Trump’s Axios Interview, Kanye West’s Campaign: The Latest in the 2020 Race

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

  • A poll this week showed Trump’s support stabilizing in Iowa. Trump led Biden among registered voters in the Monmouth University poll, 48 percent to 45 percent. Trump appears weaker in the state than he was in 2016, when he won Iowa by more than 9 points, but his support appears to be holding steady there in recent polling.

  • The Biden campaign spent $11.8 million on television ads, and the Trump campaign spent $4.4 million.

  • On Facebook, Trump again outspent Biden, roughly $723,000 to $17,000.

If President Trump and his allies wanted to cast Joe Biden as an error-prone politician of yesteryear, this week they got some help.

Mr. Biden’s interview with a slew of Black and Latino journalists produced two clippable comments for Republicans: At one point, Mr. Biden got testy with a reporter who asked him about taking a mental aptitude test, suggesting the reporter should be tested for cocaine and asking, “Are you a junkie?” At another stage of the interview, Mr. Biden contrasted Black and Latino communities by saying the latter had more diversity.

But both comments, and Mr. Biden’s eventual attempt to walk back his remarks about Black diversity, were overshadowed by Mr. Trump’s own statements, a consequence of the president’s lack of discipline in executing his own campaign strategy. Mr. Trump’s charge that Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, was “against God” drew ire from across the political spectrum and supplanted Mr. Biden’s comments in the news cycle.

It was a microcosm of Mr. Trump’s current political struggle: He succeeded in 2016 as advisers “let Trump be Trump.” Now, he can’t seem to stand down, even when it would be helpful to let Biden be Biden.

Between his regular appearances in the White House briefing room, his overactive Twitter feed and his endless interviews with anchors on Fox News, President Trump can often feel like a leader who is unavoidable for comment. But Mr. Trump’s interview last week with Jonathan Swan, a reporter for Axios, still managed to show the president in a different light.

“It is what it is,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Swan when pressed about how he could claim the pandemic was under control with the United States averaging more than a thousand deaths per day.

The callous statement from a president who has been unable to demonstrate empathy in public throughout the coronavirus pandemic was quickly promoted by Mr. Biden, who has been running a campaign based in large part on the simple notion that the country needs an empathetic leader at this time.

The strange part: Mr. Trump and his aides liked the interview, too. “I thought it was a good interview,” Mr. Trump said afterward. Many of his aides deemed the hoopla over Mr. Trump’s comments overrated, but did not see the interview as a mistake.

  • In fact, with rallies off the calendar for the foreseeable future, Mr. Trump’s aides said they planned to have him do more interviews like the one with “Axios on HBO.” They think interviews with Sunday show hosts, television network anchors and mainstream news outlets are ultimately helpful to Mr. Trump, in addition to his steady diet of softball sitdowns with Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity.

  • Mr. Trump is also directing some of the coverage himself, suggesting to his aides the reporters he wants to meet with and pushing for those interviews himself.

  • Mr. Swan’s interview also underscored the uneven playing field that is the briefing room, where Mr. Trump controls the give-and-take with journalists. Faced with a well-prepared reporter who had the time and space to follow up on his own questions, Mr. Trump appeared defensive and flat-footed in his understanding of his own administration’s virus response.

The realness of Kanye West’s presidential campaign depends on whom you ask. The cultural icon and rap artist has filed forms declaring his candidacy in several states. This week, reports exposed an interesting, if not surprising, twist: Republican operatives in swing states were helping Mr. West’s efforts, gathering signatures in places like Wisconsin and Colorado to give the self-proclaimed Yeezus more legitimacy.

Why are some Republicans helping his campaign? According to a political reporter in Wisconsin, the state G.O.P. was hoping Mr. West could play the role of spoiler in November, siphoning votes from Mr. Biden. That is a big bet, riddled with assumptions and lacking supporting evidence. Here is what we know:

  • There is no evidence Mr. West would win a significant number of Black voters. In 2018, when Mr. West was included in a national CNN poll, he was viewed favorably by only 20 percent of nonwhite adults, about the same as his rating among white adults. And he was viewed more favorably by Republicans (35 percent) than by Democrats (12 percent).

  • The lane for spoiler candidates in 2020 is smaller than in 2016. In polling, Mr. Biden’s unfavorable ratings are much lower than those for Hillary Clinton, the previous Democratic nominee. That leaves less room for third-party candidates to capitalize on voters who dislike both candidates.

  • Mr. West’s political views are … inconsistent. He has given money to and supported progressive Democrats, donned a “Make America Great Again” hat, denounced the oppression of Black people and criticized abortion. There is no clear ideological home.

This much is clear: The Trump campaign and the Biden campaign have agreed to three debates, scheduled for late September and October. This week, however, the Trump campaign requested a fourth presidential debate to be held earlier in September. The idea was floated by Mr. Trump’s confidante and personal lawyer, the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The gambit was shot down by the nonprofit commission that governs presidential debates, but it’s another sign Republicans are desperate to shake up the race. Mr. Trump’s supporters have crowed for months that in a one-on-one setting, the president would expose Mr. Biden as feckless and out of touch. They have tried to paint Mr. Biden as scared to debate Mr. Trump.

The Democratic presidential primary should be instructive for this approach. Many of Mr. Biden’s primary opponents also assumed he would flail on the debate stage, but in key moments he rose to the occasion. And the predictions that Mr. Biden would be a poor debater lowered the bar enough that he could clear it. Be careful what you wish for.

  • The Democratic National Convention is going all virtual. Not even Mr. Biden will appear in Milwaukee to accept the party’s nomination. It’s a blow to a city that had prepared to host thousands and more recently has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. In terms of politics, Democrats are hoping voters reward them for taking the virus seriously.

  • Vice President Mike Pence thinks Mr. Biden’s decision to stay home has created an opportunity for the president’s re-election campaign — and has scheduled his own campaign trip to Wisconsin on Aug. 17 with the hope of filling the void.

  • Mr. Trump on Friday night called a surprise “news conference” at his private club in Bedminster, N.J. There, he said the coronavirus was “disappearing, it’s going to disappear,” a return to the kind of dismissive attitude toward the virus his aides have tried to convince him is hurting his re-election chances.

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