2020 Vision: 'Gaffe machine' in high gear, Biden's campaign says it doesn't matter

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race. Reminder: There are 157 days until the Iowa caucuses and 431 days until the 2020 presidential election.

[Who’s running for president? Click here for Yahoo News’ 2020 tracker]

Every candidate has at least one unique vulnerability that he or she needs to overcome in the course of a campaign: an awkward incident in the past, a previous position that has become politically untenable, a history of confusing, inappropriate, embarrassing, gauche or unintentionally offensive remarks. Joe Biden has all of those — the plagiarism episode that derailed his 1988 presidential campaign, his long-standing, now-rescinded support of the Hyde Amendment on abortion funding, and as for the last … well, there are no end of examples to choose from.

Campaigns deal with these problems in different ways: by denial (President Trump’s campaign spokesperson recently disposed of his record of 12,000 false or misleading statements in office with the offhand assertion that “I don’t think this president has lied”); by ignoring them (Ted Kaufman, who was Biden’s chief of staff in 1987, called the events from that campaign “ancient history” and said they are irrelevant to Biden’s current bid). But campaigns almost never confront these problems by going out of their way to call attention to them.

Yet that is what the Biden campaign did Friday morning, with a press release promoting a CBS News story that said Democratic voters in South Carolina were sticking with the self-proclaimed “gaffe machine.”

Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College in Rock Hill, S.C., on Thursday. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“Every politician has a gaffe now and then — ask Mitt Romney,” lawyer John Morgan told CBS News. Morgan also drew contrast between Biden’s verbal slip ups and Mr. Trump’s words, which he said “aren’t gaffes but a constant spewing of hatred.”

”I choose to judge Joe Biden by a long life of service and ethics. His suffering has made him an even better man. He understands pain,” Morgan added.

The CBS story came a day after Biden’s campaign found itself on the defensive again after he apparently mixed up the details of a poignant story about a heroic soldier declining to receive a medal for an attempted rescue.

Despite a brief blip this week by one outlier poll that showed him in a three-way tie for the Democratic nomination with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden has held a consistent lead in national polling since even before he entered the race.


Georgia on our minds

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., at a hearing in 2018. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year for health reasons. Isakon, 74, has Parkinson’s disease. He has served in the Senate since 2005.

“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff,” said Isakson. “With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve. It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”

Isakson’s resignation means the Peach State will see both Senate seats on the line in 2020, with Sen. David Perdue’s six-year term already set to end. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will appoint a replacement for Isakson to serve through a November 2020 special election. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kemp has yet to settle on a favorite, but possibilities include U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (David Perdue’s cousin), Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic legislative leader who lost a close race for governor in 2018 that was marked by allegations of voter suppression, had previously said she wasn’t running for Perdue’s seat, and the Isakson news hasn’t changed her mind.

“Our thoughts are with Sen. Isakson and his family,” said a spokesperson for Abrams. “Leader Abrams' focus will not change: She will lead voter protection efforts in key states across the country, and make sure Democrats are successful in Georgia in 2020. While she will not be a candidate herself, she is committed to helping Democratic candidates win both Senate races next year."

Not only are the Senate seats up for grabs, but the Atlanta suburbs are home to two hotly contested House seats. Democratic officials are expressing confidence that the close gubernatorial race in 2018 — Kemp defeated Abrams by just 55,000 votes — means that Georgia should be classified as a swing state.

“We are the battleground state, and Georgia Democrats are ready to fight and deliver both the Senate and the presidency for Democrats across the country in 2020,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of Georgia’s Democratic Party, after the Isakson announcement.

A Morning Consult poll released earlier this summer found Trump’s approval rating in the state at plus-two. Trump won the state by 5 points in 2016, down from Mitt Romney’s margin of 8 in 2012.


More bad polls for Trump

President Trump at an event establishing the U.S. Space Command in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A new poll from Quinnipiac shows Trump trailing the top Democratic contenders in a hypothetical 2020 general election match-up. The survey shows the president trailing Biden by 16 points, Sanders by 14, Warren by 12, Kamala Harris by 11 and Pete Buttigieg by 9. Previous general election polls — including ones by Fox News that drew their most famous viewer’s ire — have also shown Trump losing, but not by the margins of the Quinnipiac release.

There are two important caveats on these general election match-ups. First, there is no national popular vote — Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election despite winning by 3 million votes. Second, the 2020 election isn’t for another 431 days, and these results can shift dramatically by the time people actually vote.

Outside of those head-to-head results, there was more bad news for Trump in the Quinnipiac poll. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they thought the economy was getting worse, a jump of 14 points from the last time the question was asked in June. The percentage of people describing the economy as “not so good” or “poor” is also up 9 points from the June survey. And Quinnipiac found that Trump’s approval rating declined to 38 percent, versus 56 percent disapproval, a few points below the low-40s average where it’s hovered for most of the year.


Debate shut-outs say: ‘What about me?’

Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP [3], Paul Sancya/AP)

As of midnight Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee declared that the field for the third debate, to be held in Houston Sept. 12, was set at 10 — narrowly avoiding the need to hold it over two nights. The criteria for qualifying, based on polling and fundraising success, didn’t go over well with the candidates who were excluded from what could be their last chance at breaking into the upper tier.

Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward took note of their complaints:

Lower-tier candidates think the party rules are narrowing the field too early, before voters are paying attention and before former Vice President Joe Biden has had a chance to fade, as many Democrats expect him to.

“We’re still five and a half months from voters actually expressing a preference” in the Iowa caucuses, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said on MSNBC Wednesday. ...

Nonqualifying campaigns have complained that the polling requirement is being increased prematurely and that the small-dollar-donation requirement has forced them to spend vast amounts of money on digital ads on Facebook, often spending between $50 and $80 for every $1 they raise.

Among the other candidates who failed to qualify were Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Gillibrand dropped out the next day.


YangGang to flex its muscles

With the winnowing of the Democratic presidential field, the middle tier of candidates who managed to qualify for the third primary debate — Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke — know that time is running short to try to catch up to the frontrunners: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris and Buttigieg.

The next step to building that momentum is a strong debate performance on Sept. 12. Also crucial is a campaign’s follow-through. Underscoring the urgency of seizing the moment that might propel him from also-ran to bona fide contender, Yang’s supporters will be launching what they’re calling “National YangGang Action Day,” a two-day post-debate “all hands on deck” that will involve phone-banking and canvassing in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Verbatim

“It’s up to the candidates, at a certain point, to demonstrate that they’re gaining traction.”

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, defending the party’s process of winnowing the debate field

“@FoxNews is at it again. So different from what they used to be during the 2016 Primaries, & before — Proud Warriors! Now new Fox Polls, which have always been terrible to me (they had me losing BIG to Crooked Hillary), have me down to Sleepy Joe.”

President Trump, in a tweet complaining about a Fox News poll that showed him behind Biden and several other Democratic candidates

“He’s always made them! I don’t think he is doing anything differently than he’s always done. He always has his foot in his mouth.”

Polly Iyer, a writer from Spartanburg, S.C., about Biden’s history of gaffes


Additional contributions by Christopher Wilson and David Knowles


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