Former president Donald Trump has ramped up his public campaign appearances as he looks to fend off the most serious primary threat he faces — from Nikki Haley in New Hampshire on Tuesday. All signs are that he will emerge from the state just fine and be well on his way to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
But the display also suggests that one of Trump’s most distinct advantages in the general election might not hold up so well over time: perceived mental sharpness.
Trump has in recent days offered some real campaign trail flubs that signal we’re headed for a lengthy debate over the relative cognitive abilities of the candidates in the most geriatric election in modern history.
On Saturday, he repeatedly mixed up Haley and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, suggesting Haley was responsible for security during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
At a campaign rally Monday, Trump struggled to enunciate his view that drug dealers should get the death penalty. He initially failed to pronounce “smallest,” and then added, “We are an institute in a powerful death penalty. We will put this on.”
The comments echo some of Trump’s gaffes from late last year, including when he mixed up President Biden, former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on multiple occasions. (Trump insisted that he hadn’t really done so and that his comments were intentional.)
It’s easy to isolate a gaffe or two and read too much into it. The “death penalty” one could be Trump merely mangling what he’s reading on a teleprompter, for instance. But the fact that they’ve happened in quick succession as Trump emerges on a campaign trail he’s largely been able to avoid — he held few events in Iowa, in part due to weather and in part because his huge lead meant he didn’t need to — suggests there could be more to come.
And plenty of people are noting it, including Fox News, Haley, Ron DeSantis’s campaign before he dropped out and increasingly the Biden campaign, which has taken to promoting Trump’s flubs on social media. It has also launched an ad on the subject.
That last move is an attempt to mitigate what remains a significant liability for Biden. But how much of one?
While Trump (77) and Biden (81) are of similar age, it’s been clear for a while that this is a much bigger problem for Biden. It might even be his biggest problem.
While the age issue was basically a wash in the 2020 election, Biden’s many senior moments as president have led to a sharp rise in reservations about his mental fitness. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that as of May, 54 percent of Americans said Trump had the mental sharpness to effectively serve as president, while Biden was at 32 percent. Fewer than half said Trump was too old to be president, but 7 in 10 said Biden was.
In a Pew Research Center survey around the same time, 68 percent said the phrase “mentally sharp” didn’t describe Biden well — up from 46 percent early in his presidency.
And the perceived imbalance between the elderly candidates’ abilities has persisted. An NBC News poll in September found that 59 percent had “major concerns” about Biden being mentally and physically healthy enough to serve a second term; just 34 percent said the same of Trump.
Fully three-fourths (76 percent) of independents were at least moderately concerned about Biden, compared with 54 percent concerned about Trump.
Perhaps most striking, a Suffolk University poll in July showed there were about as many Democratic-leaning voters who said Biden’s age made them less likely to back him (37 percent) as Republican-leaning voters who said Trump’s legal problems made them less likely to vote for him (34 percent).
It seems unlikely this issue will be the wash it was in the 2020 campaign, when equal percentages of voters said each man lacked the physical and mental health needed to serve effectively. Even if Trump’s stumbles continue, Biden certainly presents as the more aged candidate, by virtue of his physical mannerisms and speaking style. As that May Post-ABC poll shows, there was an even bigger gap between the men on perceived physical health than mental health.
Trump has reaped benefits from trying to attach his own liabilities to his opponents. Now the Biden campaign has clearly set about trying to do that, and Trump’s unsteady return to a packed campaign schedule suggests he could deliver plenty of fodder.