Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Logic has been cast aside with bombastic disdain by Donald Trump, a populist outsider who confounds expectation. His opponents do not want to be made electorally foolish twice, after all. But in viewing the President as ‘Teflon Trump’ and in expecting him to do better than his character or the pollsmight suggest, we are in danger of handing him a second term.
The Economist has been running a daily analysis of the election. As of writing, the magazine places Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for the White House, at an 88% chance of winning. This is not just a poll, or an aggregate of polls, either. They emphasise the ‘fundamentals’ – the structural factors that shape the election, such as unemployment, incumbency and popularity.
In 2016, after 8 years of Obama, the Economist’s analysis favoured Trump. In February 2020, the formula still favoured Trump: “A typical modern incumbent with a good-not-great economy and bad-not-terrible approval ratings should win around 51% of the vote.” COVID-19, the George Floyd protests and two impromptu Supreme Court rulings have turned these fundamentals against him.
We should question whether a pandemic-induced recession will be as politically damaging as previous economic slumps. As lockdown eases and Americans return to work, will an uptick from April to November reward Trump?
There simply is no precedent. Trump still has a clear path to re-election. Some Republicans are still “thinking [of a] landslide” for their man, arguing that calls to ‘defund the police’ will lure voters to the law and order candidate as was the case in 1968 with Richard Nixon.
But two more factors mean that Biden may now be a shoo-in for the top job. One is predictable; demographic shifts in states Trump won four years ago favour Democrats. Indeed, “every state” with a sizable Hispanic population has seen growth in the percentage of eligible voters. For instance, Trump won Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes by 1.2% in 2016, but The Economist’s poll now has the former VP as the clear favourite in that vital swing-state.
Moreover, young voters tend to endorse the Democrats, and his approval ratings have “swamp[ed]” in battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. It is evident Trump needs a “different set of states” to match his 2016 win. The problem, for Trump, is that no other competitive states are as ripe for his message – not four years ago and certainly not now.
The second factor is the savaging that Trump has received at the hands of The Lincoln Project. A GOP-run Political Action Committee (PAC) set up by associates of John McCain and George W. Bush, The Lincoln Project endorsed Biden shortly after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the primary. Its remix of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 ‘Morning in America’ advert, “Mourning in America”, caught Trump’s eye. The Twitterstorm that ensued helped propel the video to over 7 million views.
The Lincoln Project is designed for maximum damage to Trump; it runs adverts on Fox, and it targets Trump on issues that Republicans care about. Their latest advert, ‘Chyna’, says Trump “rolls over like a dog” for President Xi. The one before, ‘Something’s wrong with Donald Trump’, states “Trump doesn’t have the strength to lead” and calls him “weak, unfit, shaky”. It launched the hashtag #Trump’sNotWell. Trump has not faced anything like this before: “They fight hard. We don’t fight like that,” admitted Democrat strategist James Carville.
Two weeks ago, I wrote of the two Americas that exist. The Lincoln Project is taking on Trump in his own paradigm and subjecting him to a battering that could see him lose votes in his most sanctified of support bases; Republicans themselves.
At a time when the legacy of British wartime leaders is contentious, that of Abraham Lincoln may well prove an important nail in the coffin for the Trump presidency.