SINGAPORE: The metaphorical control panel in US President Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters flashes red.
A strong Republican National Convention (RNC) week culminating with Trump’s acceptance speech could change the campaign’s dynamic.
Trump must find a way to raise his approval rating, now below what any incumbent has needed to get re-elected.
That will be even more challenging as the deaths from the pandemic continue to mount and more scandals hit close to home.
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A TALL ORDER
Last week alone, a Senate report described Trump's 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort's receptivity to Russian outreach as a “grave counter-intelligence threat".
Those same few days also saw the arrest of former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon for bilking Trump's base through his We Build the Wall fundraising campaign.
On the eve of the convention, Trump’s sister, a former federal judge, called him “cruel” and “a liar" in a leaked recording from last year.
The clock ticks with Election Day barely 70 days from now. Voters in some states can start casting their ballots in a few weeks.
NOT THE REPUBLICAN PARTY OF OLD
Normally, the living former Republican presidents, vice-presidents and members of the Republican ticket from 2012 would speak or at least attend the RNC. Yet none are scheduled to speak at this year’s RNC.
Even current office holders who could use the boost in exposure, such as the three Senate Republicans in the toughest re-election campaigns, Senators Martha McSally (Arizona), Cory Gardner (Colorado) and Susan Collins (Maine) will not be there.
Absent also will be several erstwhile close friends and endorsers prominently featured in 2016 who have since been tarnished by scandal, investigation or simply went from best friend to oblivion.
With six Trump family members speaking, the Republican convention has morphed into a celebration of Trump himself.
Fiscal conservatism, a tenet of the Republican party for decades which advocates for low taxes, reduced government spending and minimal government debt have vanished under a Trump administration.
A multilateral foreign policy working with longstanding allies and friendly partners while advocating for free trade has also been abandoned.
Republicans such as former Ohio Governor and 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate John Kasich, former Bush Administration US Secretary of State Colin Powell and more than 70 Republican former national security and foreign policy officials, including former US Ambassador to Singapore Frank Lavin, have issued a statement in support of Joe Biden on Friday (Aug 21).
HE NEEDS THEIR VOTES, TOO
Donald Trump cannot win without holding on to at least some of these voters. He barely won with enough votes in the electoral college last time.
For every voter Trump loses from 2016 to Joe Biden, he must get two new voters just to break even.
As such, he must make the case not just to his hardcore base, but also to more traditional Republican voters who might not like him but might begrudgingly vote for him if he gives them a compelling reason.
So we hear from the speakers a great deal about the damage a Biden presidency would do to the country at the RNC.
"Biden, Harris, and the rest of the Socialists will fundamentally change this nation. They want open borders, closed schools, dangerous amnesty, and will selfishly send your jobs back to China while they get rich,” Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump campaign official, warned on the Convention’s opening night.
She foretold what would happen with a Democratic win: "They want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear. They want to steal your liberty, your freedom. They want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live. They want to enslave you to the weak, dependent, liberal victim ideology to the point that you will not recognise this country or yourself."
Trump will almost certainly himself frame the election as a choice between himself and a candidate who will usher in a socialist government, allow crime to destroy America and have immigrants flood its borders.
If he successfully begins doing this in his acceptance speech, he could keep independents and moderate Republicans in the fold.
But that alone probably will not be enough for him to win.
To best ensure a second term, he looks for ways to keep voters who would otherwise vote for Biden from turning up or getting counted.
OFFSETTING THE BLUE SHIFT
Voters who are young, non-white, not registered with the two major parties, or are voting for the first time, are more likely to mail in their ballots later in the process.
These voters tend to vote Democratic.
Votes that arrive by mail on or near Election Day typically do not get counted until after Election Day. By then, election officials are preparing for the great majority of the people who vote in person.
Some states even restrict officials from counting mailed ballots until Election Day, including key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
As a result, vote counts announced the night of Election Day often shift towards the Democratic candidate after initial results are announced.
This “Blue Shift”, first recognised by political scientist Edward Foley of Ohio State University in 2013, is totally predictable and understandable.
In 2018, the Blue Shift occurred in Florida during the races for Governor and US Senate. While both Republican candidates were ahead on Election Night, their margins narrowed from the results announced as the mail-in ballots were counted.
This led to Trump tweeting: “The Florida Election should be called in favour of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of ballots showed up out of nowhere and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible – ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
In the end, it did not matter as their margins held up after a full count.
CHAOS – AFTER ELECTION DAY?
With so many ballots coming by mail this year, a realistic scenario has Trump slightly ahead in the popular vote at first in some states but with Biden ultimately leading after all votes are counted.
Each state runs its own election as it sees fit. No federal authority tells them how to conduct their elections or to oversee the results.
For Democrats, the George Bush-Al Gore recount saga of 2000, in which Gore retracted his concession to Bush after Florida votes came too close to call and both sides tussled over a manual recount, underscores the importance of winning by a decisive margin.
In the end, Vice-President Al Gore accepted the results.
In the Arizona Senate race in 2018, Republican Martha McSally was ahead on Election Day but Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead to win when mail-in votes were counted over the next few days.
As with Gore, McSally accepted the process and conceded. Trump has indicated he will not accept such an outcome.
In states with a Democratic Governor but a Republican-controlled statehouse, such as Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, a realistic scenario entails having the Governor certify Biden as the victor but the state legislature sending its own certificate in favour of Trump if that’s what the President demands.
And in a Republican-controlled state such as Arizona, there may be no competing certifications at all.
We really do not know what will happen in such a scenario – so far, every candidate who has run for office has accepted defeat.
THE GROUND GAME NEVER MORE IMPORTANT
The Trump campaign playbook may not be able to stop people from voting by mail, but it has indicated it will do what it can to keep those votes from counting.
Less than a month ago, Donald Trump tweeted: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
At the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama laid out the only thing that can be done to counteract that.
“We have to vote for Joe Biden in numbers that cannot be ignored. Because right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting.”
With Trump ahead on Election Night in swing states with similar margins to 2016, a very long Election Night will stretch then with a fight brewing of whether votes received by Election Day but not yet counted should be added to the tally.
The conventions show both parties preparing for an already nasty campaign to get much nastier.
Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr served in the Clinton administration as Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation and White House Cabinet Secretary, respectively. Mr Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates in Singapore. Mr Marshall practices law in Washington.