Donald Trump’s campaign to paint Joe Biden as mentally unfit becomes a gamble

WASHINGTON – Less than four months from the November election, President Donald Trump’s attacks on presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s mental fitness are an integral part of the president’s re-election message: the focus of television advertisements, talking points and open challenges from the president.

But analysts have raised questions over whether Trump’s strategy of focusing on the former vice president’s age is backfiring with a key demographic – seniors.

Making it an even riskier play, the attacks have heightened expectations for Trump’s debate performances this fall and invited skepticism about his own fitness. The strategy itself has proven difficult to execute as Biden campaigns from his home in Delaware, limiting the gaffe-prone candidate’s opportunities for flubs.

For months, Biden, 77, has dismissed the name calling and innuendo but more recently he’s hitting back more forcefully and trying to turn the argument about mental fitness back on the 74-year-old Trump.

“This president talks about cognitive capability,” Biden said during a press conference June 30. “He doesn’t appear to be cognitively aware of what’s going on.”

Despite the “Sleepy Joe” nickname Trump gave Biden and his ads showing Biden stumbling over remarks, polling suggests Biden — not Trump — has the edge on fitness among voters.

As the two septuagenarians battle it out, a poll July 2 from Monmouth University found 52% of voters saying they believe Biden has the mental and physical stamina to be president versus 45% for Trump. 

More troubling for the president, Biden has moved ahead among voters 65 or older in several national surveys, including a significant 14-point advantage in a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, helping propel him to double-digit leads nationally. Trump won seniors by 7 percentage points in 2016 over Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls, with white senior voters a key part of his coalition. 

“It can certainly backfire among senior voters, and it’s not something you want to do when you’re already starting to lose their votes,” said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University. “We’ve seen a big shift in the over-65 population moving towards Biden. This isn’t a really good strategy to win them back.”

In a Biden campaign memo earlier this month,  deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield sought to debunk each of Trump’s attacks. Bedingfield said ample polling shows “voters aren’t buying Trump’s smear” and have concerns about Trump’s own fitness to lead the country.

“Trump literally suggested Americans inject disinfectant to cure COVID-19,” she said

More: Exclusive USA TODAY poll: Biden widens his lead, but Trump keeps the edge on enthusiasm

Trump pays big for TV ads attacking Biden as ‘clearly diminished’

Biden’s gains with seniors come as the coronavirus pandemic, which puts seniors disproportionately at risk, has dominated the campaign since March and caused the president to slide in polling. Trump has pushed for the country to reopen even as more than half of states are experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases.

As Trump wages a culture war seeking to tie Biden to protesters who have targeted Confederate monuments and efforts to “defund the police,” Biden’s mental fitness remains part of the GOP campaign’s playbook.

More: Trump accuses protesters who tear down statues of wanting to ‘wipe out our history’ in Mount Rushmore speech

A Trump television ad that aired in 12 states and the District of Columbia shows Biden struggling to finish sentences and forgetting his thoughts. “Sometimes I wake up and think it’s 1920,” Biden is shown saying in comments that are taken out of context. The video cuts off Biden before he went on to say that, by 1920, he meant the way civility has disappeared in politics.

“Joe Biden is slipping,” a narrator in the ad says. “Now at the age of 77 years old and running for president for the third time, Biden is clearly diminished. Joe Biden does not have the strength, stamina and mental fortitude required to lead this country.”

The charges mirror those in the 2016 election, when Trump regularly criticized the “stamina” and physical health of Clinton.

In past election cycles, such attack ads might come from an outside super PAC unaffiliated with the campaign. But the Trump campaign paid for the ad. 

The Associated Press, citing research from Advertising Analytics, reported the Trump campaign has spent more to air the “Biden is slipping” ad – $6.5 million – than any other so far in the campaign. That includes in the battleground states of Arizona and Florida, home to large senior populations. 

Senior voters, aging advocacy group weigh in on strategy 

Peter Kaldes, president and CEO of the American Society on Ageism, in a statement on the advertising, said, “Like racism, ageism devalues human life.” He said using “ageist stereotypes” is a “dubious campaign tactic,” noting that older Americans vote at substantially higher rates than younger adults.

“Ageist stereotypes in political campaign advertising not only perpetuates the myth that you can judge someone just by the number of years they’ve been alive, but it implies that there is a shame to being an older adult,” said Kaldes, who worked as an economic advisor for President Barack Obama. He said his organization would like to see leaders recognize that aging adults are vital to U.S. democracy, not “weaponize ageism against them.”

The AARP, which has 38 million senior members, and the National Council on Aging both declined to comment, citing practices of remaining non-partisan. 

A new digital ad from the Republican National Committee, promoted by Trump on Twitter, depicts a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House and warns, “Your vote will decide who answers that call.” It shows Biden struggling to talk during a press conference and highlights critiques about Biden’s abilities from Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Democratic strategist David Axelrod and media. “Unfit to lead,” the ad concludes.

“Stupid,” said Robert Summers, 81, a retired attorney from the St. Louis, Missouri, area, who said he objects to about everything Trump does. “I couldn’t be any more more turned off.”

Summers, who plans to vote for Biden, called Trump’s strategy “insulting,” adding, “You can get a pretty good idea from watching these people speak if they’re OK or not.” He said he has no concerns about Biden’s mental capacity.

That’s not a universal take among seniors, however.

Darcy Jones, a retired computer trainer and Trump supporter near Tampa, Florida, said Biden’s age is a legitimate issue and she has concerns about his mental fitness. “People can see it for themselves,” she said. She called it “obvious,” pointing to his “scripted interviews” and accusing the Biden campaign of “hiding” Biden from greater scrutiny.

“Trump certainly has been criticized by just about everybody for his mental fitness,” Jones, 67, said. “Even before he was selected as the nominee when he ran in 2016, people were already talking about him and his mental capacity. I think it’s a valid issue.”

Jeanmarie Meyer, 73, an attorney and legal consultant in Bend, Oregon, said the ads don’t offend her.

“They’re really not inconsistent with what I see Joe Biden himself do,” said Meyer, who also plans to vote for Trump. “So I don’t really feel like it’s that much of a distortion. I don’t think it’s really necessary but it doesn’t bother me. Anybody paying attention and listening to Joe Biden sort of wonders if he’s all there.”

Fixation on Biden’s mental fitness invites own critique

Trump was the oldest president in U.S. history at the time of their inauguration. Biden, who would claim that distinction if elected, often talks about his lifelong struggle with stuttering. He has admitted to a penchant for mis-speaking, calling himself a “gaffe machine.” During the Democratic primary, he conflated stories, cited incorrect numbers and mixed up states where he was speaking. 

In an appearance on the Sean Hannity show and in tweets, Trump encouraged his opponent to be tested for neurological impairment as he accused Biden of hiding his cognitive decline.

“He cannot pass the test I ‘aced’,” Trump tweeted this month, referring to a cognitive assessment that his physician in 2018 said he received a perfect score on. “He should give it a try!!!”

But the attacks on Biden have invited skepticism about Trump’s own fitness, particularly after the 74-year-old president walked gingerly down a ramp at U.S. Military Academy at West Point in June and used both hands to drink a glass of water at the same event. Trump also has his own history of eyebrow-raising remarks. 

The Biden campaign does not have any ads targeting Trump’s mental or physical fitness. 

But Biden supporters resurfaced a video from 2014 of former President Barack Obama and Biden, then vice president and 73 years old, jogging at the White House. Allies like The Lincoln Project, led by anti-Trump Republicans, have taken the lead questioning Trump’s wellness in other online videos. Speaking at a campaign rally last month in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump devoted more than 14 minutes to defend his awkward ramp walk, explaining it was “like an ice skating rink.”

More: ‘It’s time to do it’: Trump vows to put ‘a lot of pressure’ on governors to reopen schools this fall

Belt said Trump’s fixation on Biden’s cognitive abilities is part of a larger effort to “throw all the spaghetti against the the wall and see what sticks.” The president trails Biden in polling on personal qualities like trustworthiness, raising the stakes for Trump to create hesitation about Biden among voters. 

Trump is searching for any way to make the election “a choice” between Biden and him, Belt said, rather than a referendum on his presidency.

“I don’t know that this one is working too much. I anticipate we will see more on Hunter Biden, Burisma, probably more on China and tying Biden to some Obama policies,” Belt said. “We’re in the pre-stage here where he’s trying to find a successful strategy that can start turning the tables.”

More: ‘Grim resolve’: Biden is up big and the Senate is in sight, but Democrats still haunted by fear of letdown

Leslie Sanford, 71, an accountant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Trump’s preoccupation on Biden’s mental capability “lame.” 

“I don’t think they have anything really strong to hang their hat on. I think they’re grasping at straws,” said Sanford, a self-described independent voter who plans to vote for Biden. “Being in that category myself,” she said of her senior status, “as a group, it is pretty derogatory.” 

Biden’s home-based campaign makes attack harder to land

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the Trump’ campaign hopes that, because opinions on Biden aren’t “fully formed,” the strategy can “plant some doubts” about him.

But while Trump is overwhelmingly seen as having greater stamina by his political base, he said, the majority of voters disagree.

“Neither one of these candidates is seen by the vast majority of the public as fit for the job, but Biden definitely has an edge overall,” Murray said.

More: Biden in the basement: Can campaigning from home work as Trump starts to travel?

Biden was asked June 30 whether he’s been tested for cognitive decline during his first news conference in three months following a speech in Wilmington, Delaware.

“I’ve been tested and I’m constantly tested,” Biden said. “Look, all you got to do is watch me, and I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”

A Biden campaign official clarified to USA TODAY that Biden was referring to the toll of the campaign as being “constantly tested,” not a scientific cognitive assessment.

Complicating his pursuit to paint Biden as mentally unfit: the coronavirus pandemic has enabled Biden to run his campaign almost entirely from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, which Murray said has limited the opportunities for gaffes. His speeches, usually one or two per week, have been confined to Delaware or next-door Pennsylvania.  

“Right now it doesn’t look like it’s particularly working,” Murray said of Trump’s campaign to cast Biden as too mentally unfit for office, “and part of it is that we aren’t seeing Biden on the trail one way or the other. So the voters they’re targeting don’t have anything to judge it on, whether it’s true or false. Therefore it’s just kind of falling flat.”

If the attack on Biden is not supported by events on the campaign trail, he said that opens Trump up to a “counter charge” that his campaign must be careful about. 

“That’s the danger here right now (for Trump),” Murray said. 

Richard Diamond, a 68-year-old Biden supporter, who provides equipment services for hair salons in the Atlanta area, said Trump’s attacks are fair game but it “doesn’t matter.”

He defended Biden’s experience and posed the question of fitness back at the president.

“I think Donald Trump at 35 was unfit to be president and he’s 74 now and he’s more unfit.

“With Biden, he’s knows what he’s doing. If he stumbles on a word or whatever, I don’t think that’s going to make a bit of difference being president of the United States.”

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump’s effort to paint Joe Biden as mentally unfit becomes a gamble

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