Trump’s Defeat Is Far From Assured
Among high-profile media pundits, there is no shortage of those who believe Donald Trump’s political career will soon come to an end.
James Carville, a former strategist to Bill Clinton, boasted that the Democrats would wipe out the Republicans come November. Ben Rhodes, who served under Barack Obama as Deputy National Security Advisor, is convinced that the president will lose to Joe Biden. And even Pierce Morgan, a longtime friend of Mr. Trump’s, has predicted his doom should he continue to bungle the Coronavirus response.
Their confidence is not entirely without basis either. National polling aggregates — a fairly reliable metric when it came to the popular vote in 2016 — show Joe Biden leading the president by 5.5 points. And the former vice president is much less reviled than Hilary Clinton was at this point in the election cycle. For the moment, his favorability ratings are significantly higher than Trump’s.
But sudden changes in political fortune are all too common. And this is what makes the overconfidence of some commentators so risky. With more than five months to go before the 2020 election, nobody can divine the results with absolute certainty. Four years ago, many anticipated a landslide victory for Clinton against Trump, failing to account for the developments of an ongoing email controversy which likely cost her the election.
And this should serve as a stark reminder that nothing in politics is ever set in stone. While some factors point to Trump’s defeat in the upcoming election, others, when taken into account, paint a much more complicated picture.
The rabid loyalty of Trump’s base, the lethargic performance of his opponent and the unfolding reality of a medical and economic crisis should all be considered when assessing the president’s chances of re-election. And though we can never predict the future for sure, a careful examination can still provide us with a decent overview of the present.
The president’s popularity, relative to Joe Biden’s, is a good place to start.
As mentioned before, Trump currently trails the prospective Democratic nominee. But it is also important to look at the nature of the support he currently enjoys. What kind of people are lining up behind the president?
In short, they are enthusiastic and mobilized.
Though generally unpopular, Trump’s job approval among his Republican voting base is sky-high. It has stayed above 90% in every Gallup poll since late-January. And his supporters have indicated a level of enthusiasm that far eclipses Biden’s.
But whether or not this “enthusiasm gap” translates into a difference in voter turnout is an altogether different matter. There is good reason to believe that Trump’s base will make a decent showing; they have already turned out in record-breaking numbers for the Republican primaries, where Trump is basically running uncontested. But they could be met with an even greater number of voters who dislike the president.
For these people, Joe Biden — as a presidential figure — might matter less than getting Trump out of office. As Harry Enten of CNN has argued, this election could be a referendum on Trump himself. This time, his polarizing appeal could backfire. In their analysis on the psychological causes of voter turnout, Joshua Harder and Jon A. Krosnick note:
“The bigger the gap between a person’s attitude toward one candidate and his or her attitude toward a competing candidate, the more likely the person is to vote.”
In addition to this, Harder and Krosnick assert that this gap is much more consequential when voters dislike one or even both of the candidates. So long as they prefer one candidate to another by a large enough margin, it will likely motivate them to vote.
Of course, Democrats disliked Trump back in 2016 as much as they do now and he still won the election. They liked Mrs. Clinton about as much as they do Mr. Biden (with favorability scores around 80%) but she still lost. And though Joe might sit in a better position than the former nominee, his is no less precarious.
Since Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee on the 8th of April, he has lost some ground to Donald Trump. And this is an amazing development, given a president who downplayed the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic and dragged his feet on the subsequent response.
Biden’s favorability score has gone from an even split to -2.7. His lead in the general election has shrunk by a slight but noticeable margin. And his campaign has been marked by a distinct lack of visibility, with the Democrats failing to generate much interest via his digital platform.
This last point in particular is worth examining. Because much like Trump’s divisive allure, Biden’s aversion to the spotlight is both a gift and a curse.
Enten, again, gives a pretty insightful overview of the situation. Biden has received a lot less coverage than Trump in the media, but this has generally been good news for his electoral prospects. The more coverage Trump gets, the worse he tends to perform in the polls. And Biden’s recent gains in all-important “swing states” seem to bear out this theory.
However, it might also be too early to assume Biden’s low-key strategy will pay off by the time the election rolls around. As the crucial date draws closer, Joe will see increased coverage, increased scrutiny and increased public interest — none of which has done him any favors since he became the prospective nominee.
Furthermore, Joe’s lead is likely to shrink as third-party candidates enter the field. A recent poll of Florida voters by Point Blank Political saw his advantage over Trump dwindle (from 4.6 % to 0.6%) when these candidates were included as an option.
The problem with holding a referendum on Trump is that voters can always choose an option other than his opponent. For instance, the Green Party could peel away enough left-wing voters (especially with the socialist Howie Hawkins at the helm) from Biden that it impacts his chance of victory. One among many factors that will affect the outcome of the election.
But among these, the Coronavirus will undoubtedly be the biggest.
The medical crisis raging through America makes predicting the 2020 election all the more difficult. It has touched every aspect of political life. It has stoked anti-Chinese xenophobia, ignited a push for universal mail-in voting, and it could make Americans much less willing to show up on November for fear of catching Coronavirus.
Without intervention from Congress, the election is set to go ahead as planned on the 3rd of November. And though sixteen states still require an excuse to cast absentee ballots, New Hampshire and Texas have already established fear of catching COVID-19 as a valid one. A good sign for those who worry the disease could depress turnout.
It’s a good sign for the Democrats as well. The option of mail-by-vote also increases the turnout of ethnic minorities, who typically vote blue.
Less fortuitous is the growing enmity many Americans now feel towards China. In an Economist/YouGov poll released earlier this month, the numbers show a huge jump in the number of U.S. adults who now see China as an enemy: from 12% in February 2017 to 27% as of April 2020. Something which the Trump campaign quickly seized upon.
The president and his various mouthpieces have already attacked Joe Biden for being soft on China. And it cannot be denied that Biden has taken a much more conciliatory approach to the country than Donald Trump. In the last year alone he has condemned Trump’s tariffs on China and dismissed them as a threat to America; no doubt a refreshing change for many who tire of sabre-rattling, but one that still leaves him open to charges of weakness.
It leaves the Democrats in a tough bind too. They can either try and outflank their rivals on the anti-China rhetoric — a gambit unlikely to pay off — or they can take a less hawkish line that opens them up to the president’s attacks.
But whether Trump succeeds will depend on his ability to shift the blame for America’s woes. For as much as the Chinese government deserves just criticism for their own delayed response to the Coronavirus, the Trump administration still took over a month to prepare for the pandemic after the first person in the U.S. was diagnosed. And they bear some responsibility for the magnitude of its outbreak.
So far, they have not been able to avoid censure for it. From April onward, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s Coronavirus response has steadily increased — a trend reflected in his approval ratings. For the president, it is a dire situation. One that could sink him in spite of his underwhelming opposition and dedicated base.
What seems apparent then, from this brief overview, is not the strong position of Biden or the Democrats, but the weak position of Trump and the Republicans.
The current president is widely disliked. And this time around, he is not (yet) running against someone almost equally loathed. This time around he is presiding over a pandemic that has killed thousands and brought the economy to a lurch. All things considered, if the election was held tomorrow, he would probably lose.
But there are still 23 weeks to go until that fateful date.
Because Joe Biden does not owe his lead to any kind of widespread appeal, because he is merely the less repellent of two choices, he remains in an extremely vulnerable position. Any dent to his public image or remotely successful smear campaign will cause a further drop in his numbers, while Trump’s approval ratings will see a boost should the economy begin to stabilize.
And Trump also has a solid floor because of his loyal base. He still has room to climb. Joe Biden, on the other hand, only has room to fall.
In light of this, assuming victory is just about the worst thing that the Democrats and their supporters could do. Instead, they should emphasize how much every vote will matter. They should call for an aggressive, work-intensive campaign — the kind that political leaders run when they expect the race to be close. Remote phone banking, helping voters request absentee ballots and building online communities are all viable strategies in the midst of a pandemic.
The party will also need to make concessions to progressives who feel burned by the results of the Democratic Primary. Already, there are some promising overtures. His climate change panel has already brought on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a long-time advocate of the Green New Deal, and Biden himself has promised that he will splurge massive amounts on public investment and increase social security payments. But given Biden’s established record as a Wall Street-friendly fiscal conservative, some suspect that these are little more than empty gestures.
To put these suspicions at ease, Biden will need to be careful in his choice of personnel. Elizabeth Warren — despite her waning cachet with the Left — would be a good pick for vice president because it would prove Biden is not entirely beholden to his big money donors, who generally dislike her. While giving corporate figures like Rahm Emanuel or Michael Bloomberg a seat at the table (as Branko Marcetic of the Jacobin argues) would communicate exactly the opposite.
In the upcoming election, the Democrats cannot take the votes of left-wingers or young people for granted. They cannot risk turning them away by chasing after Republican voters who have overwhelmingly made up their minds. Nor should they assume that the votes of ethnic minorities are a given — the numbers there are actually less favorable for Biden than they were for Hilary. And she still saw black voter turnout collapse when she ran for president.
And so, if the Democrats want to win then they must fight like their lives depend on it. Assuming that Donald Trump would lose is what happened in 2016. And it would be a monumental mistake for his opponents to assume it’s a certainty now.