It’s generally dangerous to make predictions about presidential elections, but here’s one that you can take to the bank: This will be the ugliest, dirtiest, most mean-spirited presidential election in our lifetimes, if not ever.
It is often said that when an incumbent president seeks reelection, it can be a referendum or a choice. It can also be some combination of both. But a referendum is much more common. Voters must decide whether they are inclined to renew a president’s contract for another four years. If they’re open to the idea of nonrenewal, is the alternative safe enough or is it too great of a risk?
Right now, there are only two things that matter to voters: the coronavirus and the economy. Both are likely to get much worse before they get better. It is pretty hard to see how the economy can rebound from its current free fall in time to be felt by voters before the election.
Until early this year, the recipe for a Trump victory was twofold: First, he needed a strong vote out of his base, which still seems extremely likely to me. Second, he needed to ride the strong economy, giving him a sufficient tailwind to win over enough voters in the right combination of states to get him the Electoral College win, even if he loses the popular vote again. That tailwind is now gone. If there is an economic wind in any direction, it will more likely be in his face, not at his back.
Sensing this, Trump and his backers are pushing hard to open the economy back up as fast as possible. But doing that and controlling the virus still seem mutually exclusive. In the countries that were hit first by the virus, many are now seeing a second wave, something that is virtually certain if this is rushed too fast. The American people are smart enough to sense that; polls show voters are much more worried about opening too quickly than too slowly, notwithstanding the demonstrations at various state capitols over the weekend.
With that period of strong economic growth becoming increasingly distant in our rearview mirrors, Trump’s job-approval ratings on handling the economy—always better than his overall job-approval ratings—are likely to fade. It can carry him for a while, but hardly long enough, with the economy dropping as fast as it is.
Polls have also made clear that despite his protestations, voters see him as waiting far too long to take the coronavirus seriously, missing an opportunity to mitigate its severity through ramping up testing capabilities and stockpiling personal protective equipment. Since you may have some free time these days, curl up with the findings of the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Pew Research Center polls and you will see little good in it for Trump. My guess is that your conclusions will match mine.
Trump’s base can absolutely be counted on to stick with him; it is unrealistic to think they will abandon him now. But because he never got a honeymoon period, he's never had a major national poll show him with even a 50 percent overall job approval. He never had enough excess supporters to shed when things got tough. That is why those critics who spent the past three years expecting and predicting that his job-approval ratings would drop, might as well have been expecting their preshrunk jeans to finally shrink. It was never going to happen.
But the second half of that recipe for a Trump victory was winning over enough undecided voters to win, even if once again it was just by a hair. But while these voters never loathed him, they have never loved him either. They were looking for performance, but pollsters will tell you that those voters in the middle see him as, to quote an unreleased poll presentation I read this afternoon, “impulsive, risky, erratic, and chaotic,” with a “recklessness and unwillingness to listen to experts.”
Simply put, a referendum on his performance is going to be a tough sell for Trump. He’s the first president in history to never have a majority job approval rating. Plus, as Bill Scher noted in Politico Magazine, third-party candidates are unlikely to make the ballot in many states this year because the coronavirus shutdown has made gathering petition signatures all but impossible. This makes Trump’s climb tougher in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s vote share in each of those states was greater than Trump’s margin of victory. Thus, he will need to get closer to 50 percent in that all-important trio of states this time around than the 46 percent he got last time.
The only way Trump wins is to make Joe Biden absolutely unelectable, to make him an unacceptable risk. That only happens one way, and it’s not by playing by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules for fair fighting.
The Willie Horton, Bain Capital, and Swift Boat attacks that Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney, and John Kerry faced, respectively, were child’s play compared to what is going to be thrown at Biden, his son, Hunter, and anyone else in the former vice president’s orbit. When this is over, Hillary Clinton will think she got off light from the 2016 Trump campaign. That’s the only way he can win, because a referendum isn’t going to go his way. Expect this to get ugly.