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Trump’s Nominee Gets a Hearing and the Town Hall Divide: This Week in the 2020 Race

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

  • This was the week that Joe Biden’s lead over President Trump settled firmly into the double digits, according to a range of national polling averages — including The Upshot’s calculator. Some credible polls, including one released on Friday by The Associated Press/NORC, put Mr. Biden’s lead as high as 15 points.

  • Two New York Times/Siena College polls in the Carolinas showed Mr. Biden edging ahead of the president in North Carolina, 46 percent to 42 percent, while Mr. Trump held an eight-point lead in South Carolina. Winning North Carolina would be a huge boost for Mr. Biden, who is polling more strongly in a number of swing states that appear to be stronger bets. South Carolina would be icing on the cake.

  • Democratic Senate candidates outpaced Republican incumbents in fund-raising in key races across the nation last week, including in Maine, where Sara Gideon announced raising $31 million more than Senator Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent.

  • Nielsen figures showed 15.1 million viewers watched Joe Biden’s ABC town hall event and 13.5 million watched President Trump’s event on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

ImagePresident Trump on Thursday had his own, separate town hall event in Miami. 
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

When NBC announced a town hall event with President Trump that was scheduled for the same time as ABC’s town hall program with the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrats were enraged. Celebrities spoke out, including some of NBC’s own talent, and liberals on social media made grand plans to boycott the event in an effort to send a message to Mr. Trump and the network.

Instead, the split screen of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden at concurrent town halls painted a vivid picture of the stark choices before American voters. Mr. Biden was pressed on policy plans from climate change to criminal justice, hammering home his core message that the Trump administration had fumbled the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Trump sparred with Savannah Guthrie of NBC, the moderator, refusing to give clear answers on his own coronavirus diagnosis and whether he denounces the violent conspiracy theory of QAnon. In the end, the contrast was so stark that one of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers compared Mr. Biden’s town hall event to Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (though she meant it as an insult). Even the Democrats who were initially wary of the events learned a lesson that Mr. Trump’s campaign team has come to know, at times painfully: Not all airtime is necessarily helpful to the president.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The split screen of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings unfolding on Capitol Hill as Mr. Trump addressed voters directly raised questions for both the president and his Supreme Court nominee about how much they are expecting from each other in the coming months.

Did Mr. Trump have a litmus test for Judge Barrett, when it came to politically charged issues like overturning Roe v. Wade, or how she might rule in an upcoming case that could decide the future of the Affordable Care Act? Would Mr. Trump expect Judge Barrett to rule for him if a dispute over the Nov. 3 election comes before the Supreme Court? Both Mr. Trump and Judge Barrett were asked those questions this week, and both claimed that there was never a loyalty pledge — sought or given.

“It would be totally up to her,” Mr. Trump said on NBC on Thursday night. “I would think that she would be able to rule either for me or against me. I don’t see any conflict whatsoever.” Judge Barrett, for her part, said she would not “allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide this election for the American people.” But here’s what the president has communicated.

  • He has been explicit about the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Trump has said he wants justices who would “do the right thing” and invalidate the health care law. Judge Barrett said this past week: “I’m not here on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act. I’m just here to apply the law and adhere to the rule of law.”

  • Mr. Trump has made it abundantly clear he prizes loyalty. The president never forgave his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, ridiculing him over the decision for years. In recent weeks, he has even been publicly critical of William P. Barr, the current attorney general, because the Justice Department’s investigation of the Obama administration found no wrongdoing and did not bring any criminal charges. And the Supreme Court has not been off limits for criticism from this administration. Vice President Mike Pence in August blasted Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as a “disappointment to conservatives” after he sided with the Democratic appointees on a series of cases.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump’s plan from now until Election Day is to pack in as many rallies as physically and monetarily possible (Air Force One is not a cheap lift for a campaign that has been struggling financially.) But the strategy, favored by a president who adores adoring crowds, has some people in his orbit questioning whether it’s the best way to further his re-election chances in the final days of the race.

The preaching-to-the-converted sessions in airport hangars across battleground states are no longer being carried on national television, and most of the attention they attract is for the images of people packed together, most without masks on.

Some Trump campaign aides argued that the rallies still drive the local news in critical areas and allow the campaign to gather information from low-propensity voters who they can try to turn out at the polls. But even they admit the rallies are not without their downsides.

  • Polls show that the vast majority of Americans think Mr. Trump contracted the coronavirus because he didn’t take proper precautions: When the president shows up at an airport hangar and brags about how large the crowd is, it seems like a warning sign for what not to do in the middle of a highly contagious pandemic.

  • Trump’s best pitch is to broaden his economic appeal: He doesn’t do that at rallies, where over the past week he has begged suburban women to like him, made wildly inflated claims about his own achievements and floated conspiracy theories about his political opponents.

  • But it keeps him happy and busy: Mr. Trump has pushed his campaign advisers to book more rallies, and they admit that without the rallies he would probably spend more unscheduled “executive time” watching television and tweeting, activities that come with their own sets of downsides.

Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Senator Kamala Harris of California, Mr. Biden’s running mate, abruptly suspended travel this past week after a senior staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. The staff member, in addition to a flight crew member who had also tested positive, had not been in close contact with Ms. Harris, but the campaign pulled her from events through the weekend as a stated precaution. The campaign said Ms. Harris was not quarantining and had continued to test negative for the coronavirus. So why is she off the campaign trail? Politics.

The Biden campaign wants to create a contrast with the Trump administration on all things coronavirus. As the White House and Mr. Trump continue to obfuscate on the precise details of the president’s diagnosis, and the gap in time between his last negative test and his first positive one, Mr. Biden’s campaign is trying to show voters — and the media — that it is taking the virus seriously. Consider this:

  • Dems in array: The Democratic Party is united in its indictments of Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus, and its goal of expanding health care and combating climate change; those are the issues that unite the party’s candidates across the country. In Mr. Biden’s town hall event, and in Ms. Harris’s vice-presidential debate, they both started by criticizing the Trump administration’s pandemic response. On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee paid for floating billboards outside Mr. Trump’s town hall event that read: “Trump lied. People died.”

  • The White House keeps providing them opportunities: Mr. Trump has continued to push back against accepted mitigation strategies such as mask wearing. On Thursday night, Mr. Trump repeatedly cited anecdotal evidence that mask wearing did not necessarily help prevent infection with the virus, even as his own public health experts stress its importance. In fighting this battle, he has created an opening that Mr. Biden is seeking to exploit.

Shane Goldmacher, Isabella Grullón Paz and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

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