One of the particular characteristics of the Trump presidency is the way Trump consistently creates drama – some by design, some not – that makes it hard to see the broader outline of events. Nowhere is this more clear than in considering the 2020 election. We’re inundated by reports about the President’s turbo-powered campaign, his vast fundraising, new kinds of micro-targeting, negotiations with foreign governments to attack domestic political opponents. In fact, though the President remains very unpopular. Despite the fact that incumbent President’s usually get elected, most signs suggest pretty clearly he won’t.
Let me make one point clear. I don’t take it remotely for granted that Trump won’t win a second term. I think it’s quite possible he will. He has all the built in Republican advantages. He has most of organized wealth behind him. Most of all he has the huge advantage of the electoral college. Perhaps most importantly he pulled off the wildly improbable once already and the consequences of his winning are so vast and catastrophic that nothing can be left to chance.
Yesterday Fox News published a new presidential poll. The “Fox News” moniker aside, their poll is a solid, legitimate poll, even if it’s a bit on the favorable end toward the President. Trump’s approval rating was on the relative high side for him in this poll at 46%. (53% opposed.) Best numbers are on the economy; worst on health care; not surprising.
The head to head numbers with Democratic challengers are revealing. Against Joe Biden, Trump is 11 points down, 49%-38%. Against Bernie Sanders, 46%-41%, Harris it’s 41%-41%. Warren, 43%-41%. Buttigieg 40%-41%.
These numbers are undergirded by other details of the poll, which match most other polls. Underneath the 46% approve, 53% disapprove – only 28% strongly approve the President while 44% strongly disapprove. Again, very challenging numbers.
One clear thing to draw from this is that, for now, Biden is far and away the strongest candidate – only Sanders is even close to as strong. But the real takeaway is that against named candidates the incumbent President can’t get above 41% support. That is quite simply a massive warning sign for the incumbent, especially when the economy is red hot by conventional definitions.
On the one hand, that’s great for Democrats. But Trump and his top campaign advisors will see this as well. So for all the clamor about how things are apparently going great for him, they know that they will need a series of very dramatic things to happen over the next 18 months to win reelection – some kind of foreign adventure, having the Justice Department use its power to subvert the election, some alliance with a foreign power to destroy one of the President’s political opponents (what Giuliani was trying to do in Ukraine and likely continues to do), some effort to get the election into the Supreme Court. There are almost limitless possibilities. But something of that magnitude – in fact, probably several – are likely necessary to get the President up into the middle 40s support where the advantages of the electoral college can pull out a victory.
The point is, President Trump isn’t someone who’s just going to sit back and let himself lose a conventional election, a lawful election. There’s nothing remotely about the man that makes that plausible. He managed an electoral college victory in 2016 with 46.1% of the vote. These numbers suggest he needs to move at least 5% in his favor, a very tall order. 2016 required a perfect storm. Wikileaks, Russia, Comey’s devastating late campaign intervention, a mini-recession in the industrial midwest driven by a number of transnational economic factors and also tighter monetary policy, Democratic party divisions – all of these had to come together. Trump requires a second perfect storm. But as an incumbent with all the powers of the executive branch he has many more ways to engineer one.
In addition to all the things that go into a conventional campaign, Democrats need plans in place to counter and/or publicize these kinds of efforts. They need to be prepared for them. Even just ordinary voters and activists need to be prepared. We can already see the outlines of the next eighteen months even if we don’t know the precise particulars.