President Trump got to the White House through audacity combined with unexpected luck, winning key states by tiny margins even as he lost the nationwide popular vote.
Now, his luck may have run out.
As the economy sinks into a deep recession, and the death toll from the coronavirus starts to rise, Trump’s chances of a second term have fallen.
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But there’s a world of difference between down and out, as Trump’s boom-and-bust career has amply shown. Even without the economic boom he had hoped to run on, Trump has considerable political strength. No one should count him out yet.
The political cost of a recession
Political scientists have long pointed to April, May and June of the election year as a key period for voters’ decisions.
The national political conventions during the summer and the intense campaigning of the fall do matter, but typically, the major parties both do competent jobs and essentially fight to a draw.
As a result, what usually matters most is what voters think about the state of the nation before the campaign starts. Because voter perceptions tend to lag by a few months, conditions in the second quarter of the year repeatedly show up as the best predictors of how the election will turn out.
This year, the second quarter will be awful for Trump. As Don Lee wrote, the latest economic statistics show the country rapidly swinging from record-low unemployment to a jobless rate that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned could hit 20% if Congress doesn’t quickly pass measures to keep the economy afloat.
Even with a major stimulus bill, a recession this year seems unavoidable. The only questions are how deep and how long.
One widely accepted model of how elections work illustrates the impact a recession could have: Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, developed his “Time for Change” election model nearly three decades ago, and it has stood up well. His model correctly forecast that Trump would win in 2016, although Abramowitz, himself, doubted that could be true.
The model puts numbers behind a couple of basic assumptions. One is that voters strongly favor incumbents for a second term but usually swing toward the other party after eight years — hence “time for change.” The other is that economic conditions in the second quarter, measured by the change in the gross domestic product, combined with a president’s overall approval rating in June of the election year, tell you what you need to know about which side will win.
By that model, as Abramowitz wrote this week, Trump’s a goner.
His low approval ratings already made his reelection prospects dicey, the model suggests. Add in the recession, and the model points to “an electoral college landslide for Trump’s Democratic challenger,” Abramowitz wrote.
But not so fast, he added.
Models aren’t crystal balls. All that they can do — even the best ones — is to summarize what has happened before and project what would happen next if past is prologue. But what if we’ve moved into a truly different era?
Not Trump, us
The argument that things are different now sometimes gets framed as Trump having a seemingly magical ability to escape bad news.
He doesn’t. Instead, Trump’s hold on his supporters says much more about the country than him.
America’s two parties once straddled a lot of divisions in society. Through the late 1990s, both parties had a mix of young and old, urban and rural, college and non-college, religious and non-religious, and even, to some extent, white and non-white partisans.
Over the past generation, that’s stopped being true. The parties have realigned in ways that reinforce those other divides rather than bridge them.
Democrats have become the party of the nation’s urban centers, those who don’t adhere to traditional religious denominations, people of color and the lion’s share of voters younger than 45. Republicans have become a largely uniform party dominated by older, white, Christian, rural conservatives.
Because of that, partisan identity has increasingly become tied to personal identity. The number of voters who swing back and forth in elections has declined — although they remain crucial — and news events that once would have dramatically shifted a president’s standing with the public now produce very little change.
Trump intuitively understands that and has exploited it. Deprived of his economic argument, expect him to play on those divisions to the maximum extent as he strives to keep his hold on power.
Trump’s emerging strategy
Trump has clearly telegraphed his reelection strategy in his news briefings this week. As Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote, he’s trying to save his reelection campaign by casting himself as a “wartime president” and depicting the virus as a foreign invader.
That’s what’s behind his constant labeling of the disease as the “Chinese virus.” Trump’s at heart a marketer, and he knows the power of labeling his adversary, whether it’s “Crooked Hillary” or “little Rocket Man.”
With the virus, he’s trying to drive home the idea that illness is connected to foreigners, linking the battle against the disease to his long-standing opposition to immigration, which has been at the core of his political message from day one.
The fact that the label upsets liberals just makes it more attractive to Trump, who can count on his opponents to help spread his message that he’s willing to stand up to the foreign enemy, and they’re not.
The fight over what to call the virus is this year’s analogue to the argument in 2016 over the label “Islamic terrorism.” In both cases, Trump’s approach is to draw his opponents into an argument on his terms in which he can depict himself as protecting the “real Americans” against an elite that willingly sacrifices U.S. interests to placate foreigners.
In the meantime, he has played up his executive powers, signing a measure to potentially use the wartime Defense Production Act, for example, as Chris Megerian wrote.
As is typical with him, Trump has also exaggerated what he’s doing, as he did Thursday, when he falsely said the Food and Drug Administration had approved new potential cures for the virus, forcing the head of the FDA to gently correct him during a televised briefing.
Trump also exaggerated the speed at which the Pentagon could ready hospital ships, which the military does intend to deploy. The Pentagon is also looking at building tent hospitals to help with coronavirus treatment, David Cloud reported.
Mexico may face a grim picture in coming weeks because its top leaders are in denial about the problem, Kate Linthicum wrote from Mexico City.
Administration’s record has many holes
Trump’s effort to convey command runs up against one huge problem: the administration’s record, which will give Democrats lots of ammunition to attack Trump.
His repeated denials that the virus was a serious problem have already been turned into campaign-year ads. More are sure to come.
Although Trump repeatedly has said that “nobody knew there would be a pandemic” and that the virus “came out of nowhere,” the opposite is true, as Noam Levey, Anna Phillips and Kim Christensen wrote.
U.S. officials and outside experts have warned over and over for nearly two decades that a pandemic of this sort was not only likely, but almost inevitable and have urged the government to do more to get ready. It hasn’t. The national emergency stockpile of ventilators, for example, isn’t nearly large enough for the current crisis, Del Wilber wrote.
Trump’s not alone in having not done enough, but the crisis has happened on his watch.
Moreover, some of the administration’s policies have weakened the healthcare safety net and made responding to the virus harder. The administration is now having to reverse some of its healthcare policies, Levy wrote.
Democratic primary campaign fades away
Sen. Bernie Sanders hasn’t conceded the race to Joe Biden, but on Wednesday, after the latest round of primary losses, his campaign manager announced he would head home soon to “assess” his campaign, Janet Hook wrote.
There’s not a lot to assess. Biden has a lead of about 300 delegates and has been winning primaries in every part of the country by large margins.
On Thursday, Tulsi Gabbard dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden. She had long ago stopped being a factor in the race. In Florida’s primary this week, for example, she got less than 1% of the vote and came in behind four candidates who had already dropped out. Still, her endorsement of Biden represented another straw in the wind — she had prominently backed Sanders in 2016.
The bigger issue now is the extent to which the coronavirus threatens the country’s ability to hold the November election. Evan Halper looked at the growing calls for expanded vote by mail and the GOP opposition to doing so in some states.
Could Trump delay the election? Not without risking forfeit to a Democrat, Halper wrote. The Constitution clearly sets Jan. 3 as the end of his term. If he’s not reelected, the next in line might be Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat in the Senate.
In the meantime, as lawmakers begin falling ill from coronavirus, Congress may move to remote work. That would represent a huge change for a tradition-bound institution. The Senate currently doesn’t even allow electronic voting.
A grim choice
The overall context in which officials are making decisions right now is a dreadful choice for global leaders: Wreck your economy or lose millions of lives. The pandemic will be with us until an effective vaccine comes online — probably 18 months — or a drug is developed to treat the illness.
That likely means a year or more of lockdowns, economic disruption and overwhelmed healthcare systems. Anyone who thinks they can reliably forecast what that means for the nation’s politics hasn’t been paying attention.
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