MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to next set of primaries (West Virginia and Georgia): 1
Days to general election: 148
President Donald Trump enters the week hoping to rebound from one of the lowest points of his presidency as recent polls show that 8 in 10 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and even spiraling out of control. The president got a boost late last week with a better-than-expected jobs report, but he's struggling to show consistent leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, the related economic fallout and nationwide protests against police brutality.
Joe Biden has formally clinched the Democrats' presidential nomination and begun to venture out beyond his basement home studio, but amid competing national crises that focus attention on actual governance the 2020 election continues to be all about Trump.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Has Trump hit bottom?
Last week's jobs report was a desperately needed bright spot for the Republican president as a growing set of polls show him trailing Biden less than five months before Election Day. That's as his former defense secretary — with the backing of Trump's former chief of staff — warned that Trump was violating the Constitution and needlessly dividing Americans. To cap off the week, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that 80% of Americans feel the country is spiraling "out of control.”
Republican operatives close to the Trump campaign privately concede the situation is dire but suggest there is an opportunity for Trump to convince voters that the nation is moving in the right direction again if the economy rebounds from its current state of Depression-level unemployment. We'll soon learn if last week's jobs report was an anomaly or part of a trend as states accelerate the reopening process.
At the same time, Trump has considerable hurdles in his way as the debate over police brutality rages and coronavirus infections continue.
What will we learn from another set of primaries?
Two states will host low-profile presidential primary elections this week: West Virginia and Georgia. And while Biden and Trump have already secured their places on the November ballot, there will be lessons to learn.
We’re particularly interested in how things play out in Georgia, which has emerged as a potential swing state in the Trump era. What will African American turnout look like as protests rage over police brutality? And will the civil unrest and continued coronavirus concerns interfere with ballot access or mail voting or will those issues be a catalyst for increased turnout?
Any trends that develop will help shape the narrative — and the campaigns’ strategies — as the 2020 contest moves into the summer and beyond.
Can Trump move white people?
The president has offered warm words to George Floyd at times, but his frequent racially charged rhetoric has overshadowed any sense that he's taking seriously the black community's concerns about police brutality.
Trump shared a tweet over the weekend with his 82 million followers in which a supporter said Floyd being "held up as a martyr sickens me." He has repeatedly highlighted looting and protest-related violence, even as it subsides, and referred to protesters as “thugs,” while ignoring the protesters' concerns. And he has resumed attacks against black athletes who support kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
Trump's willingness to use race to inflame tensions is a defining characteristic of his political brand, which began on a national scale when he questioned President Barack Obama's birth certificate. And it worked in 2016. The question is whether it will work a second time. Before the protests exploded, polls suggested that Biden was eating into Trump's support among white people.
As new polls are released in the coming days, we'll be paying close attention to whether Trump's divisive strategy resonates with white people, particularly educated white people who have been turning their backs on Trump's GOP. Already, we're seeing anecdotal reports that the police community is siding with Trump.
Does he have a plan for that?
This week marks Biden's self-imposed deadline to release his economic plan on housing, education and access to capital. The former vice president has a history of missing his own deadlines, so new details are far from guaranteed. But the political world is eager to learn more about Biden's specific governing plans should he defeat Trump in November.
Politically, the specifics may matter most to progressives, who have only reluctantly rallied behind Biden's candidacy after Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were defeated in the Democratic primary. Trump will serve as a great unifier of sorts for Democrats this fall, but it remains to be seen whether Biden can energize the significant portion of the Democratic base that remains outright hostile to his moderate leanings.
Is the lockdown officially over for the candidates?
Biden ventured out into public no fewer than four times last week, while Trump made multiple public appearances and finished the week at an event in Maine that had the feel of a campaign rally.
Trump later this week is conducting his first in-person fundraiser since the pandemic. Biden's travel plans are largely up in the air, but he's demonstrated a readiness to take on at least some health risk to communicate with voters beyond the awkward confines of his home studio. The campaign says Biden will travel to Houston on Monday to offer condolences to Floyd's family but won't attend his funeral, providing a video message instead.
Clearly, the campaign is moving into a new phase. That's even as thousands of new coronavirus infections are reported each day nationwide. Lest anyone forget, both candidates are in their 70s and, by definition, “high risk."
We'll be looking for new details about Trump's and Biden's travel plans in addition to any new developments on each party's national convention. Trump scrapped North Carolina as a home site because the governor wasn't ready to promise to relax social distancing guidelines, while it remains unclear if Democrats will hold an in-person convention in Wisconsin at all.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
Trump may be struggling to lead a divided nation through social unrest and a public health crisis, but those involved in his political operation believe nothing matters more to Trump's reelection than the state of the U.S. economy. He doesn't need the unemployment rate to reach pre-pandemic levels to win this fall, but he must convince skeptical voters that the nation is moving in the right direction.
Last week's better-than-expected jobs report was a significant first step. Still, he has a long way to go. It bears repeating the incredible Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finding that 8 in 10 Americans believe the country is spiraling “out of control.”
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”