If Labor Day was long considered the starting line of the general election sprint, this year it feels like the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter of a poorly played football game. Some Americans are glued to the action, eagerly awaiting the next big play or violent collision, but most fans of both teams just wish it was over already.
With the party conventions behind us, what we’ve known for six months (and suspected for much longer) is now official: President Donald Trump will face former Vice President Joe Biden this November in an election that feels more and more like a referendum on the state of America’s fraying social fabric. The stakes could hardly be higher. Whoever wins is expected to oversee the rebuilding of a battered economy and the distribution of a new and politically divisive vaccine, not to mention the halting efforts to reconcile cultural attitudes around race, policing and justice.
For all our familiarity with these two well-established figures—a pair of septuagenarian white men who have been in the public eye for decades—there is much about this election we simply do not know, questions that reach far beyond horse-race comparisons between Trump and Biden. Will the spread of the coronavirus get any better or worse in the run-up to Election Day? Will there be a new wave of protests sparked by another police shooting or even more deadly violence between protesters on both sides? Will the combination of U.S. Postal Servicedelays and unprecedented voting by mail force a lengthy wait before we know the winner in key swing states? And how are voters responding to all this election year volatility?
To gain some insight into these questions, we reconvened our expert panel of four of the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign managers who experienced first-hand the perils of campaigning against Trump: Danny Diaz (Jeb Bush), Beth Hansen (John Kasich), Jeff Roe (Ted Cruz) and Terry Sullivan (Marco Rubio).
When this group first gathered in June 2019, inside a literally smoke-filled room in Washington, we discussed the vulnerabilities of Trump and which Democrat was best suited to exploit them. A few months later, we got the gang back together at the Texas Tribune Festival to preview the Democratic primary campaign and debate the durability of Biden’s candidacy. Then, in April of this year, we recapped Biden’s “miracle” comeback to claim the nomination and looked ahead to the challenges of campaigning amid a pandemic. These four veteran politicos have been awfully prescient, agreeing from the jump that Biden was the strongest candidate to take on Trump, Harris made the most sense as his V.P. and that a referendum on the incumbent was the likeliest strategy.
We convened this fourth conversation immediately after the Republican National Convention. With both candidates returning to the campaign trail—or, what’s left of it—for the 2020 home stretch, our experts debated who has the upper hand, why we could see historic turnout and what could go wrong for the country in the months ahead.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
TIM ALBERTA: I want to first go around and ask everyone—as a viewer, as a voter—was there one moment from either of the conventions that really stuck with you while watching at home? Beth, let’s start with you.
BETH HANSEN: The moment that struck me, honestly, was as I was watching the preparations for Trump’s remarks and I was looking at the South Lawn and I saw the chairs. I was stunned to see how close they were together. I’m just telling you as somebody who’s sitting in Columbus, Ohio, in the Midwest, stunned to see how close they were together. You would not be allowed to do that in a restaurant in our state. So, I was very surprised that they were going to put that many people on the lawn when we’re having the challenges that we are right now with public health. And for the Democratic Convention, of course, my favorite was on Monday night, when Governor Kasich had an opportunity to talk about what his thoughts were about the election this fall and the two paths that our country faces and the path that he thinks is going to bring us back to civility and our ability to work together.
TERRY SULLIVAN: It makes sense because, I mean, no one—really no other person has done more to make sure that Donald Trump was president, so I could understand why Kasich wants to weigh in on this election.
ALBERTA: Terry, I had a feeling you might work that into your response. Explain what you mean by that. I’m sure Beth would like to know.
SULLIVAN: Well, I think there are a lot of people that believe that John Kasich served as quite the spoiler in the 2016 nominating process. Virginia was a state that Marco lost to Trump by 20,000 votes; Kasich was still in the race and got 80,000. Jeff understands the mechanics of Texas congressional district delegates being awarded; Kasich staying in the race gave about 70-plus delegates extra to Trump just in Texas alone on that primary. So, he served as a spoiler who didn’t really walk away from Super Tuesday with hardly anything in the way of delegates. He didn’t win anywhere but was able to rob a lot of people and give a lot of those delegates to Trump.
JEFF ROE: And he told us 10 minutes before we conceded that he was going all the way to Cleveland and got out 12 hours later. I thought he was going to be secretary of State for that.
SULLIVAN: I mean, that’s the only question, is why did he not get a Cabinet position? He deserved it.
HANSEN: Respectfully, I think there are any number of people who are participating in this call who would have thought that perhaps there were other candidates who should have gotten out. And I respect your opinion, I respect the math, I respect what you think we did. We did what we thought was right and continue to believe that what we did was right.
ALBERTA: Now that Terry got that out of his system, let’s move on. Danny, what was the most impactful convention moment for you?
DANNY DIAZ: Tim Scott and listening to him speak and his story. We’re all familiar with the senator, but there are millions of Americans who are not. And he’s compelling, he’s genuine, and really represents, I think, a lot of the strengths of the GOP.
ALBERTA: Jeff, what about you? Was there a breakthrough moment?
ROE: I don’t know if it was a breakthrough. I cried twice, once each for each convention. Never thought I’d cry during a national convention, but having kids, you know, it turns your life upside down. Brayden Harrington at the Democratic convention—I mean, I don’t know how you could watch that and not, like, nearly fall apart. I had to look away from my wife, so I could maintain my strength. (Laughter.) And then Ann Dorn at the Republican convention, I was somewhat familiar with that situation. I think both of those pieces probably got to what each convention was about, kind of spoke to the overriding narrative in both conventions. I thought Brayden was fabulous. I mean, it couldn’t have been a smarter, better-done idea. And secondly, the Ann Dorn situation, which a lot of people in Missouri—I’m from Missouri—a lot of people knew the situation, knew that it happened, but in the 24-hour news cycle, it just moves on. And just to hear the pain in her voice, I don’t know. I think it was moving from both sides, and I think it underscored the message that each one of these conventions were intending to portray.
ALBERTA: Terry, I want you to weigh in, and then let’s spin it forward. Was there a convention moment that really struck you?
SULLIVAN: Danny stole mine. Tim Scott was phenomenal because he was able to tell his story without upstaging anyone. A convention is about a candidate, the nominee. And he was able to tell his story and why people should support the Republican Party and Donald Trump without upstaging him. I also think that Donald Trump’s speech, from what I saw of it, was perhaps the single most effective speech of the convention because it did what it needed to. And the only path for Donald Trump to win this thing is to make this a choice between him and Joe Biden. I thought he did that. And Trump rose to the occasion and does what he does best, which is communicate a tough message about his opponents.
ALBERTA: Jeff, let’s talk about the messaging. Prior to the convention, the Trump campaign was heavily invested in the idea that Biden is slow, that he’s not as sharp as he used to be. But you didn’t hear any of that during the convention. The modified line of attack was much more focused on him being held captive to the left wing of his party. What is the Republican message against Biden?
ROE: The cognitive hit on Biden—look, there’s a 3 in 10 chance that he ends his own campaign along the way, so, that stuff is better left unsaid. Because every time you do that, you do what they did to George W. Bush, which is lower the bar, lower bar, lower the bar, and essentially if you walk and chew gum now you’ve cleared the bar and the issue is off the table. I think the overarching message for us is kind of this married message of Goldwater—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—and Reagan—“Let’s make America great again”—which is now Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The Democrats literally had no message. It was Hillary’s “stronger together” marries Marianne Williamson “love trumps hate.” It was all personality.
DIAZ: I think the Dems did what they intended to do, whether that is like smart, strategically. They did what they intended to do. And to me, it projects where they think they are in the race.
ALBERTA: Did what they needed to do, in what sense?
DIAZ: Just showing from their perspective the distinction, which they believe is a substantial one, between them and the president with respect to the management of the crisis and showing empathy for fellow Americans. I mean, clearly that’s what they were trying to forecast throughout their convention. And you know, competence and everything else that comes with it with respect to governance. I think they sought to achieve that and they sought to show that the president really doesn’t care about people, particularly people of color. That’s what they were going for. And that’s where they are in the race.
ROE: For being in a strong position in the race, it was really poorly thought out. I think you’re right. I think they did exactly what they wanted to do. I just think it’s a huge missed opportunity and a huge mistake.
ALBERTA: Beth, the American president is both the head of government and the head of state, and Democrats have been attacking both his performance as head of government and his performance as head of state. From your vantage point, which do you think is more effective in moving votes? Do you think it’s the appeal to character—that he doesn’t have empathy, he’s not wearing a mask, etc? Or is it that he’s incompetent and he’s botched this whole thing?
HANSEN: They needed the character message to speak to their voters. What I heard coming out of that convention was civility, coming together again, we are being torn apart. It was a more emotional message. But as they move forward and they have to attract people—and this is where I agree with Jeff that it was a lost opportunity—they have to be for something. They can’t just be for an amorphous, “Things are going terrible, and don’t worry, once I get there, they’re going to be better.” And I’m certain that they would feel like they have articulated some of those things, but it’s got to be sharp and it’s got to be clear. And people, the few that are out there that have not made up their mind, they need to know how the government is going to be better under Biden-Harris.
SULLIVAN: Look, if this race is about Donald Trump, I think Trump loses. If this race is about the policy differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Donald Trump has a real shot to win this thing. I think as long as the Democrats don’t step on their own two feet, they’re where they need to be. They just need to run this clock out and keep this race being about Donald Trump.
ROE: I think their main attack is the same as it was in 2016. Their main prebuttal to our convention was the same as 2016. The main bracketing that they did this time was the same as 2016. And I have the same feeling that it doesn’t work. You either go after candidates on their character or their policies. And character, like Danny said, you’re going to get one undecided voter out of 100 on the issue of his character. What they could have ran the entire convention on is that he wanted to cut everybody’s Social Security, or that he wanted to kick everybody off health care. I mean, you can pick several things that would have some modicum of truth behind it and they could run $10 million worth of media through it. But they didn’t. They went after character. Like, they can’t get over it that people might not care as much about what his personal character is, they care about what he gets done and the economic conditions they’re in. And I think it’s a huge mistake. I don’t think they can ever say what they’re for because their party is so split on what they’re for.
DIAZ: Right. They’re paralyzed by their constituency, so they couldn’t talk about the issues. I think they’re in a tough position from that perspective.
ROE: They didn’t focus in on any policy except for the pandemic, which, by the way, the numbers are moving on the pandemic. That is a big bet to make, as well. I mean, we could either have the flu come in October and it be a complete shit show. But just as likely, like we’ve seen in some states, people could be thinking the worst is behind us. Democrats bet their whole convention 70 days out on the pandemic and Trump’s management of it.
ALBERTA: The first time this group convened, in the summer of 2019, the consensus was that if there was a vice presidential nominee who could check the most boxes in the Democratic Party it was going to be Kamala Harris. Sure enough, Biden put her on the ticket. I’m wondering two things. First, what your real-time reaction to the news of her selection? And second, I have not heard any consistent line of attack against Kamala Harris from Republicans. Can Republicans find a message to use against her?
SULLIVAN: I reacted by saying, “Oh, good. They finally did what we knew they were going to do all along. The suspense is over.” Look, she’s turned out to be a good pick because she has done no harm to their ticket. She was the most well-vetted out of any of those options and that’s paid off for them. You know, I’m a contributor with CBS. Shortly after the pick, I had to do CBS This Morning and I wanted to hear what the Trump’s campaign would say about her, so I texted some pretty well-positioned people who responded, “Yeah, I’ll get you something.” I never got talking points on how to define Kamala Harris. I still haven’t gotten talking points on how to define Kamala Harris. So, part of it is that she’s a good pick. The other part of it is, like, how the heck were Republicans not prepared for a Kamala Harris pick?
ALBERTA: Jeff, if you’re running the Trump campaign, how are you making the case against Kamala Harris? And answer the first part: What was your initial reaction to seeing her pick?
ROE: I was disappointed because she’s the best one. Biden has a real problem that he’s got to fix. If you look at him since he’s been the only candidate in the race, about March 15 or 16, if you take a look at the primary performances that he’s had since, his performance in every state is about 73 to 77 percent. I mean, that’s a little bit lower than you’d want, it’s not bad. But in the cities of those states, he’s run nine points behind the statewide average. In Chicago, in Milwaukee, in Pittsburgh, in Atlanta. Providence, Rhode Island, for example, 45 percent nonwhite, he gets 57 percent of the vote on June 9. In Atlanta, he runs 5 points behind Georgia. So, he has an African American, Hispanic problem. Trump is running 5 points ahead with Blacks, where he was against Hillary Clinton; he’s running 6 points ahead with Hispanics where he was with Clinton. So, it was a “captain obvious” choice, and we’ve done a poor job defining her. If I was defining her, she’s the number one most liberal senator in the United States. Their convention was completely centrist, all about how many Republicans support Biden. So, I would label her a liberal. I would drive a wedge. Their platform is one of the most liberal documents you can ever read, and we should make sure they eat that whole sandwich.
DIAZ: There was kind of an Elizabeth [Warren] vs. Kamala situation, I thought, and when the social unrest started to unfold it was kind of a fait accompli from my perspective. And to the point concerning their issue with minority voters and needing to ratchet up that number, it’s no coincidence that we had so many minorities at our convention. Look, Trump’s had a problem defining Kamala since the primary. He’s always had a problem getting a frame on her, to be very candid with you. Identity politics is strong on their side. We’ve said it over and over again. She checks a lot of boxes in that regard. And with respect to the rollout of her nomination, I mean, Dems start at the 50-yard line on any of this stuff. The media doesn’t hold their feet to the fire. So, am I surprised that they had a good rollout? No. I’d be surprised if they didn’t.
HANSEN: I think a woman of color is an excellent choice for them. To the question about Trump’s inability to get a bead on her, I think part of this goes to her service as a prosecutor and as an attorney general. I think that leaves an impression in people’s mind that she’s law-and-order conservative. I think it’s difficult for people to be convinced that she’s Elizabeth Warren because they don’t think she is. They just think that she’s probably a fairly conservative Democrat. Because, “look, she’s law and order.” I think for most people—and we are not most people—but as I look around, my kids are fairly progressive and they told me they had trouble with Kamala Harris because she was in favor of three-strikes laws, how they picked on minorities and over-represented in the prosecutions. I mean, that is a perspective on Kamala Harris that makes it more difficult to do what Jeff suggests, which is paint her as a liberal, which I’m confident that she has espoused lots of positions that would place her in that category.
ALBERTA: Let’s talk about Kamala Harris in the context of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. I’m curious how you guys view this. Is it possible that whatever deficit Democrats put themselves at with the progressive left because of her background as a “tough on crime” prosecutor; that maybe it’s offset with appeal to voters in the middle who, in the midst of all this social unrest, hear what Republicans say about Democrats being soft on crime but look at the Democratic vice presidential nominee and see somebody who has this record as a law-and-order prosecutor?
HANSEN: They need to start that right now. They need to start reassuring people that they have the ability to separate peaceful protest from people who are just doing something wrong. They need a better message on it. And if Kamala Harris is the answer, that’s what they have to message on.
DIAZ: I wish them good luck, but they’re not able to do it. They’re not able to do it with their constituency.
ROE: There’s no Republicans looting Macy’s. They can’t do it. They can’t take a position on it. They cannot.
SULLIVAN: I don’t know if you guys saw the Papa John’s store employee when the rioters in Kenosha smashed the front window and he comes out and starts screaming at them, “Do you want to get Trump reelected?” Look, there’s nothing happening better for Donald Trump than those over-the-top viral moments where people are screaming at diners and demanding they raise their fists in the air. Like, it is nearly impossible to feel sympathetic for Rand Paul. You know? Who amongst us can’t empathize with his neighbor who beat his ass? [Laughter.] But when you see all these protesters surrounding him and his wife, it feels like everything has gone haywire. And that hurts Biden more than anything else.
ALBERTA: When I hear what you guys are saying, I think to myself, “What’s the point of having a black woman who is a former prosecutor on the ticket if you can’t use her at a moment like this to deliver that message that Beth was just describing?”
SULLIVAN: She and Joe Biden need to get on a plane, leave his basement, and go to Kenosha. And they need to say—like arm and arm and say, “This needs to stop.” And with his family. Meet with his family who is asking for the violence to stop. [Editor’s Note: Biden did just this, days after our conversation.] They need a Sister Souljah moment. I mean, it’s so obvious and I don’t know why they don’t do it. I know that, to Jeff’s point, it’s all about the base and that would piss off the base. But I think, like, even the base wants to beat Trump more than they want a riot. You know?
ALBERTA: Can Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have it both ways here? Can they soothe the anxieties of voters in the middle who are fed up with Trump but kind of think that he might keep them safe—and appease a very angry, very frustrated, very fed up progressive base of the party?
DIAZ: I find it very hard to believe that they can. I mean, in my home state, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, they’re trying to make it a misdemeanor for assaulting a cop. I just believe that there are a lot of voters in these states—let’s talk Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—I think the position that they are firmly anchored in because of their party and their base makes it really, really hard for them to do it. And it is a huge gift to Trump.
ROE: Think about where we are. Four things are happening this year that have never happened in the history of our country in the same year. One, there’s a pandemic. Two, the economic crisis. Three, social and racial unrest. Four, an election. Any of our candidates—if our guys were president, we would be in a much bigger trough than Trump is in. Any Democrat would be in a much bigger trough. Anybody else, with the polling showing 17 to 67 in right direction/wrong track numbers, it would be a hole they couldn’t dig out of. And this guy is within the margin of error in half of the six states where he needs to win, despite all this stuff going on.
SULLIVAN: His floor is so high and his ceiling is so low that, like, nothing matters. He’s right. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and there is 42 percent of the population that would be like, “What did the guy do to him?”
ALBERTA: We’ve seen recent polling to suggest that the social unrest is now registering with voters as a real priority, a real concern. Is this now Trump’s best chance to crawl out of the terrible set of circumstances Jeff was just describing? Does this social unrest represent Trump’s best chance to get reelected?
DIAZ: Well, it’s 60-some days out and a lot can change, but it’s incredibly helpful to him at this juncture. Because it plays to nationalism. It plays to strength. And it plays to the contrast that he wants to drive. I think in these states that they need to win, these states in the upper Midwest and in the Rust Belt, I think it does give him a great advantage with some of these voters. I mean, my God, the guy is like performing in these swing states better than he was against Hillary Clinton at this stage. So, from my standpoint, when you consider that folks failed to tell pollsters the truth, they weren’t properly sampled in these surveys, I think it’s closer than people think it is, and I think this certainly plays to his strength.
HANSEN: I agree with everything that Danny said. But we have got a long way to go. And structurally, things are so bad. We don’t actually have a vaccine. We don’t actually have reliable tests. We don’t have reliable treatment. I mean, things are not good. But he is doing well in part in this moment because people who live in these suburban areas, who maybe have thought, “Gosh, he’s too crazy and I don’t like what he says about women and minorities and immigrants. …” But they want to be safe. They want to feel like their families are safe. And this, somehow, was like a present that landed on his porch; that he looks down and he has an opportunity just to continue saying and doing divisive things—and it plays to where he wants to be. The Democrats have got to find a way to talk about how they’re going to keep families safe, how they’re going to keep communities safe. They are going to lose these places that they need to win if they cannot find that answer.
ALBERTA: I want everyone to tell me, on a scale of 1 to 10, your level of concern about the results not being known on election night, states being too close to call for days and maybe weeks, and all the while additional ballots are being counted and the president is claiming the election is being rigged against him. How concerned are you—10, your hair on fire; 1, you are completely sanguine—that we’re going to be in the middle of an existential crisis come November?
DIAZ: I’m at a solid 7.5 on that one. There were half a million votes tossed out in the primary, right? It’s interesting that, like, 60,000 of those were in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And all of us know that the margin for the president in those three states was about 80,000 votes. So, I think when you have states coming online with universal voting, and a lot of them don’t really matter like New Jersey because the outcome is the outcome there. I think all of us should be concerned with it. I’m a solid 7.5.
SULLIVAN: Well, I think as long as we put the Iowa Democratic Party in charge, we should all sleep well at night. [Laughter.] No, look, I’d say 7, but the only reason it’s not higher is not out of confidence in our state boards of elections. It’s that I think there’s a decent enough chance that this is a blowout election, where it’s not close. But if it is close, it will be, I’d say, 10.5 of 10. But I don’t think it’s going to be that close.
ALBERTA: And to be clear—before I go to Beth and Jeff—if it’s a blowout, Terry, you think that it’s Biden winning a blowout?
ALBERTA: OK. You don’t think Trump could win in a blowout?
SULLIVAN: I think Trump could win in a narrow race. I think there’s a real possibility of that. I don’t think there’s any way he wins a blowout because the ceiling is just way too low. And the map isn’t in his favor. There’s no way he wins a blowout in either the national vote or the Electoral College. Just isn’t going to happen.
ALBERTA: Beth, scale of 1 to 10, where are you?
HANSEN: I’m a 6. But I must say, a month ago I would have been a 3—because I thought it was going to be blowout. I just didn’t think structurally there was going to be any way this was going to be even close. But now I think it could be very close. And I agree with Terry’s analysis. But I’m at a 6. What I would say is having worked around state government for some time, secretaries of state and election implementation—say what you will about boards of elections—it’s actually pretty good. If we allow the secretaries of state, who I happen to believe are quite capable, to implement these elections, I actually think it’s going to be fine.
ALBERTA: Jeff, you’re not the bed-wetting type. Where are you, 1 to 10?
ROE: My mom is a postmaster and so she was very excited about the protests, the celebrations for the Postal Service. I think the world has gone completely freaking mad. But look, we actually have a narrow advantage in early vote and the absentee vote. Vote by mail can get pretty funky. You know, they just had the lawsuit that the Republicans won, but just pulled back 50,000 ballots that had been made out for the voters in advance. It’s pretty funky when you start going to the vote by mail. And it takes a state, not the post office, but it takes a state about 10 years to get it right. And we see this in Arizona right now, where it takes two weeks after the election to figure out who won, if it’s close at all. And so when you take a look at the states that are there, that have adopted it—be it Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, which already has got problems, Nevada, which is terrible, and Minnesota, where Trump is just outside the margin, and Pennsylvania—I don’t think there’s any way we know who the victor is on election night. I believe our republic is pretty sturdy. But I think we’re going to be testing it. And we’re going to be testing it for about three weeks through Thanksgiving. And I think it could be a real problem.
ALBERTA: Oh. You are bed-wetting. What’s your number?
ROE: Most states aren’t used to this. Most states are used to knowing who won the election by—they might have to stay up till midnight or 1 o’clock—but they’re not used to this. They’re not used to having to wait on Arizona and Maricopa County to dump the results at 6 o’clock the next morning. And that doesn’t count in-person dropoffs. They’re not used to states doing early voting—they’re just not used to this. And so, if people go to bed on Thanksgiving night and they don’t know who the president is, and we’ve got this stuff going on outside of everybody’s houses—you know, it could get pretty bananas. I think that’s more likely than not.
ALBERTA: Let me piggyback on the mail voting issue for a minute. You know, in Michigan’s primary earlier this month, Democrats were about five times more likely to vote absentee than they were in person. It was about a 5-to-1 ratio for Democrats. Republicans, it was about a 1-to-1 ratio. And Republicans here are exasperated because the reason so many of their voters were uncomfortable with absentee voting is because of what they see on Fox News and what they hear from Trump. It’s a confusing thing: Republicans here have spent a lot of money trying to educate their voters on using this new no-excuse absentee voting system, but the voters have been told it’s no good. Do you think Trump has already done the damage that can be done here? How do you see this playing out over the next eight weeks?
SULLIVAN: I think he’s finally gotten the message. His campaign team has finally said, “Hey, we win Florida as Republicans in presidential years in absentee balloting. We’ve got a better system. Stop doing this. Your base are older, white Americans. Guess who votes absentee more?” The fact that he’s doing this has been so absurd. And I think he’s finally caught up, like, “Oh, crap, this is a problem,” and that’s why it’s calmed down some, and why you didn’t hear about it at the convention. Republicans do extremely well in absentee voting in lots of places that matter and are organized. In Ohio, boy, Republicans better hope that there is some serious Election Day turnout, and there’s not lines, there’s not problems. Because the likelihood of there being problems on Election Day is probably greater than there is the likelihood of problems with mail-in balloting.
ROE: I think we’re going to have the biggest turnout in American history.
HANSEN: I agree with Jeff.
ROE: I think the absentee voting cannibalizes Election Day votes and I just don’t think it’s a big a deal. I think he ought to rail on it and keep on railing on it. I don’t think it impacts it at all. I would never, ever give my ballot to—
ALBERTA: To your mom? Your own mother?
DIAZ: Oh, man.
HANSEN: That’s cold, Jeff.
ROE: Maybe my mom. But I would never drop my ballot in a post office box. No way. Republicans don’t think like that.
DIAZ: Well, look, I think Democrats are two times more confident and likely to vote by mail than Republicans are right now. I’m from the East—by and large, we are Election Day voters. But if there is, like, a second wave of this thing, and we have instilled in people a fear of voting by mail, watch out.
ALBERTA: Jeff, I’ve got to go back to what you said a minute ago. You said that this is going to be the biggest turnout in American history. During a previous session with this group, you said you thought that it would be a big turnout, but that it would not be historic turnout. Why has your view of that evolved? And, the second question is, if it’s record-breaking turnout, can Trump win?
ROE: I bet I said that before the pandemic, or maybe in the middle of it. This is a fastball election, right down the center of the plate. If you’re a Republican, this is about abortion and guns and judges and taxes and energy and free speech. If you’re a Democrat, it’s the same potpourri on your side. It is such a meatball that I don’t think people can resist taking a bite out of it and participating. Biden is a good nominee for them, which we talked about at the first meeting, he was always their best chance to win. I think if the race is who can get to 65 million votes first, Trump’s got a very good chance. Because if it’s a lower turnout election, and there’s all this stuff that we’re talking about, and Covid-19 comes back, and older white people don’t vote, and all that kind of stuff, it gets tricky and I think his percentages would go down. But they both have $200 million reserved on TV in 10 states in the next 60 days, they’re going to be wall-to-wall, they’re going to be moving around. I think people are captivated by this. And this is why I think Trump will win. I think Trump’s going to win because everyone is motivated to vote—Democrats are mostly motivated to vote against Trump, more than they’re motivated to vote for Biden. But we’re all in our camps, and all the chips are in the middle of the table, and the direction of the country is at stake. I think both sides believe that.
ALBERTA: Jeff, you said if it’s a contest to see who gets the 65 million first, then you like Trump’s chances. But Hillary won nearly 66 million.
ROE: I was doing a quick calculation on last year’s turnout, so just take it to 70 million.
ROE: We’re going to lose the popular vote.
DIAZ: Oh, that’s a given. That’s a given.
HANSEN: Yeah, for sure.
SULLIVAN: So many Republicans that didn’t like Trump last time were motivated to vote against Hillary. It was like, “Look, we don’t know this guy. We don’t like him.” Especially in the South, it was like, “Yeah, but we got to stop Hillary.” So, we saw it in 2016 against the Democrats—
ROE: Trump at that time was like 88 percent approval with Republicans and now he’s 96 percent. Those people—
SULLIVAN: Jeff, you know as well as I do, that’s because the universe of Republicans is shrinking.
ROE: No, it’s not.
ROE: No, it’s not. It’s higher than it was in 2016. Self-identified Republicans is higher today than it was in 2016.
SULLIVAN: Show me the data.
ALBERTA: Danny, Terry and Beth, give me a five-word answer here. Do you believe if we have record-breaking turnout in November, that Trump can win?
HANSEN: No. I don’t need five words. No.
SULLIVAN: No. Just no.
DIAZ: I believe if there’s record turnout, Trump can still win because of the power of the Electoral College. There’s still a pathway for him and it’s the pathway that I’ve been talking about forever. Hold the Sun Belt: North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. Then, play in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest, [where he would only need to win one of these to reach 270]: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
SULLIVAN: It’s all Florida. Trump has been consistently losing outside the margin of error in Florida since April. That’s a fundamental, existential threat to his reelection.
DIAZ: Just like Pennsylvania is an existential threat for Biden.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, but Biden could lose Pennsylvania—if my math is right—Biden could lose Pennsylvania and win Florida and still win.
HANSEN: We had commented earlier about how steady Trump’s favorability is. It’s the same thing with his support. Jeff, I don’t think he’s grown that coalition. So, if turnout goes up, it’s not going up for him.
ROE: Here’s his problem, and I believe there is a solution to it. The problem is, he’s losing among people that don’t like either candidate. He’s losing by about 12 points there, and he won it, I think, by about 12 points last time. That’s why you run a campaign. This is going to be the most negative campaign you’ve ever seen, and negativity and money is what drives turnout. Trump has got more to gain in a negative, sustained, expensive campaign than Biden does. And I don’t think Biden’s got the stomach for it, either.
ALBERTA: All right. Let’s do a lightning round. Answer in 30 seconds or less. At this moment in time, whose campaign would you personally rather be managing, Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s?
DIAZ: Look, incumbents win historically. He still has a finance advantage despite it being smaller. He has a better organization than I think the Biden campaign does. I see things like they are committed to door knocking again, which we weren’t sure was going to be the case. I liken this to a field-goal game and maybe Trump’s team is behind by a field goal right now. But they seem to me to be hungrier from a campaign perspective and feel like they have something to prove. I would be wanting to run the incumbent’s campaign.
SULLIVAN: If you’re asking which campaign is in a better position to win, look, Biden’s in a better spot. I mean, like, it’s impossible to argue that he’s not in a better position right now. Would you rather have a candidate who’s leading in every single swing state? Leading in national polls? The media is on your side—clearly biased on your side? And there’s a global pandemic? The economy is in the crapper? Danny, I love you, but to say, “I’d rather be with that guy,” that’s tough. Biden’s got a clear path to the presidency right now in my opinion.
HANSEN: I agree with everything that Terry just said, but at the end of the day, if you can take everything they stand for out of it, just structurally, it’s the incumbent president. He is rock solid on the messaging. I mean, there’s no, “Maybe we should do this, or maybe we should.” He has a vision and that’s what we are going to do. And they’ve got money. And they’ve got intensity. It’s part of the reason that you saw so much of Donald Trump direct-to-camera at his convention. It’s like, “This is about me and this is what I believe and my beliefs have not changed one bit.” I don’t think it’s good, but it makes it the easier campaign to run.
ROE: Whatever measurements you want to have—the infrastructure, and the comms, the research, the fundraising, your online engagement, your volunteers, all that stuff—it’s very important. And then the closer you get to Election Day, the candidate matters more. Donald Trump’s a better candidate than Joe Biden. And at the end of the campaign, three weeks out, you know, every time you put him on the debate stage—it’s fourth and goal at the 2-yard line and there ain’t no trick plays on the goal line. You just give it to your running back and run it up the middle. And that’s where Trump’s going to be better. So, I’d rather run his because I think he’s a better candidate. I’ll take all the partisanship out of it and everything else. I agree with what Terry’s saying. But I also just think Trump’s just a better campaigner. He is not going to say anything that will end his campaign because he never has.
SULLIVAN: Well, because he can say anything.
HANSEN: He can say anything. Exactly. He can say anything.
ROE: And Biden’s got a 33 percent chance any time he speaks he could end his campaign.
ALBERTA: Let’s close it out on this one last thing. It’s a little bit ambiguous, but I’m curious where your minds might wander. There’s always an “October surprise” that disrupts a presidential race. If you let your imaginations run wild, what is the October surprise that could upend this race?
SULLIVAN: My imagination is not broad enough. Every day in 2020 is an October surprise. Who the hell knows? From porn stars, to global pandemics, to indictments of campaign staff—so, who knows? Presidential pardon? I can’t even imagine.
DIAZ: I think history probably bears this out, that it’s something abroad. It’s a foreign policy-oriented development that occurs. Obviously, there are players on the global stage that are looking to get involved, not just in an electoral manner, but in a geopolitical one. If I were guessing, I would guess that it’s a benefit to the president because he’s strong and he’s not going to take any shit from anybody.
SULLIVAN: Unless it’s Putin or Kim Jong Un. Other than them, he’s not taking shit from anybody.
HANSEN: I would say this about an October surprise. I mean, given this year, it’d be unlikely that there wouldn’t be a major turn of events between now and the election. But there will be no surprise that has to do with Trump. It’s just not possible. Everything that anybody could possibly think about him, good or bad, they already think. Like, when you think about a bell curve, he’s already at the tails. So, any surprise that happens will be a surprise around Biden-Harris.
ROE: I think Biden fakes a coronavirus quarantine for 14 days. [Laughter.] And then 10 days out from the election, Kamala leaks that he was faking it. And then Trump wins so Kamala can run for president in four years. How about that?
ALBERTA: Well, that’s letting your imagination run wild.