“Human beings who can get to the polls will vote,” Frank Luntz, a longtime pollster, told me. Interest in the election will be so fevered, Luntz quipped, that “a lot of dead people are going to come back to life to vote.”
In the end, the race may hinge on the preferences of some 5 to 10 percent of the electorate who are unattached to either party and whose perceptions of the economy could decide Trump’s fate.
“I don’t think people win elections with their base; I think they win elections by getting people in the middle,” Robert Grand, who was part of the fundraising team for Trump’s 2016 campaign, told me.
The president’s campaign advisers tell me that Trump would like to pose the question made famous by Ronald Reagan: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If the answer isn’t a ringing yes, Trump could be facing a one-term presidency. Worse for him, even if the answer is a ringing yes, he may have so alienated voters for other reasons that the economic argument might not be enough to push him over the top in November 2020.
Tucked into a new Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey was, for Trumpworld, a worrying omen. The poll found that by a whopping margin of 73 percent to 5 percent, the subset of voters who don’t approve of Trump but still like how he’s handled the economy favor a Democratic candidate over the president. Trump can’t write off these voters—or any voters, for that matter. Demographic trends simply don’t work in his favor. Luntz told me that if Trump suffers no defections in 2020 and locks in every person who voted for him in 2016, he could still lose the electoral college and, hence, the election. That’s because younger voters who are casting ballots for the first time prefer Democrats over Republicans by a decisive margin, and some of Trump’s older voters will have died by the time November 3, 2020, rolls around, Luntz said. “Trump must win people who didn’t vote for him,” he told me. “And the way he’s going to do that, the only way he’s going to do that, is through the economy.”
Read: Why no one wants to talk about the booming economy
As always, but especially right now, the economy is a wild card. Signs point to a coming slowdown, though it’s difficult to pinpoint either its severity or its timing. Last week, the returns on short-term U.S. bonds surpassed those of long-term bonds, a development that typically signals a looming recession. Financial markets have been whipsawed by Trump’s on-again, off-again trade war with China.
Stephen Moore, a former campaign adviser whom Trump had wanted to nominate for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board this spring, but who pulled out when it became clear he couldn’t win Senate confirmation, told me that Trump’s trade dispute with China is hurting the economy, if only in the short term. “Of course it is,” Moore said. “I talk to businessmen and women, and they say that the trade war has hurt their orders. It has hurt their capital spending.” I asked Moore about Trump’s contention that the tariffs he has imposed on China are helping the U.S. at China’s expense. “That’s kind of spin from the president—trying to make a case for what he’s doing,” Moore told me. “There are some positive aspects from tariffs … but those benefits are clearly upset by the wrench of uncertainty that has been thrown into the economy by the tariffs.”