Like countless other Americans, Donald Trump has seen his job security decline in recent weeks.
In early April, the share of Americans who disapproved of the president was about seven points higher than the percentage that approved of him; today, that margin has grown to 13.8 points, according to FiveThirtyEight. Over the same period, Joe Biden’s lead in live-interview polls of registered voters has swelled from six points to ten.
To retain the White House, Trump doesn’t need to win the most votes, he just needs to beat the spread. Which is to say, since the president’s support is concentrated among white, non-college-educated voters — who are themselves disproportionately located in battleground states — election forecasters have estimated that Trump can lose the popular vote by as much as five points and still keep his job in 2021.
But the Electoral College can’t compensate for a double-digit deficit. Making matters worse for Trump, his polling decline has been powered by defections among white, non-college-educated voters. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn notes, Trump’s advantage over Biden with this demographic has declined from 31 points in March to 21 points today. By contrast, the Democratic nominee has gained only a point among nonwhite voters over that same timeframe. This suggests that Biden’s coalition has not only grown larger but also better optimized for Electoral College purposes. The Democratic nominee has not secured a double-digit advantage by further running up the score among demographic blocs that are heavily concentrated in safe blue states. Rather, he has built a broader and more geographically diverse voting base. Trump’s popular-vote deficit is therefore rising, even as his margin for error is shrinking.
In a normal campaign, these developments would prompt major strategic changes. Resources would be allocated in a more careful and targeted manner, as even a well-funded operation can’t afford to waste a penny when it has a ten-point gap to close. Messaging would be recalibrated to better appeal to swing constituencies. To the extent that there was a clear correlation between something the candidate was doing and a rise in disapproval, that behavior would be curbed.
But Donald Trump has neither the desire nor the capacity to mount a normal campaign. He has little investment in the long-term success of the conservative movement or Republican Party. He did not enter politics to advance an ideological project so much as to quell his insatiable thirst for attention and adoration. The rallies were the point.
Trump has some deeply rooted authoritarian and xenophobic intuitions. But his substantive agenda is for promotional use primarily. Where other presidents designed propaganda to secure their favored policies, Trump designs policies to secure his desired propaganda. To take one example: Threatening Kim Jong-un with annihilation — and then rewarding the dictator with a face-to-face meeting — did little to deter North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. But it did yield a spectacle in which Trump could perform the role of master dealmaker. And by all appearances, this was sufficient for the president to deem his North Korea policy a smashing success. More broadly, reporting on the administration’s internal policy deliberations regularly suggests that, when Trump evaluates the relative merits of one course of action or another, he asks himself, “What would make tonight’s Fox News coverage most self-affirming?”
Trump’s fanatical obsession with his own image — a pathology that’s become more conspicuous (and conspicuously sociopathic) in the present context of national crisis — has led many to criticize him for putting his political interests above the nation’s public health. But this allegation is imprecise. The president is not actually capable of putting a premium on his own electoral fortunes. And this is not merely because he lacks the requisite self-discipline. For Trump, holding rallies and courting worshipful conservative media coverage are not means for winning political power; winning political power is a means for securing the adulation of crowds and conservative cable-news hosts.
Thus, when the imperatives of winning reelection — and gaining the president some public affirmation — come into conflict, the Trump campaign has been optimizing for the latter.
The president should be pouring every resource at his disposal into moving public opinion in battleground states. Instead, his campaign just spent $400,000 buying cable-news ads in the Washington, D.C., market — so that the candidate could enjoy a little emotional picker-upper in between Tucker Carlson segments. As the Daily Beast reports:
[O]ver the past month, the Trump campaign has spent slightly more than $400,000 on cable news ads in the Washington, D.C., area, buying time largely on Fox News but with some smaller buys on CNN and MSNBC as well, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission … It is, on a purely electoral level, a remarkably quixotic use of campaign cash. The purchases have no real shot of moving D.C., Maryland, or Virginia into the Trump column …
But two knowledgeable sources—one a Trump campaign adviser, the other an individual close to the president—said the D.C.-area ads had another purpose as well: to put the president himself at ease … Trump is a voracious consumer of cable news, and—the thinking goes—is likely to see the spots pop up between segments of his favorite shows.
If Trump wishes to maximize his odds of remaining president, he should be catering to the preferences and sensibilities of the voters who’ve drifted away from him since 2016. For example, in 2016, Trump lost women voters by 14 points. At present, he’s losing them to Biden by 25. His deficit among college-educated whites has also ballooned.
But Trump has done approximately nothing to stanch his bleeding with these constituencies. In fact, he is arguably doing less to appeal to women than he did in 2016, when he would occasionally send Ivanka in front of the cameras to champion paid leave and testify to her father’s commitment to gender equality in the workplace.
Instead, the president has prioritized dispensing red meat to his base. There is no electoral logic to Trump’s militant advocacy for heavy-handed policing, let alone for his decision to spread a conspiracy theory about the 75-year-old white man who was brutalized in Buffalo on Tuesday morning. There is no sound political reason for him to pose with a bible in front of St. John’s church, let alone for gassing a crowd of peaceful protestors in order to do so. Trump has a higher approval rating among Republican voters than any GOP nominee since at least 2000. He has no significant room for improvement among right-wing evangelicals and “Blue Lives Matter” backers. Other Republicans understand that this is not the time for preaching to the choir; the House GOP is cobbling together a list of (milquetoast) police reforms it can support, while rhetorically affirming the need for change.
But the president craves reverence more than ballots. And only GOP base voters are willing to give him the former. So he is forever seeking to elicit the faithful’s adulation, rather than to win the converts’ tepid support.
Finally, as CNN’s Harry Enten notes, the available evidence suggests that Trump’s political standing declines when his media prominence rises: Given the president’s utter dearth of message discipline, the more Americans hear from him, the less they seem to like him. Recognition of this reality led to the suspension of Trump’s daily coronavirus press conferences. But since the president values near-term media attention above his long-term political interests, he will soon be improvising hateful rants in front of crowds of his adoring (but, for swing voters, deeply alienating) devotees on a routine basis.
In the immediate term, Trump’s inability to recognize and prioritize his own political interests makes him more dangerous. In the present context, a ruthlessly reelection-minded incumbent would be championing massive fiscal aid to states and cities, extending enhanced unemployment benefits, and coordinating a comprehensive federal response to the pandemic. There are a lot of misaligned incentives in U.S. politics. But a sitting president still has a strong interest in not presiding over mass death or unemployment in an election year.
In the long term, however, Trump’s myopic obsession with pleasing the hardline conservatives on his television and at his rallies may prove to be the cause of — and solution to — the biggest problems posed by his presidency.