NEW YORK – Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to general election: 106
Days to first state offering early voting (Pennsylvania): 56
President Donald Trump insists he's not losing, but by virtually every objective measure he's struggling through one of the worst moments of his presidency. Trump demoted his campaign manager last week, acknowledging through his actions, if not his words, that things are not moving in the right direction.
Republican allies have begun to share concern publicly about Trump's political strategy and his inconsistent leadership, most notably his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily infections are exploding, the death rate is ticking up and the economic recovery is in jeopardy.
Trump on Sunday charged, without evidence, that Democratic state and local officials were planning to close schools and roll back reopening plans just to hurt him. Multiple polls suggest that a majority of voters, including many Republicans, simply don't believe what Trump says about the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Trump also refused to say whether he would accept the results of the general election. Early voting begins across multiple swing states in just eight weeks.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Does Trump have a strategy to win?
Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor and a Trump ally, tells us that he sees no clear strategy coming from the Trump campaign. Some might think that's why Trump downgraded campaign manager Brad Parscale last week, except that his replacement, Bill Stepien, had largely been running the political operation already.
There is little evidence that Trump is working to expand his coalition. He seems to be betting everything that he can win by energizing his base while depressing turnout among would-be Biden supporters by redefining the lifelong politician with a flood of negative advertising. Trump’s campaign has reserved $146 million in television ads this fall, the vast majority of which is going to must-win states like Florida and Ohio he carried four years ago.
Trump's team continues to embrace a kitchen sink messaging campaign against Biden that features questions about his mental competence, his allegiance to the far left, his inconsistent record and conspiracy theories about the integrity of the election itself. The scattershot approach is frustrating allies like Walker, although it’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Are school closures already America's next major crisis?
Several weeks before many elementary and secondary schools are scheduled to open, there are clear signs that surging coronavirus infections will force education officials in several states to keep their doors closed. That leaves millions of children and their parents in limbo and threatens the economic recovery.
Trump told Fox News Channel on Sunday that Democrats were planning to close schools just to hurt him but cited no evidence for his claim. He also threatened to strip federal funding from public schools if they refuse to open. Such rhetoric won't help ensure that it's safe for children and their teachers to get back to the classroom.
Is Biden's veep search actually expanding?
The biggest decision of Biden's campaign looms as he continues his search for a running mate. As few as six serious contenders advanced in the search earlier this summer. But amid pressure for Biden to make a selection that would satisfy a wide range of priorities and constituencies, additional candidates have joined the vetting process in recent weeks, according to multiple Democrats with knowledge of the dynamics. That’s yielding an unusually large field of contenders, including some of the nation’s best-known politicians and others who have a lower profile.
Those known to be under consideration earlier include Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms and Susan Rice, who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and California Rep. Karen Bass have come under greater consideration more recently.
Are we headed toward a constitutional crisis?
Trump on Sunday refused to say whether he would accept the results of the election if he lost. “I have to see,” he told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “No, I’m not going to just say ‘yes.’ I’m not going to say ‘no.’”
Trump made a similar statement that frightened constitutional scholars four years ago, although it was quickly forgotten after Trump’s victory. With his numbers looking worse heading into 2020, some are taking the threat more seriously this time. Of course, the president has also spent several weeks working to undermine the integrity of the election by raising unfounded questions about mail voting. Combine that rhetoric with an array of ballot issues expected as the coronavirus forces changes into the election system this fall, and it’s not hard to imagine a legitimate constitutional crisis in November.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
We've seen over and over that it doesn't matter much who Trump taps to serve as his campaign manager or chief of staff. One man and one man only is making the big decisions that will decide the president's political future and the immediate future of the United States.
Trump told us he was his own best strategist four years ago, yet many still believed he would put experienced and effective leaders around him to guide his decisions. Four years later, it's become clear that history will remember the 45th president as a man whose fate was decided almost exclusively by his own instincts.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Will Weissert in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.