Last August, I suggested that despite a superficially good economy, Donald Trump’s chances of reelection were worse than commonly realized. Last month, I argued the Trump administration’s botched handling of the covid-19 pandemic had further damaged Trump’s election chances.
If you agree with this assessment, congratulations, you are in the minority. Both prediction markets and polling data reveal an expectation that Trump will win come November. If one believes in the wisdom of crowds, that is a harbinger of bad tidings for Democrats. Furthermore, in the past week, there have been a few data points that look promising for Trump.
So, am I wrong? Have I been wishcasting instead of dispassionately analyzing the situation? Let’s reconsider my arguments!
The reasons I proffered last August that Trump was in trouble were threefold: 1) The economy was likely to worsen, making the fundamentals tougher for Trump; 2) Democrats were unlikely to let an outsider do to them what Trump did to the GOP in 2016; and 3) Contrary to 2016, Democrats would take nothing for granted this time around and turn out to vote.
If anything, I underestimated each of these factors nine months ago. Obviously, the economy is in far worse shape than even pessimists would have projected last fall. It does not matter which metric you use — job losses, negative growth, retail sales — the numbers are appalling. Even the president has complained “They wiped out my economy!” to his aides.
It is possible the economy will revert to growth as shutdowns are eased, but as previously noted, absent a vaccine of therapeutics, social distancing will impose a huge drag on the economy. Even stories about reopening contain the clues for how the pandemic probably will flare up again.
As for the party dynamics, both of those are largely trending toward Democrats. The 2020 presidential primary revealed the party could still decide even if they put things off until the very last minute. With libertarian Justin Amash’s decision not to run, it also seems less likely that any viable third-party candidate will take away votes from the Biden-Trump matchup.
The data on voting enthusiasm is also not as clear-cut as conventionally perceived. It is true some polls show Trump voters are more enthusiastic about their choice than Biden supporters. But by definition a larger and more diverse coalition should have somewhat less enthusiastic members on average. Furthermore, there is a difference between enthusiasm for Biden and enthusiasm for voting against Trump. Reuters/Ipsos polling shows 70% of Democrats are “certain” to vote in the 2020 election, which is nine percentage points higher than in the first quarter of 2016. The GOP bump is much more modest.
What should scare the bejeezus out of the Trump campaign is one effect of the pandemic has been to turn off older voters to Trump. Drawing from a recent Morning Consult poll, the Christian Science Monitor’s Story Hinckley reports the president has self-sabotaged with the demographic he needs the most: older voters.
“The president’s eagerness to get the economy moving again seems to have put him at odds with many older voters — who, as retirees without children at home, may not be as focused on reopening schools or local businesses.”
Furthermore, “Significantly, many of the most critical battleground states — such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Michigan — also happen to be among the oldest. Unlike young people, seniors vote consistently.”
It should therefore not be surprising that when measured in the aggregate, Biden is in a strong position nationally and in a strong position in battleground states. CNN’s Harry Enten concludes that as of right now, Biden “is ahead in more than enough states to capture 270 electoral votes, if the election were held today. We can test our data, too, to see what would happen if the polls are underestimating Trump like they did in 2016. What I found was Biden would still be ahead, even with a 2016-sized mishap.”
This is the moment when commentators usually wheel in Trump’s penchant for comebacks or his campaign’s ability to go negative. Those are factors, but not significant ones. Trump’s love of comeback narratives might help to explain why Americans think he’ll win in 2020 — but Americans also thought the GOP would do well in the 2018 midterms and that did not come to pass.
As for Trump’s ability to go negative, there are doubts about whether it will work as well on Biden as it did on Hillary Clinton. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, however, this does not seem as potent a strategy this time around:
“[T]here are persistent doubts even within Mr. Trump’s political circle that an overwhelmingly negative campaign can be successful in 2020, particularly when many voters are likely to be looking for a combination of optimism, empathy and steady leadership at a moment of crisis unlike any in living memory. And the more Mr. Trump lashes out — at Mr. Biden and others — the more he may cement in place the reservations of voters who are accustomed to seeing presidents react with resolute calm in difficult situations.
“Private Republican polling has shown Mr. Trump slipping well behind Mr. Biden in a number of key states. Perhaps just as troubling for Mr. Trump, it has raised questions about whether his efforts to tar Mr. Biden are making any headway.
“Last month, a poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee tested roughly 20 lines of attack against Mr. Biden, ranging from the private business activities of his son, Hunter Biden, to whether Mr. Biden has “lost” a step, a reference to mental acuity. None of the lines of attack significantly moved voter sentiment, according to two people briefed on the results.”
This jibes with other analyses. Last week the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported the Trump campaign wants to make this a contrast on who is tougher with China. The GOP’s polling on this, however, revealed “voters see Trump’s beef with China as an attempt to deflect blame (58%), rather than holding the regime accountable (42%). Republicans mostly side with Trump, independents lean against him.” That is not a formula for success. Even a Trump stalwart like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker acknowledges “it still boils down to a referendum on the president.”
Recently FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. suggested, “while campaigns are dynamic, views on Trump are static.” That means he has a very high floor and a very low ceiling. It also means no matter how much the Trump campaign tries to make this campaign about anything else besides a referendum on Trump’s performance during the covid-19 pandemic, that is what 2020 will be about.
Unless one of Trump’s Hail Mary gambles actually pans out, he’s in trouble.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He wrote this for The Washington Post.