vision 2020

A Rational Case for Trump Winning the Election Without Stealing It

Sure, it could happen again. Photo: Rolex Dela Pena/EPA/Shutterstock

On a daily basis we hear MAGA flacks who mindlessly say their hero is obviously going to be reelected by a landslide, and The Man himself who says he can’t lose unless the other side “rigs” the election. Both leader and followers agree they may need to disqualify “fraudulent” mail ballots that are going to lean heavily Democratic, thanks to Trump’s demonization of the mail-in vote. In this environment it’s hard to think clearly about a scenario where the president wins this election without stealing it, as he keeps hinting he plans to do.

But veteran political analyst Sean Trende is an honest observer who probably feels his owes his conservative employers at RealClearPolitics a sunnier picture of the future than most of the numbers would indicate. He has sketched out a Trump Wins scenario that’s not spin and doesn’t rely on voter suppression or a hasty victory declaration followed by lawsuits to stop vote-counting or troops called out to intimidate opponents. I’d note that Trende was something of an early prophet in noting the potential of a Republican midwestern breakthrough in 2016 through persuasion and mobilization of white working-class voters. He’s got solid instincts and relies on actual data.

If Trump does win, he asks, what will have happened?

First of all, Trende thinks Trump’s job approval rating is already close to what he needs to match his 2016 popular vote performance:

Earlier this summer, I posted a Twitter poll asking respondents what level they believed Trump’s job approval would have to reach in order for him to be favored to win. The response mode was around 46%….

The reason 46% makes sense for Trump is because we are pretty sure that he can win with 46% or 47% of the vote. After all, he did so in 2016 (Gary Johnson may have siphoned off some of his support, but Jill Stein likely did the same to Hillary Clinton), and it appears from polling that the Electoral College/popular vote split is about the same today as it was in 2016, if not a bit larger. So what is Trump’s job approval doing today? 

When Trende published his piece, Trump’s job approval average at RCP was at 45.1 percent (it has since fallen a bit to 44.8 percent, and it’s only at 43.3 percent at FiveThirtyEight). But is unquestionably up towards the higher end of the range it has exhibited throughout his presidency. It’s possible that like Obama in 2012, Trump could see his job approval peak at the perfect time.

Second of all, notes Trende, Trump’s central strength, perceptions of his stewardship of the economy, is on an upward swing – again, possibly at a fortuitous time:

Growth in the second quarter, as the pandemic started taking its toll, was abysmal, in such a way that we have no historical comparison for it, at least for time periods where we have good data. Yet growth in the third quarter appears to be explosive, potentially wiping away most of the contraction that occurred in the second quarter. There is simply no precedent for this either.

Perhaps because of the unusually strong growth in the third quarter, or because people appreciate the unique reason for the economic contraction in the second quarter (i.e. we shut everything down to try and slow a virus), the president’s approval rating on the economy has rebounded, and he is once again viewed positively on the economy. Perhaps more importantly, as you can see on [a recent Fox News Poll], Trump is now trusted more than Joe Biden on the economy by a 52%-44% margin, a reversal from the early summer.

Third of all, Trende believes it’s possible “Biden’s problems with the base are real.” His weakness among Latinos is very problematic in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, and a drop-off in Black support or turnout could be crucial in several states.

Trende goes out of his way to say this scenario is “not a prediction,” and that he still thinks Biden is “the favorite.” I definitely agree, and I continue to think that Democrats’ intense fear of a recurrence of the 2016 nightmare, a likely drop-off in minor-party voting, and the tendency of undecided voters in unsettled times to turn against incumbents, will all combine to give Biden the crucial edge despite Trump’s Electoral College advantage. But no one should rule out the chance that he can thread the needle again. We have been duly warned.

How Trump Could Win the Election Without Stealing It