred years in this country and it’s going to be a bloodbath for Republicans.”
Trump appears to be haemorrhaging support among two crucial voting blocs. One is elderly people, who were crucial to his victory over Hillary Clinton in states such as Florida in 2016. Walsh added: “One of the big stories that we’ll all analyse after this election will be that Trump lost older voters in this country.
“He beat Hillary when it came to older voters but Biden will win them by a healthy amount because they think Trump is a fucking lunatic who screwed up this pandemic big time and a bunch of older Americans died.”
The other group deserting Trump is suburban women, apparently rejecting his vulgar insults and shows of machismo regarding the virus. With a hint of desperation this week at a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the president begged: “Suburban women, will you please like me? Please, please. I saved your damned neighborhood, OK?”
Trump had appeared confident of re-election at the start of the year based on his economic record but Covid-19, and his persistent downplaying of it, wreaked havoc. The president himself was hospitalised with the virus earlier this month but has since recovered and is back on the campaign trail.
But his rallies do not soak up media coverage like they used to, with some commentators suggesting that the carnival barker act, so novel in 2016, has become routine and even boring. His need to hold them in states such as Iowa and Georgia, traditionally safe Republican territory, suggest he is on the defensive. Speaking in North Carolina on Thursday, he pointed skywards and joked: “We need help from the boss.”
Biden, a former senator who was Barack Obama’s vice-president from 2009 to 2017, came from behind to win the Democratic primary nomination and, amid America’s interlocking health, economic and racial crises, has maintained a remarkably steady poll lead over Trump. His low-key campaign with far smaller events appears to be working.
One of the big stories we’ll analyse after this election will be that Trump lost older voters in this country
Walsh commented: “Joe Biden has ignored Twitter, which is brilliant. His people have kept their heads down, campaigned responsibly within this pandemic and let Donald Trump spout off every single day. Biden has slowly developed trust with the vast majority of the American people and it will deliver him a big victory.”
Trump, 74, has attempted to portray 77-year-old Biden as mentally declining and a puppet of the radical left. This week he tweeted a doctored image of Biden in a wheelchair at a nursing home and claimed: “Simply put, it’s a choice between a socialist nightmare and the American dream.”
But the “Sleepy Joe” branding seems to have been a poor sequel to “Crooked Hillary” and Biden has been more difficult to demonise than the widely unpopular Clinton. Trump has also tried hard to change the subject from the pandemic to “culture wars” or law and order but the virus has proved an implacable foe.
His campaign has been just as chaotic as in 2016. Its manager, Brad Parscale, was demoted and then resigned after being hospitalised following reports that he threatened to harm himself at his Florida home. The campaign has been forced to withdraw advertising from battleground states after running low on cash, even as Biden breaks fundraising records.
And Trump, who hit populist notes about immigration and trade in 2016, has veered off script constantly this year. In October alone he has pushed a conspiracy theory questioning Osama bin Laden’s death, criticised America’s leading infectious disease expert, described Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, as a “monster” and, in duelling town hall events with Biden on Thursday night, failed to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Monika McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University in New York, said: “It’s been terrible, especially lately, because Trump himself just has no discipline and no control. He’s alienating people left and right and doesn’t seem like he’s actively trying to win this. It actually seems almost like he’s self-sabotaging or just in denial in some way and that’s not where a winning candidate or strategy comes from.”
Biden, she added, benefited from riding out part of the pandemic by doing interviews and fundraisers from his basement at home in Wilmington, Delaware. “The fact that the Democrats kept him in the basement for so long was actually to his advantage. Since he’s been out and about, he’s been relatively gaffe-free and solid and steady and I think that’s what people are looking for right now, as opposed to the craziness of what’s going on with Trump these days.”
More than 18 million people have cast ballots so far, according to data compiled by the US Elections Project. Democrats led Republicans in mail-in ballots in Florida by more than 400,000 as of Wednesday morning. But there has been little sign of complacency on the Democratic side, with memories still raw from 2016 when many state polls were off the mark.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, warned Twitter followers: “Early voting is already under way in many states. Millions of voters have already cast their ballots. But there is still a long way to go in this campaign, and we think this race is far closer than folks on this website think. Like a lot closer.”
As he runs out of time, Trump could become even more reckless in his efforts to alter the trajectory of the race. During a virtual fundraiser on Thursday, Biden warned supporters that the president is “going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at me” and deliver “an overwhelming torrent of lies”.
Biden’s son, Hunter, came under renewed scrutiny after a New York Post report outlining an email that Hunter allegedly received from a Ukrainian businessman discussing a meeting with his father. Biden’s campaign denied the meeting ever happened, and experts raised questions about the veracity of the emails.
Election watchdogs remain on alert for signs of voter suppression or intimidation. Trump has spent months making baseless claims to discredit mail-in voting, which research suggests that Democrats are more likely to use than Republicans. The president has also refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, fuelling worries about weeks of legal wrangling and potentially explosive street protests. Asked about this at Thursday night’s town hall, he was still somewhat equivocal. “They talk about, ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer?’ And the answer is yes, I will – but I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else.”
Activist groups are girding themselves to protect the integrity of the count. Sarah Dohl, co-founder and acting chief campaign officer of Indivisible, said: “With every tweet and refusal to commit to accepting the legitimate election results, Trump is trying to stoke chaos and fear. It’s all he has left in his playbook. But we are ready.
“Should Trump declare victory before all the votes are counted or prevent the legitimate counting of votes, we will mobilise in every corner of this country to ensure voters have the last word in November.”
Democrats have argued that the best antidote is to win by such a massive margin that the result is beyond dispute. Such an outcome, once seen as highly improbable, is now at least possible as Trump’s candidacy threatens to implode.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “Trump has run the worst presidential campaign in modern American history. Biden’s got a lead that’s beyond the margin of error and I consider those numbers real.
“There is nothing going for Trump that’s going to shake up the election. He needs a hydrogen bomb to go off. The election seems to be almost frozen. It’s remarkable when you look at the averages of the polls, you go state by state, it’s fairly consistent and there’s not a lot of up and down. So to me, this election is practically over.”