NEW YORK – Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to general election: 99
Days to first state offering early voting (Pennsylvania): 49
With fewer than 100 days before polls open across America, President Donald Trump is running short on time to reset his beleaguered reelection bid. The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is surging again, the economic recovery appears to be slipping backward and racial divisions are still exploding.
More Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction than at any previous point in his presidency, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Even a significant portion of Republicans have soured on his handling of the coronavirus.
After spending much of the year playing down the crises, Trump has adopted a more serious tone in the latest round of White House pandemic briefings. He canceled the Republican National Convention events in Florida and even tweeted a picture of himself in a face mask.
His track record, however, suggests his newfound discipline likely won't last.
Joe Biden, meanwhile, seems content to remain an afterthought right now as he rolls out new policies, narrows his search for a running mate and enjoys a discernible lead in most polls.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Is Trump turning it around?
Trump last week briefly demonstrated the kind of responsible leadership swing voters have craved. He signaled new public support for masks, offered a less combative tone with reporters during coronavirus briefings and canceled his party's presidential nominating convention events in virus-infested Florida.
Such discipline has been rare throughout Trump's presidency, which has been defined by bombast, division and chaos. It may be too little too late. But if the Republican president can continue to provide the kind of mature leadership this nation so badly needs, it can only help his political future.
It can't get much worse. As of last week, only 32% of Americans supported his handling of the pandemic, according to the AP-NORC poll. What's more, only 68% of Republicans approved.
Does Trump have an October surprise in the works?
Trump is scheduled to travel to North Carolina on Monday to tour a business that's working on a COVID-19 vaccine. While medical experts suggest a vaccine is probably several months away, some in Trump's orbit say the unexpected production of a vaccine weeks before the election could be the October surprise he needs to win.
Voters are desperate for significant progress on the pandemic, although it's hard to imagine a vaccine clearing the necessary testing hurdles so quickly. Still, if anyone has demonstrated a willingness to play by his own rules, it's Trump. If it's not vaccines, expect something else.
Does Biden need to close the enthusiasm gap?
Democrats aren't that excited about their presidential nominee. An AP-NORC poll found Biden supporters are being driven much more by anxiety and frustration than pure excitement over Biden, while Trump supporters are more likely to say they're feeling excited.
Biden's team has shrugged off the enthusiasm gap, suggesting a vote for the Democrat counts the same whether it's motivated by opposition to Trump or excitement for Biden. Yet some Biden allies, such as the digital firm PACRONYM, warn Democrats to take the enthusiasm deficit seriously.
It's unlikely all the disparate factions in the Democratic coalition will suddenly discover a new passion for the 77-year-old career politician in the coming weeks, which puts some pressure on him to pick a more exciting running mate. Still, the threat of a second Trump term may be all the excitement Biden's team needs.
Will any sitting Republicans endorse Biden?
We reported last week that ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, is expected to speak at next month's Democratic National Convention on Biden's behalf. And while Biden has attracted the support of many more Republican operatives (see the Lincoln Project), we've yet to see a Republican official currently in federal or statewide office support the Democrat's 2020 campaign.
We recently caught up with a frequent Trump critic, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who acknowledged a different political calculus for Republicans still in office. The Republican governor played down the prospect of a Biden endorsement, but he didn't rule it out: “I don’t see that happening. But, you know, we have a long time between now and November."
On speaking at the Democratic convention, he was more blunt.
“No, I would have no interest whatsoever in doing that," Hogan told the AP.
Will Trump keep pushing for school openings?
Trump has acknowledged the pandemic will get worse before it gets better, but he and his administration continue to encourage schools across America to open in the coming weeks. Politically and practically, it's a dangerous position in a no-win debate that'll probably leave many people unhappy no matter what happens.
Trump acknowledged last week schools in some hot spots may need to delay opening, but he’s also threatening to withhold federal education dollars from schools that don’t open. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of his administration, released new guidelines calling on schools to reopen.
He also has yet to square why he was willing to let state and local officials decide how to manage the pandemic on their own for much of the year, yet not be willing to do the same for school reopening.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
Public opinion was sharply against Trump's handling of the social unrest that followed George Floyd's death, but increasingly violent protests in cities like Portland, Oregon, could shift the politics of the debate.
Portland protesters breached the fence around a federal courthouse early Sunday as local officials declared the situation a riot. At roughly the same time, authorities said protesters in Oakland, California, set fire to a courthouse, vandalized a police station and shot fireworks at officers.
Such violence could strengthen Trump's case for federal intervention and cloud the debate against police brutality.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.