Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies: This Week in the 2020 Race

Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.

  • Joe Biden continues to dominate the paid media landscape. On broadcast television, the Biden campaign spent $36.5 million over the last week, while the Trump campaign only spent about $14.7 million, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. The Biden campaign has a similar advantage on Facebook, where it spent $4.2 million over the past week, while President Trump’s team spent $2.4 million.

  • A series of New York Times/Siena College surveys in seven battleground states generated mostly positive news for Mr. Biden, who didn’t trail in a single survey. Mr. Trump failed to reach 45 percent support in any poll. Support for Mr. Biden ranged from 45 percent to 55 percent.

  • With Mr. Biden pushing back on the president’s aggressive law-and-order messaging, 53 percent of likely voters in Minnesota and Wisconsin said they thought that Mr. Trump had encouraged violence in America.

  • In Wisconsin there was evidence of some possible receptiveness to Mr. Trump’s tough talk: It was the only state polled in which voters were just as likely to say that urban rioting was a bigger problem than racism in the criminal justice system, not the other way around.

  • But of those more worried about riots, nearly one in five said they planned to vote for Mr. Biden.

Late Friday night, the Supreme Court announced that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died from complications of metastatic pancreas cancer.

The news immediately upended the presidential race, as the death of Supreme Court Justice so synonymous with liberal values presented an opportunity for Mr. Trump and a challenge for Mr. Biden. After months of relative stability in the race, a Senate confirmation fight might aid a president searching for a political lifeline and trying to make the campaign about something other than a referendum on his handling of the pandemic.

Democrats immediately clamored for Mr. Biden to find a way to counter Republican efforts and hold Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, to the same standard he set in 2016, when he refused to fill the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia under former President Barack Obama.

The shock came in a week that otherwise seemed remarkably normal.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden each participated in town hall forums, moderated by ABC News and CNN, which included questions from voters that could not be shrugged off with claims of fake news or media bias. Both candidates also visited Minnesota on Friday, in a push from each party now that early voting has begun in several states. Mr. Trump hit Nevada and Wisconsin as well, while Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, made stops in Philadelphia and California.

The two town halls this week also served as a preview of what the presidential candidates might look like at the general election debates.

Just like Mr. Biden’s convention speech, his CNN town hall was a reminder that the former vice president is not in a deep state of mental decline, as the Trump camp would like voters to think. At one point, he even recognized one of the voters who had been chosen to ask a question — a retired police chief from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., whom Mr. Biden remembered meeting.

Two nights earlier, Mr. Trump was unrepentant when forced to defend his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, in a setting that did not include shouted questions from reporters. At one point, he even blamed Mr. Biden for not instituting a national mask mandate, despite his holding no official position from which to do so.

  • Trump thinks the debates will turn things around: The president has been telling aides for months that he is counting on the debates to provide him with a boost. But Mr. Biden’s most recent big moments show someone more in command than he was in the Democratic primary debates.

  • Why Trump doesn’t prepare: Typically, candidates study a policy prep book that is hundreds of pages long. Trump aides have scaled that down to fewer than 30 pages, many of which simply have bullet points about issues likely to come up. So far, according to a campaign official, there are no formal debate preparation sessions set. Instead, whichever aide is traveling with the president has been peppering him with questions on the go.

  • Debates are still risky for Biden: Mr. Trump won’t play by the rules. And when he feels like he’s losing, he will go low. A conventional debate prep binder does little to steel a candidate against an onslaught of personal attacks, in Mr. Biden’s case most likely about his son Hunter. And while the town halls offered a preview, they were fairly tame compared to what is expected to come.

This week had the president doing battle not so much with political adversaries, but with expert voices from within his own administration.

Dr. Robert S. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Congress that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of 2021, contrary to the president’s promise of a big breakthrough before Election Day on Nov. 3. He also said masks were potentially more useful than a vaccine for battling the spread of the pandemic and returning to normal life.

“I think he made a mistake when he said that,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “It’s just incorrect information.”

On Thursday, a former member of the coronavirus task force, Olivia Troye, came forward to explain she had resigned because the president was only concerned with his own re-election chances and sought to downplay the threat of the virus. In response, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, tried to discredit her by calling her a “disgruntled former detailee who typically sat in the overflow room of the task force.”

  • The call is coming from inside the house: From Mr. Trump’s own admissions to the journalist Bob Woodward, to current and former administration officials undermining trust in his statements about the coronavirus and the timing of a vaccine, the president is wasting precious days doing battle with himself and his own current and former officials.

  • It’s hard to dismiss everyone as disgruntled: Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster also spoke out this past week, saying in an interview that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and partnering with the Taliban have made the country less safe. Another former official criticizing the president, this time on policy, threatened to undermine recent efforts to portray Mr. Trump as a peacemaker.

  • Trump continues to berate anyone who doesn’t fall in line: On Thursday night, he publicly rebuked the director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, after Mr. Wray warned of Russian interference in the election and of white supremacist violence.

Democrats love to fret, but after their shock in 2016, what was already a party susceptible to nervousness has hit new heights. The latest fear is not driven by money (the Biden campaign has that) or party unity (pretty safe) or advertisements (the Biden campaign is spending big), but door knocking, and whether the campaign’s reluctance to invest in a field operation during the pandemic will hurt it come November.

Our colleagues wrote recently that several county chairs and local party officials have expressed their frustration with Mr. Biden’s campaign, saying they have pleaded for more investment in organizers, volunteers and visibility merchandise, such as yard signs. It comes as Mr. Trump’s campaign has boasted about knocking on a million doors a week, with a particular focus on swing states.

Here’s the thinking of Mr. Biden’s campaign:

  • There are other ways to reach voters: In a digital age, campaigns have targeted ways of reaching voters that go beyond the traditional door knock. Ads that match specific demographic traits, text messages and phone banking can offer greater precision and accuracy. If the purpose of a door knock is to reach voters, some argue that the campaign can do that more efficiently without risking the health of volunteers and voters.

  • Joe Biden is not Bernie Sanders: Organizing has a particular resonance among members of the progressive left, who are often seeking to shift the makeup of the voting electorate and introduce candidates who have newer ideas and less name recognition to a national audience. This is distinct from the challenges Mr. Biden faces in November, because of his sky-high name recognition and brand durability among Americans. In the Democratic primary, Mr. Biden won several states on Super Tuesday despite barely having field operations there. That electorate differs from the general election makeup, but the principle holds. Mr. Biden is relying on positive earned media and ads to reach reliable and likely voters. He is not seeking to reshape the electorate’s makeup.

  • The fears are from the political class, not the base (with a caveat): In private, many of Mr. Biden’s political allies say the complaints of the local officials are their own projections onto the electorate. Specifically, they argue that officials are used to having field offices and yard signs as a way to cement their status as liaison between community and their campaign. However, some national Democrats think they have a point, and argue that the lack of field operations for Mr. Biden’s campaign could leave opportunities on the table to help some down-ballot candidates. It comes down to who you believe: Are the local officials correctly sensing a mood shift in their communities, or is Mr. Biden’s campaign reaching them in nontraditional ways?

Nick Corasaniti, Isabella Grullón-Paz and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

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