By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – And now the hard part: Telling my readers what to expect on Election Night and the mysterious beyond, which might last hours, or months. While 2016 was the “Anything Can Happen” election between two historically loathsome nominees, 2020 has become a referendum on President Trump, and, specifically, his handling of the unprecedented pandemic and simultaneous economic meltdown.

Had the pandemic not happened, President Trump probably would have been zeroing in on reelection, becoming the unprecedented fourth consecutive two-termer, topping the Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe trifecta.

While Trump tried to perpetuate the aura of his greatest ever economy, he has yet to escape the deadly grip of the pandemic. Last February and early March, he frequently said it would “mysteriously go away.” Even during the nationwide shutdown, he said he expected normalcy by Easter. Vice President Pence said in May it would be in the rearview mirror by Memorial Day. In a mid-June Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pence insisted the “second wave” was a concoction of the news media.

These past two weeks, Trump conveyed that America had “turned the corner” on the pandemic that is now infecting 70,000 people a day, killing upwards of a thousand. Hospitals across the upper Midwest and Rio Grande Valley are being swamped with COVID patients. Indiana hospital executives warn we may be just weeks away from a similar circumstance. In Utah, medical officials suggested they might begin rationing lifesaving care.

In April, when epidemiologists determined that face masks would keep infection rates low, Trump took a pass. He refused to wear them, made fun of people who did. On April 3, he said, “The CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So it’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time, but this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

Had he accepted the medical expertise, he would be reaping the rewards of managing a similar deadly event that a century ago had been widely ignored by President Wilson and Indiana Gov. James Goodrich.

Today, we find Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden by 7.5% in the Real Clear Politics polling composite. Biden is at 49% or above in crucial swing states Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. He is expanding the map to Arizona, Nevada, Iowa and Georgia, giving his campaign wrap-up in Warm Springs where he urged the “healing” of America on Tuesday.

In Indiana, a Ragnar Research Partners Poll had President Trump leading Biden 48-40%, which is down from his 19% plurality in a three-way race in 2016.

In Senate races, polls show Democrats leading incumbent Republicans in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado and one of two seats in Georgia, though they are tightening, with the Real Clear Politics composites within most polling error margins. House Democrats are massively out-raising Republicans and expect to add to their majority.

Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report said on Twitter on Sunday night: “A few days out, the picture of this race is pretty clear: 1.) Joe Biden’s lead (52%-43%) larger & more stable than Clinton’s in ’16; 2.) Far fewer undecided/third party voters than ’16; 3.) District-level polls (which showed big problems for Clinton in ’16) back up national/state polls.”

There are a host of other reasons beyond the polls to think that voters are going to cancel Donald Trump’s reality show. First, Hillary Clinton isn’t on the ballot; millions of Republicans and independents just couldn’t gag and vote for her in 2016. Recent polling shows Trump erosion of support among critical voting blocs he carried four years ago: Senior citizens, Whites, independents. Trump carried senior citizens with 52% in 2016. A recent CNN poll showed Trump trailing Biden 60-39% within that demographic. An early October NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll showed Trump trailing Biden by 27% (62-35%). Trump’s tightly packed, maskless MAGA rallies aren’t impressing these voters.

The shock poll came on Tuesday in Wisconsin, where an ABC/Washington Post Poll had Biden leading Trump by 57-40% (a Marquette Law School Poll on Wednesday had Biden up 5%). Wisconsin has seen a 53% increase in average daily cases in the past two weeks, a record number of hospitalizations and a 112% jump in deaths. Voters aren’t buying the “We’ve turned the corner” rhetoric.

NBC reports that Trump’s campaign has $10.1 million booked on television and radio ads between Wednesday and Election Day, compared to Biden’s $50 million, according to Advertising Analytics. Democrats are set to outspend Republicans $109.8 million to $40.7 million on the presidential ad airwaves in the closing days. In the critical swing state of Florida, Trump’s campaign has just $300,000 booked between now and Election Day, with the RNC set to spend $2.1 million on TV and radio. That’s compared with the Biden campaign’s $7.7 million in ad bookings in the state.

In Indiana’s 5th CD, while the Christina Hale/Victoria Spartz race remains in most prognosticators’ “tossup” zone (including HPI’s), what is revealing is what is happening within the district’s footprint. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spilling into down-ballot General Assembly races, including Republican House Speaker Todd Huston, State Rep. Jerry Torr, State Rep. Donna Sheibley and the Senate race between incumbent John Ruckelshaus and Democrat Fady Qaddoura.

More General Assembly money is hitting suburban races where Republican incumbent Reps. Dale DeVon, Martin Carbaugh and State Sens. Mike Young and Jack Sandlin are seeking to fend off Democratic challengers.

Multiple sources tell HPI that Trump has become a drag in the 5th CD and legislative races within its footprint. Anecdotally, sources in Hamilton County report people taking time in the polls, suggesting a lot of ticket-splitting, with Gov. Holcomb holding the line for the GOP. The heavy early vote in Hamilton County used to indicate a GOP wave, but there has been an influx of new voters, while the suburban female vote has been a consistent problem for Trump.

These elements portend to a building Democratic wave. In 1980, the late Sen. Richard Lugar used to describe how Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter turned on the final weekend, with undecideds emphatically breaking for Republicans, bringing 12 Democrat senators (including Indiana’s Birch Bayh) down to defeat while the GOP picked up 35 House seats, including that of Majority Leader John Brademas in Indiana’s 3rd CD.

Mark Souder, HPI columnist and former Republican congressman, who was elected in the wave election of 1994, says Friday could be the day a Biden-led tsunami materializes. “Every day is an adventure right now,” he told HPI earlier this week. “I expect, if there is going to be a Biden landslide, for it to break Friday. COVID is going to play a potentially larger role if it continues to go up this week. It will likely impact the undecided voters.”

On the pandemic front, the news just keeps getting worse. The White House has become a hot zone, not once with the President, First Lady and First Son at the unveiling for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, but twice, with Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short (who had persistently panned masks), body man and political operative Marty Obst the new victims. This comes as The Hill reported Wednesday that the White House science office listed “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” as the top accomplishment of President Trump’s first term.

For months, Trump has tried to supplant the pandemic with Hunter Biden, socialism, and crime. COVID keeps rearing its ugly head, prompting Biden to warn of a forthcoming “dark winter.”

There are other unscientific telltales. Why did Vice President Mike Pence do a MAGA rally in Fort Wayne (which drew an underwhelming 400 people) in the ruby red 3rd CD last Thursday? GOP operatives told HPI Pence “needed grounding” at home, to feel the love, was going to vote in Indianapolis, and the Fort Wayne media market bleeds into battleground Ohio and Michigan. He could have voted absentee and had a more impactful appearance in Toledo, which penetrates much more deeply in Ohio and Michigan. Why did he spend 18 hours back home again?

We’ve watched Trump’s ex-campaign manager Brad Parscale melt down before an involuntary hospitalization. President Trump has mused about “leaving the country” if he loses. He had MAGA rallies in Erie and Allentown in which he suggested he’d rather be just about any place else.

According to Gallup, Trump’s favorables/unfavorables stood at 47/51%, compared to Biden’s 54/43%. Only two other nominees – Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 – had worse numbers than Trump. But the worst ever was Trump’s 36/61% in 2016, which was 20% below Hillary’s, and yet he won.

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, observed, “In a mid-October NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 50% of Americans said that things were going better for themselves and their families compared to four years ago. In a recent Gallup poll, a whopping 61% of Americans said that they are better off than they were three years ago. Even so, just 44% of voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and 43% in Gallup polling give Trump positive marks as president.”

Steven Waldman writes in Washington Monthly: “The president is actually more popular now than on the day he was elected. Yes, that’s right. His personal favorability rating around election day in 2016 was 37.5%. Now it is 43.2%. There are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Americans (if not millions) who have grown fonder of Trump.”

Many Trump supporters simply don’t believe the polls and believe he will win. The National Review’s Rich Lowry points to the Trafalgar Group’s Robert Cahaly, whose polling accurately forecast Trump’s winning of the Blue Wall states in 2016 and is forecasting a Trump win next week.

Cahaly polls with eight or nine questions, as opposed to 25 or 30 that most pollsters use. “You end up disproportionately representing the people who will like to talk about politics, which is going to skew toward the very, very conservative and the very, very liberal and the very, very bored,“ Cahaly explains. “And the kind of people that win elections are the people in the middle. So I think they miss people in the middle when they do things that way.”

In TrumpWorld, there is speculation that there are scores of “silent Trumpers” who don’t want to talk to a live person and admit they are voting for the president. Other pollsters insist the silent Trump voters are accounted for. “The idea of a shy Trump voter is something Trump supporters tell themselves to make themselves feel better. There is no such thing,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Newsday. “The idea that they’re going to be lots of those voters missed is just not likely to occur.”

Ayres acknowledged, “The polls in the upper Midwest and some of the state polls were clearly off” in 2016 “because there were too many college-educated whites and an insufficient number of non-college-educated whites. But most pollsters have adjusted for that now.”

One GOP operative told HPI that if swing state polling shows Biden leading in the 7% to 9% range, a win or tidal wave for the Democrats may be underway. If such polling were to slip into the 3%-4% range, that could be a precursor to a second Trump upset.

The Los Angeles Times David Lauter took on the strange phenomenon that Trump continually played to his base over the past four years, instead of expanding it. “The success of that closed information ecosystem explains a big part of why Trump’s core supporters so steadfastly back him through every turn of his administration. Inside the bubble, Trump literally can do no wrong. His often-repeated description of himself as now ‘immune’ from the coronavirus may strike the rest of the country as silly boasting; within the bubble, it’s a powerful metaphor for his status as übermensch.

“For Trump, the cost of creating the bubble is living in it,” Lauter explains. “The constraints of the bubble help explain Trump’s inability to forthrightly condemn conspiracy theories or white supremacist groups. And they powerfully affect his ability to communicate with outsiders.”

Thus, when Trump went to Johnstown, Pa., on Oct. 13, he made an appeal to suburban “housewives”, saying, “So can I ask you to do me a favor? Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”

The Economist’s models give Biden a 96% chance of winning; FiveThirtyEight put it at 88% (though that site gave former Sen. Joe Donnelly a 75% chance of winning two years ago).

Holcomb appears safe

On the home front, the pandemic has altered the gubernatorial race, with Gov. Eric Holcomb the clear favorite. Where Trump has been widely panned for his handling of the pandemic, Holcomb has benefitted politically with widespread exposure during his weekly COVID Zoom pressers. A Cygnal on behalf of the Ready Education Network released Tuesday found Holcomb at 47%, Woody Myers at 29% and 15% for Libertarian Donald Rainwater.

In a second poll this week from Ragnar Research Partners for the Rainey Center had Holcomb at 52%, Myers at 26% and Rainwater at 14%. Among those who had already voted, 49% said they supported Holcomb, 38% said they supported Myers and 8% said they supported Rainwater, which backs up speculation that Democrats are early voting in higher numbers than Republicans. A recent SurveyUSA poll had him leading Democrat Woody Myers by 30%. That poll revealed 75% support the governor’s face mask mandate.
 
In another strange twist, Libertarian Donald Rainwater is now in the second week of a statewide TV and radio ad campaign. Myers doesn’t have the funds to compete on TV, yet another new low for the bottom-scraping Indiana Democratic Party. Rainwater polling in the mid-teens is credible because he’s been advertising on TV and radio over the past two weeks, while Myers has been radio silent.

Myers has been one of the most perplexing gubernatorial nominees in modern history. He’s a medical doctor during a pandemic, is likable, articulate, a successful businessman and investor, and should have played well to the Democrat base. He just has little money, with his most discernible advertising niche coming on Facebook.

Myers’ flagging position cannot be good news for Democrat attorney general nominee Jonathan Weinzapfel. The Democratic Party is 2-17 in statewide races, and the only constitutional office that didn’t follow the governor came in 2012 when Glenda Ritz won the superintendent race while Republican Mike Pence won a narrow gubernatorial victory. A big win for Holcomb will be good news for Republican attorney general nominee Todd Rokita and, possibly, Victoria Spartz in the 5th CD.

The biggest news coming from Myers’ statewide bus tour last Saturday was the emergence of Beau Bayh as a possible coming third-generation component of the family dynasty.

According to the U.S. Elections Project, 1,178,033 Hoosiers have voted as of Wednesday morning, including 739,171 in person. There have been 438,862 absentee ballots returned, and 576,481 requested. Some 71 million Americans have voted as of Wednesday morning.