Not that very long ago, I was one of the few people in my circle of center-left political junkies who thought Donald Trump might not be reelected. Given the near-universal belief of Republicans (reflected in the ridiculous claim that Democrats were trying to remove him from office by impeachment since they knew they couldn’t beat him at the polls) that POTUS was cruising in style toward a second term, I was beginning to feel lonely in my skepticism about the Keep America Great cause. And I even felt some doubts as a booming economy boosted Trump’s job-approval ratings out of their stagnant position in the low 40s, with signs they might even drift up toward where Obama’s were in 2012 when he was reelected. Adding in the GOP’s Electoral College advantage, the historic value of incumbency, and Trump’s lavishly financed and unscrupulous campaign, and you had the look of a plausible, if hardly certain, winner.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit after Trump very publicly dismissed its significance, and it was legitimately in question for a while as to whether the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually boosts national leaders in times of emergency – enhanced by Trump’s opportunity to commandeer media attention with daily “briefings” – would offset the universal tendency of voters to sour on incumbent presidents in hard times.
The evidence is beginning to mount that the damage COVID-19 is doing to the economy Trump so often touted as his supreme achievement, along with meh public assessments of his leadership, have together reversed the arrows and made the incumbent an underdog, as National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar — by no means a liberal or partisan Democrat — explains:
President Trump is in an increasingly precarious position for reelection as he struggles to maintain focus on the coronavirus pandemic, instead nursing his personal grievances against the press and his political rivals in a time of crisis. He has already squandered the “rally around the flag” bounce that he received in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and polling suggests that the president is losing ground to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden both nationally and in key battleground states …
[T]he reality is that, absent a speedy V-shaped economic turnaround by the fall, Trump is now a decided underdog for a second term.
Yes, it’s true that past precedents of poor economic conditions blowing up presidential reelection candidacies (from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush) seem inadequate to the kind of disaster COVID-19 poses. But there’s also no example of a president being reelected in the midst of economic calamity on the grounds that it wasn’t entirely his fault. Given the extraordinarily polarized foundation on which Trump has built his political career and his presidency, it’s hard to imagine a figure less likely to inspire sudden respect and appreciation among those not already in his camp (even the regularly pro-Trump polling from Rasmussen currently shows as many Americans strongly disapproving of the job he is doing as approving of it by any degree). To the extent that every presidential election involving an incumbent is basically a referendum on life during the previous four years, you have to figure Trump’s current mediocre approval ratings (at 44 percent at FiveThirtyEight and 45 percent at RealClearPolitics) are a ceiling rather than a floor, assuming no shocking turnaround on either the public-health or economic conditions of the country.
And, as Kraushaar suggests, the nationally darkening climate for Trump’s reelection is being matched by bad news from states he needs to eke out another Electoral College win:
In traditionally Republican Arizona, a must-win state for Trump, he trails Biden 52 to 43 percent in a new OH/Predictive Insights poll. He’s down by 6 points to Biden in Florida, in an April University of North Florida survey, despite his generally sunny track record in the state. Biden led Trump in a trifecta of Michigan polls conducted in March. According to the RealClearPolitics statewide polling averages, Biden is ahead in every swing state.
Add to that the shocking, and shockingly large, Democratic win in a Wisconsin Supreme Court contest (ostensibly, but not really, nonpartisan), during which Republicans went to extraordinary lengths to hold down turnout from pro-Democratic constituencies, and you’ve got a landscape that’s no longer friendly to Trump and his party. Joe Biden’s strong showing in trial heats against Trump points to another expected advantage the president has lost: Democrats are not in disarray, as they were four years ago. Biden’s efforts to keep his party united have gotten off to a good and early start, and all the indications are that third- and fourth-party options for disgruntled progressives aren’t looking nearly so alluring this time around, as The Economist noted in a recent profile of Green Party presidential front-runner Howie Hawkins:
Polling by YouGov for The Economist shows support for third-party candidates at 3%, half of what they won in 2016. More probably, then, Mr. Hawkins is in a fight to avoid humiliation. Even getting on the ballot in many states, which Greens usually manage, is proving difficult. The problem is getting signatures (and the tightening of some requirements). The party’s presidential candidate is eligible to stand in just 21 states so far. Mr. Hawkins guesses 1.6m more signatures are needed to qualify in the remaining ones. The arrival of COVID-19 makes that look almost impossible.
No, I am not predicting an end to the Trump administration on January 19, 2021. The pandemic’s course and its impact — in terms of lives and political side effects — are far too unpredictable for that and, at this point, we aren’t even sure a normal election with normal procedures can be held in November.
But the idea that Trump has some infernal hold on the presidency (the combined product, I believe, of perennial shock over what happened in 2016 and the endless braying braggadocio of Trump’s conservative media voices) is looking shaky now. He clearly will not be able to campaign as the triumphant engineer of an economic boom created by bulldozing the environment and shiftless workers and godless foreigners while showering tax dollars on wealthy American job-creators. His other credentials for a second term are compelling mostly to people who want to return this country to the 1950s. That’s always going to be a decided, if loud, minority.