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Trump’s Big Week

2020-08-24 10:27:15

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I’m happy to be back in your inboxes after an August break. And I’m grateful to my colleagues who did such a nice job filling in. Now let’s dive into the 2020 campaign …

The final months of a presidential campaign are dominated by a few showcase events: the choice of a vice-presidential nominee (or two), the back-to-back conventions and the debates. Political pundits frequently describe all of them as crucial to the outcome.

But the truth is that only one has a track record of affecting polls in a big way: the conventions.

Political conventions have sometimes created large enough swings to allow a trailing candidate — like President Trump this year — to make a comeback. Convention season was important to George Bush’s win in 1988, Bill Clinton’s in 1992 and George W. Bush’s in 2004. (This short book, by the political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, has an excellent summary.)

The main reason is that many Americans don’t follow politics very closely. That’s especially true of swing voters. And the conventions are two giant political infomercials, with television networks handing over hours of broadcast time to the Democratic and Republican parties. The conventions are when many people tune into the campaign for the first time.

It’s true that the post-convention polling bounces have shrunk in recent years, as polarization has increased and the number of undecided voters has decreased. This year’s virtual conventions, which lack some of the energy of a normal event, may also have a smaller impact.

Even so, this week is an important one. It’s one of Trump’s few clear opportunities to change the direction of the 2020 campaign. He and his fellow Republicans will probably have a stronger hold on the country’s attention over the next four days than at any other stretch until Election Day.

How will Republicans use the opportunity? For one thing, they will conduct more of the event live. Trump has described recorded speeches — which the Democrats used extensively — as “pretty boring.” He plans to speak himself all four nights.

As for the substance, Republicans will try to rebut the Democrats’ criticisms of Trump’s presidency by describing the strength of the pre-pandemic economy and claiming that Trump has done a good job fighting the coronavirus. (That latter claim is largely false, especially when compared with every other rich country in the world.)

But the convention’s central message will probably be more negative than positive — casting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as unfit for office. The goal will be to persuade voters to stop focusing on the virus, the economic downturn and Trump’s performance as president. His campaign will instead try to make the alternative seem worse than the incumbent.

“The Trump strategy is brutally simple: change the focus from firing Trump to fearing Biden and Harris,” as Mike Murphy, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed titled, “How Biden Could Still Lose.” The journalist Susan Page, speaking on Fox News Sunday, put it this way: “Bringing down Joe Biden as either someone who’s weak or someone who is a captive of the party’s left wing, that is the task, I think, that Republicans face over the next four days.”

Next week, when post-convention polls start appearing, we will get a sense for whether either of this year’s conventions changed the campaign.

More on the Republican convention:

The Food and Drug Administration on Sunday gave emergency approval for expanded use of antibody-rich blood plasma, drawn from people who have recovered from Covid-19. More than 70,000 Covid patients have already received the treatment.

Some scientists are concerned that the treatment has not been proved effective in randomized trials, but the Trump administration pushed for approval. In a weekend tweet, Trump referred to the F.D.A. as part of the “deep state.”

In other virus developments:

  • Life in many parts of China has become strikingly normal, with crowds again filling movie theaters and gyms.

  • New virus cases in the U.S., while still high, have declined in the last month, as these new charts show. The main reason: New restrictions on activity.

  • Zeynep Tufekci, a computer programmer who became a sociologist, sounded an early alarm on the need for masks. She spoke to The Times’s media columnist, Ben Smith, about how she has gotten so many things right during a confusing time.

  • Jerry Seinfeld, in a Times Op-Ed, calls for an end to the “wailing and whimpering” about life in New York.

Two storms — Marco and Laura — are threatening to batter Louisiana and Texas this week, starting today. Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, warned residents that they might need to shelter in place for 72 hours.

Heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, killing an estimated 12,000 people a year — a toll almost certain to rise because of climate change. And heat is especially common in neighborhoods that are poorer and have more residents of color.

These neighborhoods have fewer trees and parks to cool the air, as well as more paved surfaces that radiate heat. “In the 20th century, local and federal officials, usually white, enacted policies that reinforced racial segregation in cities and diverted investment away from minority neighborhoods in ways that created large disparities in the urban heat environment,” Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich write in the Times.

The maps of Richmond, Va., that accompany Brad’s and Nadja’s story are eye-opening.

Human beings hate being bored.

In one social-science experiment, people were told to spend 15 minutes alone in a room with their thoughts. The only possible distraction was an electric shock they could administer to themselves. And 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women shocked themselves, choosing — as Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist, writes in a Times Op-Ed — “negative stimulation over no stimulation.”

The pandemic has obviously increased bouts of boredom for many people. How can you fight it (without electric shocks)? Several recent articles have offered suggestions:

Try new things. Boredom can result from feeling unchallenged, explains Erin Westgate of the University of Florida, for the website The Conversation. So use the downtime of the pandemic to take on a new activity, like cooking, gardening, home improvement, genealogy or exercise. There are online classes for almost anything these days.

Socialize safely. Boredom has led some Americans to behave unsafely, at parties, bars and elsewhere, write Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt in Salon. But it’s possible to see other people safely — on a walk or a bike ride, during a masked or outdoor grocery run or, if all else fails, over a video chat.

Embrace boredom, to a point. Letting your mind wander can free up time for creative thinking. “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed,” the great psychologist Amos Tversky said. “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

This recipe for a Cajun-style succotash makes for a delicious entree, thanks to the addition of spicy Andouille sausage and seasoned shrimp. With fresh corn, juicy tomatoes and shelled butter beans (also known as lima beans), it’s also a celebration of summer.

This spring, Maria Sotnikova attended her first Seder dinner, virtually. Sotnikova, a 33-year-old data scientist in Atlanta who uses a power wheelchair, had never been asked to share in the Passover ritual before; friends said they had simply assumed she couldn’t attend. “I felt like I was getting to see something I should have been invited to all along,” she said.

Since the coronavirus moved much of public life online, people with disabilities have had the chance to participate in events they once missed — house parties, improv classes, professional conferences and more. Now they’re hoping the virtual accommodations will last beyond the pandemic.


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