With post debate polls showing a bump favoring Joe Biden, the president is growing increasingly scared that he cannot win.

By David Leonhardt | The New York Times

There is a theme that has run through President Trump’s entire re-election campaign: He is afraid that he cannot beat Joe Biden.

It explains his extraordinary efforts last year to prevent Biden from becoming the nominee. And it explains his more recent efforts to discredit the election. Rather than running against Biden, Trump now seems to be running against democracy itself.

I think it’s useful to think of the 2020 Trump campaign in three distinct stages. The first was during the run-up to the Democratic primaries, when Trump used the powers of the presidency to pressure at least one foreign country, Ukraine, to smear Biden (an effort that led to impeachment). Trump took no similar steps to damage Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris.

Why? Trump often acts on instinct, and he may have done so in this case. But he is also a voracious consumer of polls, and polls consistently showed him faring worse in a hypothetical matchup against Biden than against any other Democrat.

The second stage began after Biden clinched the nomination, and Trump doubled down on efforts to damage him. He portrayed Biden as a corrupt old politician, not so different from Hillary Clinton, or a closet socialist.

It hasn’t worked. Biden’s lead over Trump has remained stable.

That has led to the third stage: Try to prevent a normal election.

Trump, with help from other leading Republicans, has increased his efforts to make it difficult to vote. His campaign has filed lawsuits in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and elsewhere to restrict voting by mail. (The Times Magazine has a new investigation on this subject, including Mike Pence’s role.)

In recent weeks, Trump also began what seems like an obvious attempt at voter intimidation, encouraging his supporters to show up at polling places, purportedly to prevent voter fraud, which almost never occurs. Donald Trump Jr. has released a video calling for an “army for Trump’s election security operation.”

Tuesday’s debate was the apex of the strategy, at least for now. Trump refused to allow a normal debate, constantly interrupting Biden. For voters, the result was a chaotic jumble. For Trump, it was one more attempt to undermine the normal functioning of democracy.

There is still more than a month until Election Day — an eternity in politics. At this point, though, the picture from the last year and a half is remarkably consistent.

Trump seems to believe he would lose a normal election to Biden. But in an abnormal election, with low turnout and protracted fights over ballot eligibility, who knows what will happen? And if Trump does lose, he is laying the groundwork to make the false claim that the election was rigged.

As my colleague Maggie Haberman put it yesterday, “People close to him are blunt that the president knows he’s losing and is scared of it.”


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