As we approach Labor Day weekend, it seems that a lot has happened over the last week. But despite the new economic worries, the White House's shifting positions on guns, and a feud with Denmark, it isn’t clear that much has changed. The recent developments have largely served simply to underscore the president's existing weaknesses.
For all of the recession talk, just 40 percent of economists surveyed in the second half of July by the National Association for Business Economics forecast a recession this year or next. Forty-eight percent thought the next recession would begin in 2021 or later (12 percent were unsure). Thus, it’s more likely that any downturn before the election wouldn’t meet the technical definition of a recession.
This column has argued that the state of the economy, for better or worse, may have less of an effect on Donald Trump’s job approval than presidents typically have experienced. Given the hyper-partisanship we have today and strong personal feelings about Trump, many voters’ opinions on his reelection are impervious to much impact from economic trends. Still, recent signs of economic slowdown sure make the econometric models touted at the beginning of this year—those suggesting that Trump was a lock for reelection—look even more dubious today than they were months ago (and I was skeptical then).
Then there is Trump himself. While our 45th president has never behaved like a typical politician—indeed, that is exactly why many of his supporters like him—his behavior of late has been particularly erratic, even for him. Whether about the economy, tax cuts, race relations, background checks for gun purchases, or, for that matter, trading Puerto Rico for Greenland, this week has been peculiar. His style is his style, but if the country faces increasing economic headwinds, will people sense a steady hand on the tiller? Some argue that his instincts, in which he has unlimited faith, have served him well so far, but is he running out of string?
Coming on the heels of this week’s kerfuffle with the Danish prime minister, the upcoming G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France may well provide more cannon fodder for Trump’s many critics. Because of his unique personality and his aversion to briefings or expertise, his two previous G-7 meetings, 2017 in Sicily in and Quebec in 2018, caused heartburn around the world.
There is no reason to believe that the substance of the cables from Britain’s Embassy in Washington back to the Foreign Office in London, which resulted in the British ambassador's resignation, are much different from those of diplomats of our other closest allies back to their capitals, as they seek to explain and anticipate the president and his administration’s actions. Suffice it to say, at a time when there are highly combustible situations in almost every corner of the globe, our relationships with our closest allies are at a post-World War II low.
While many people seem obsessed with whether Trump’s base will abandon him (they likely will not), the better question might be for voters in the middle: Is what they are seeing from the president reassuring, or is it discomfiting? Is this the cruise they signed up for?
In terms of domestic politics, a conventional wisdom persists that Trump is favored for reelection. There is little doubt that this will be a close election: The country is too evenly divided for any candidate to win by a landslide, or likely even a comfortable margin. Further, the potential for another split verdict, with the popular vote going one direction and the Electoral College is real. But still, when was the last time you saw a credible national poll with Trump leading Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination? Name a swing state where Trump now beats Biden. Beyond Florida, where the two are tied, Biden leads in every other swing state, often by double digits. This is not at all to say that the election is over or that Trump is a distinct underdog. It’s not even hard to come up with scenarios in which Democrats lose this election, but they are all contingent upon things happening that have not yet happened and people winning who are currently trailing.
One potential wild card in presidential elections is the extent that third-party candidates gain sufficient attention and, eventually, votes to make a difference in key states. University of Cincinnati political science professor Alfred Tuchfarber, in a guest column for Sabato’s Crystal Ball on Thursday, noted that minor-party candidates drew an unusually high 4.9 percent of the vote in 2016, compared to just 1.7 percent voting for other candidates in the 2012 contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Tuchfarber attributes this to the fact that both Trump and Hillary Clinton had higher unfavorable than favorable ratings. He notes that the three biggest third-party vote-getters—Libertarian Gary Johnson, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and anti-Trump Republican Evan McMullin—do not seem likely to run next year. Former Starbucks chief Howard Schultz, who contemplated running if Democrats veer too far to the left, is currently sidelined with a health issue.
I have noticed that when third-party candidates factor into the outcome of presidential races, they tend to garner a smaller share of the vote four years later, possibly due to renewed voter reluctance about “throwing their vote away.”
But the impact of third parties will be far less determinative than the tussle between the suburbs and rural areas. In last year’s midterms, the suburbs effectively delivered the House to the Democrats, while small towns kept the Senate in GOP hands. As a general rule, most Republicans down the ballot will try to make it about what they have done for their constituents back home and hope that the election doesn’t get nationalized, with suburban women on fire as they were in November.
So a lot has happened, but not much has changed.