Trump in Trouble
This time next week, it might not all be over, but the ingredients will have been assembled, mixed and the cake installed in the oven. Almost all of the votes will be in and most of them counted. Already, over 69 million votes have been cast; more than half the number cast altogether in 2016.
No two-horse race is over until it’s over, but the omens are looking good for Joe Biden.
Paddy Power has Mr. Biden at 5/2 on, his odds hardening from 7/4 on a week ago. President Trump is at 15/8 versus 11/8 a week ago.
FiveThirtyEight (https://fivethirtyeight.com/)(“538”), managed by Nate Silver, is a widely respected website which subjects political prospects and events to statistical analysis. The site bases its presidential election forecast mainly on aggregation of national and individual state opinion poll data with polls being weighted by their quality.
Mr. Silver made his name when he predicted accurately the outcome in every individual state of the 2012 Presidential election. He didn’t do so well in 2016. On election day, 538 projected Hillary Clinton’s prospects of victory at 71.4%
Today, 538 rates Mr. Biden’s chances of victory at 88%. That forecast has inched up steadily from 67% at the beginning of September. This reflects the steady expansion in Mr. Biden’s lead in opinion polls which has averaged around 8–10% nationally through October with the margin a bit tighter in so-called swing states.
There are good reasons for supposing that this year will not be like 2016.
First, Mrs. Clinton’s lead over Mr. Trump in the 538 forecast for 2016 was much more volatile. At the end of July, she was less than 1% in front. Her lead climbed steeply through the first half of August hitting a high point of 89%, slipping back to 55% towards the end of September before rising again to another peak, 88% on 17 October when it began to subside again through to the election on 8 November. Her lead in national opinion polls between mid-October and the election was generally in low to mid single digits.
Second, all the chips fell Mr. Trump’s way in 2016. Mrs. Clinton got almost three million more votes nationwide, a margin of more than 2%; in line with national polls. But she lost narrowly in a cluster of mid-Western states she was expected to win. If an aggregate of less than 50,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had gone to Mrs. Clinton instead of Mr. Trump, she would have won. Because these states were presumed to be safely in the Democrats’ camp, public polling of them was comparatively light and of limited quality with a margin of error of around 5%. 538 projected a Democrat margin of victory of 3–5% across these states. Trump won all three by less than 1 %.
This time, the polling in these states is more frequent and more careful. But only time will tell if fighting the last war better is the right way to fight today’s one. For now though, the indications are that President Trump will not win any state he did not win in 2016 and will lose enough of the ones he won then to lose the election.
Scepticism towards polls as a guide to the outcome is heavily influenced by 2016. Because they allegedly got things “totally wrong” then, polls should be disregarded as an amusing diversion rather than regarded as a reliable indicator. But polls operate within a margin of error, normally around 3%. The national result was well within the margin. The outcome in those key states was 2–3% outside it. So, though polls were certainly not 100% accurate, they were far from totally wrong either.
The polls’ underestimate of Mr. Trump’s performance in 2016 has given rise to the legend of “shy Trumpers”, voters committed to the President but reluctant to reveal this to pollsters or anxious to mislead them. Well, by now, we have all seen a lot of Trump voters on our television screens and very few of them look like shrinking violets. But, if they did feel under pressure to stay silent in 2016, vindicated by the result then, they are under no such pressure now and pollsters are smarter in digging out voters’ true preferences, if not perfect.
We should remember too that 2016 was an outlier in the degree to which the polls got the winner wrong. The last genuine shock result in a presidential election was in 1948 because, since then, results have been broadly in line with polls’ projections. That suggests that polls this time should be more respected (cautiously) than suspected.
The argument about whether Mr. Trump deserves to win is already well tilled ground.
More interesting is why he seems likely to lose, because incumbent Presidents are re-elected more often than they are defeated. During the past 100 years, only 3 sitting Presidents have sought and failed to win re-election having completed a full first term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush.
By contrast, 7 incumbents have won a second term: Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama. Roosevelt won 4 elections, so is an exceptional case. Of the other 6, only one, Ronald Reagan, was succeeded by the candidate of his own party. That is relevant to the assessment of 2016. Hillary Clinton was seeking a third successive Democrat term.
The main reason why Mr. Trump seems to be in trouble is that he has never reached out beyond his committed base, voters likely to stick with him through thick and thin, reckoned to be between 35–40% of the electorate;. On the night of his election in 2016, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Trump said: “Now is the time for America to bind the wounds of division… I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans and this is so important to me.” As a statement of fact rather than criticism, never in his term did he make any serious, sustained effort to give effect to that professed desire.
Instead, Mr. Trump has focused solely on reinforcing the affiliation of those already loyal to him rather than attempting to expand their numbers. Indeed, he built an exclusionary wall around his base with an “If you are not with me, you are against me” message to Americans generally.
That might make sense if his base alone guaranteed a majority in enough states to deliver an electoral college majority again in 2020. Warning lights throughout his term suggested that this was not going to be easy. Within a month of taking office, the President’s disapproval rating rose above 50% where it has stubbornly remained except for a few days in April this year during the early stages of the pandemic. The nationwide mid-term elections for the House of Representatives in 2018 saw a 5% swing to the Democrats on a much higher poll than in 2014.
A second reason why Mr. Trump is in difficulty is that he is just not very good at the job. That conclusion would have been hard to draw definitively from his first three years of office from which his supporters could point to as many achievements in the sense of delivery on his agenda as his detractors could point to shortcomings even on delivering that agenda. “Patchy, but not awful” would be a fair non-partisan summary.
But, for those three years, Mr. Trump was the equivalent of Napoleon’s lucky general. He was presented with no serious crisis where he had no option but to deal with it and for which there was no pre-existing playbook.
The arrival of COVID-19 changed all that. Rather than confronting it with even moderate deliberation and competence, Mr. Trump’s “policy” has been largely one of hoping that it would just go away and leave him alone. Mr. Trump could claim fairly that very few Western governments have been stunningly successful in grappling with COVID-19 but at least they tried and, in doing so, gave the impression of concern for the safety of their citizens. Mr. Trump never hit that bar — and it’s no surprise. His business record has always been patchy too; a yo-yo of ups and downs, trophies and bankruptcies, his wealth almost certainly less than he claims.
The third reason why Mr. Trump is in trouble is that 2020 is not a rerun of 2016.
Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. The 2016 election was as much about which of two highly unpopular candidates was less disliked by voters as which of them was more favoured. Today, the President’s net unfavourability rating is around 12%. Mr. Biden’s is less than 2%. Mr. Biden may not be widely loved, but he is not widely hated either. He leaves “room” for the admittedly small cluster of independent and uncommitted voters to opt for him in a way that the President does not. The light imprint of Mr. Biden’s personality has facilitated the presentation of this election as a referendum on the incumbent. The President’s own manifest corruption has hobbled his attempts to affix that label to Mr. Biden. If Joe really is sleepy, it is unlikely that he is crooked.
Mr. Trump no longer has novelty value. The media gave him plenty of free, open air time in 2016 precisely for that reason. Now, they are more challenging. For voters, he is no longer a clean sheet, but has a 4-year record that may be good in parts, but is also smudgy. It is harder for him to project himself as the anti-establishment, anti-elite, swamp draining, non-politician jousting with the antithesis of all that.
While Mr. Trump’s blowhard “in your face” personality may encourage core supporters to go to the wall for him, some support went his way in 2016 despite misgivings about that personality. His lies and bloviating were overlooked as electioneering tactics to be put aside and a more conventional game face of solemnity and seriousness donned once he made it to the White House. It never happened.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Donald Trump is just how unadaptive he has been.
Faced with a choice at any point between adjusting his sails and tightening them more firmly in place, he doubles down rather than reaches out. For example, following the killing of George Floyd, it must surely have been possible to craft a stance that would have been simultaneously respectful of the police but also of the need for reform, rather than bunkering down to a strict “either or” position.
Tactically, in the campaign itself, he has made choices that cut off his nose rather than embellish his face: his aggression during the first debate, his refusal to participate in what was to be the second scheduled debate, his unilateral drawing down the shutters on negotiations with Congress over a second stimulus package. Only in the actual second debate did he rein himself in.
I suspect that this syndrome reflects the bubble of wealth and privilege within which Mr. Trump grew up and has lived his adult life. He has never had to adapt much to those around him in his personal life or to a changing America beyond his threshold.
The great America which Mr. Trump would like to see — again — is the late 1950s, presided over by the genial Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, when the country was broadly at peace and the steady, effortless advance of prosperity and progress engendered widespread contentment. The United States was, “top nation” worldwide, its hegemony driven by a military and industrial infrastructure far ahead of anything elsewhere. It is the America of Mad Men where men were hunters and decision-makers, women were home-makers and demure — who stood by their man even if he didn’t always stand by them. The country was predominantly ethnically European. White fellows ran things and black folks were waiters and elevator operators. Cops were maybe “rough and ready” but fundamentally “straight”.
That picture postcard Pleasantville continues to recede in the rear view mirror. We should know this week whether there are still enough Americans in the right places who think America is or should be as the President might see it to keep him in office.
There is a lot of post-hoc rationalisation about 2016. Mr. Trump eked out a narrow victory against conventional expectation and apparent odds. You pay your money and you take your choice about how much of that was down to dumb luck or sheer brilliance. Lightning doesn’t often strike twice so, if the President wins on Tuesday, I will reluctantly concede that it was all brilliance, even if it that brilliance is revealed only in arrival at the desired destination rather than being apparent through the journey. Otherwise, I will be pleased and relieved that he has lost and that his perceived brilliance was more imaginary than real.
But here’s a thought. Even if President Trump loses this election, by the time the 2024 election rolls around, he will be only five months older than Joe Biden is today. Given his insatiable ego and vice-like grip over the party now, can anyone be sure that he will not seek the Republican nomination in 2024 with a good shot at winning it and the election to follow?