Don’t Count Trump Out

Polling could be wrong. The economy could recover just enough. He could announce his own October surprise.

Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Let’s stipulate right away that President Donald Trump is losing this race. Set aside the particulars—how suburban voters are migrating toward Joe Biden, and how seniors are rethinking their support too. Consider the basics.

Presidents are supposed to keep Americans employed. The jobless rate now stands at 11 percent—more than 3 points higher than when Jimmy Carter lost reelection in 1980 and when George H. W. Bush was defeated in 1992.

Presidents are supposed to keep Americans safe. About 140,000 have died from COVID-19, more than twice the number that perished in the Vietnam War, which doomed Lyndon B. Johnson’s reelection chances in 1968.

Presidents are supposed to attract voters outside their loyal base. Trump’s approval rating stands at 38 percent, according to Gallup; no president since Harry Truman in 1948 has won reelection with a number less than 40 percent.

So what—it’s over, then? Maybe not. Facing the combined calamities of a pandemic and an economic meltdown, Trump hasn’t collapsed. His base never really grows, but neither does it crumple, keeping him competitive. “If Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose supporters, he could also raise the dead on Fifth Avenue and not gain any supporters,” Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll, told me.

The pointless feuds and rage tweets, the conspiracism and obsessions all seem baked in—none of that seems to surprise the electorate anymore. He could win. He might win. Here are six reasons why.

1. The economy could come back just enough.

Reckless though it was to reopen businesses while the virus raged, states that lifted stay-at-home restrictions gave the economy an unmistakable jolt. A record-setting total of 7.5 million jobs were added in May and June. The numbers might well cool off in the coming months, but Trump can spin what might turn out to be fleeting gains as a full-fledged recovery.

“This looks like a very rapid rebound,” Gregory Daco, the chief economist at the consulting firm Oxford Economics, told me, referring to recent job numbers. “But we have to keep in mind that we’re still deep in the hole. We’ve only recouped about one-third of the jobs lost, and the second portion of the recovery phase is likely to be much slower.” To illustrate the point, Daco cited clothing sales, which dropped 90 percent from February to April. Since then, sales have nearly doubled, which may sound like reason to celebrate. But they’re still 70 percent below the peak, Daco told me.

For Trump’s purposes, the broader context wouldn’t matter. He’d point to the progress and ignore the rest. And some may be inclined to believe him. Even as voters sour on Trump for other reasons, 50 percent still like the way he handles the economy, a new ABC News-Washington Post survey shows.

“The president needs a glimmer of hope in the fall, and that will be enough on the economy,” a former senior White House official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about Trump’s reelection.

2. Polling could be wrong (again).

Four years ago, the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton came down to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Trump narrowly won all three. This time around, Biden is leading in each of the same three states by anywhere from 6 to 8 points, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because state surveys also showed Clinton topping Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania ahead of the election. In Pennsylvania alone, seven different state polls taken in the first two weeks of October 2016 showed Clinton beating Trump by no fewer than 4 percentage points and by as many as 9. She wound up losing the state by about a point.

Postmortem analyses of state polling turned up serious flaws. In some instances, surveys failed to correct for the overrepresentation of college-educated voters who participate more in polls and tended to favor Clinton. Or they didn’t capture a trend in which most voters who made up their minds late voted for Trump.

Franklin, the Marquette Law School poll director, told me that his survey now shows Biden leading the president by 8 points in Wisconsin. But how much weight do such polls deserve, given the debacle in 2016? At the end of that race, Clinton led Trump by an average of more than 6 points in Wisconsin and then lost by nearly a point.

“So, that’s a large error,” Franklin said. “Was that a humbling experience?” I asked. “Yes! Absolutely. How could it not be?”

It’s not clear that state polling this time around is any better. “You certainly see state polls appearing today that clearly are not reflecting the educational distribution in the states they’re polling,” said Franklin, who took part in a postelection polling study conducted by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. “That’s a bit of a puzzlement.”

Kellyanne Conway, a former pollster and a current counselor to the president who served as Trump’s campaign manager in the 2016 race, argues that nothing has been fixed. “The same problems surround the polls this time because many of the people running the polls then are running the polls now. There’s been no course correction whatsoever,” Conway told me. “If polling were run like a business, the C-suite would have been cleaned out, the shareholders would have revolted, the customers would have walked away.”

3. Trump can campaign all day long.

If they choose, presidents can exploit the office for reelection purposes with brutal efficiency. They can push policies that matter most to prized constituencies, and fly to swing states for campaign stops masquerading as official visits. Trump can no longer hold rallies whenever and wherever he wants, but even during a pandemic, he can capitalize on his surroundings in ways that a challenger can’t.

“Most presidents want to be reelected, and so they take full advantage of all those benefits of incumbency,” Barbara Perry, the presidential-studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told me.

A president’s sheer ubiquity is enough to reinforce his grip on the office. “For all of his foolishness and craziness, Trump is there. He’s there 24/7. That’s a huge advantage,” Aaron David Miller, the author of a book on the presidency called The End of Greatness, told me.

Amid signs that he’s losing ground with seniors, Trump appeared in the Rose Garden in the spring to announce a plan that caps the amount of money they pay for insulin. Two minutes into his speech, he began belittling his opponent: “Sleepy Joe can’t do this, that I can tell you.” Toward the end, the White House aired a video showing a 68-year-old man with diabetes thanking Trump for cutting his expenses.

Last week, Trump showed up in the Rose Garden again, ostensibly to talk about Hong Kong, but instead spent most of a free-associative hour lampooning Biden. A “Rose Garden” strategy used to mean that a sitting president would plant himself in the White House and devote himself to governing. Trump is more literal: He’s turned this historic outdoor space into a campaign stage.

This week, Trump resurrected the daily coronavirus task-force briefings that he’d dropped a couple of months ago. They give him a captive national TV audience at a moment when he can’t easily hold his beloved rallies.

A former White House official told me that some aides were “dead set against” the briefings in the spring. “We were stunned that he was out there doing it,” this person told me. “We lost that battle. There were a group of us in the West Wing who said, ‘He needs to be the commander in chief. He doesn’t need to be the head of the coronavirus task force.’” But to Trump, the briefings are irresistible. “Suggesting the president go on TV is like pushing against an open door,” the former official said.

4. Biden’s got his own problems.

Biden has suffered personal loss, which has made him a comforting figure to grieving Americans who have lost jobs and loved ones in the pandemic. Yet he still symbolizes a brand of establishment centrism that leaves some younger voters and some in the party’s activist wing uninspired.

“We have to be true to ourselves and acknowledge that Biden is a mediocre, milquetoast, neoliberal centrist that we’ve been fighting against in the Democratic establishment,” Cornel West, the Harvard University professor and a Bernie Sanders supporter, told me.

If Sanders’s primary voters stay home on Election Day out of pique, that could damage Biden’s chances, especially in must-win swing states.

Nina Turner, a co-chair of the Sanders campaign, told me she has no appetite for the choice she faces: “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”

Expect Trump to aggravate a dispute that advances his own interests. As I’ve written, he spent months wooing Sanders voters during the primary, trying to convince them that the senator was the victim of a Democratic conspiracy to prevent him from getting the party’s nomination.

5. Biden voters might not get to vote.

If the state elections held in recent months are any sort of dry run, November could be a disaster. The number of polling places was slashed in the face of COVID-19, forcing voters to wait hours in line. More than 80 voting locations were shut down or consolidated in the Atlanta metro area last month, while places in Milwaukee were cut from 180 to 5.

That amounts to voter suppression. A replay in November might dampen the Biden vote in the Democrats’ urban strongholds within red, blue, and purple states alike. Millions of potential Biden voters would face a bleak choice: Stay home, or go to the polls and risk catching a potentially fatal disease.

An obvious work-around is mail-in voting. But Trump has used his megaphone to make the spurious claim that expanded mail-in voting is a plot to defeat Republicans, which sends a clear message to state GOP leaders and election officials that he’s not in favor of greater access. And the mail-in process is already difficult for voters in some states, as my colleague Adam Harris recently wrote.

6. What if there’s an October surprise?

Ever the showman, Trump could try to shake up the race with a late announcement of dramatic progress in fighting COVID-19. News of a “breakthrough” would get ample attention, and whether he’s right or wrong might not get sorted out until long after the votes are counted. By that time, it wouldn’t matter; Trump could lock in a chunk of voters grateful for any news of an antidote.

“He’ll probably announce a vaccine in October,” Charlie Black, the longtime Republican strategist, told me with a laugh.