Don't count Trump out yet
Donald Trump is playing the presidency on All Madden difficulty. Roughly five minutes after taking the oath of office, his own FBI was trying to remove him from office via a made-up constitutional procedure. The Rosenstein-Comey affair metamorphosed into the special counsel investigation, which in turn begat Trump's impeachment. Now he is facing a public health crisis, Great Depression-level unemployment, and the worst rioting since 1968, to which he is responding with tweets about septuagenarian antifa sleeper agents.
We live in a strange country, one worthy of the president we elected. According to Gallup, Trump's approval rating during the pandemic has consistently been in keeping with former President Barack Obama's at this point in his first term until recently; even now, after dropping during the recent protests, it is not as low as it was in December of 2017. This is one of the many reasons why recent attempts to write off Trump's chances at re-election sound to me like wish fulfillment.
Contrary to what some of his most enthusiastic detractors are suggesting, Trump is in roughly the same position polling-wise in which he found himself at a similar point in 2016. Never mind national figures, which have nothing to do with how we elect presidents in this country. Look at the states, the ones that actually matter. As I write this, Trump is trailing the presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden in Wisconsin by nine points, which is what his polling deficit against Hillary Clinton was in the state exactly four years ago; in Michigan he was consistently down by double digits until the end of August, just as he is now. Meanwhile, in Florida and Pennsylvania, he is doing better now than he was against Hillary during the same timeframe in his first campaign. The only battleground state in which he appears to be polling worse than he did last time is Arizona, and even there some polls have shown him with a slight lead. The pie is not "almost baked." The batter hasn't even been made.
This doesn't make him a shoo-in. His victory in 2016 was remarkably narrow, and there is no reason to think re-election will be any different. There are serious disagreements within his campaign about whether he should appeal once more to "American carnage" or stick with the sunny optimism of his most recent State of the Union address or split the difference on the (correct) assumptions that voters are not rational. This doesn't mean he's doomed. It means he's a person running for the presidency.
But let's be honest. Trump is an incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with all the built-in advantages that come with the address. His base is solid. Outside the pages of national newspapers and the floor of the Senate, he has no serious Republican critics. His opponent, meanwhile, went into virtual hibernation in the middle of a primary campaign, and Biden's own advisers are saying that they want him to remain "in the basement" as long as possible. People know who the former vice president is, but that's not the same thing as being enthusiastic about him. Nothing in Democratic messaging so far suggests that the party has internalized the main lesson of 2016, which was that you cannot make an election only about the other candidate.
Perhaps even more worrisome for Democrats, though, is the fact that young people, arguably the single most important element in Obama's two winning presidential coalitions, were not exactly turning out in droves to vote in the primaries. This was something Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had to learn the hard way. I know it's hard to believe right now, but tens of thousands of the 20-somethings who have spent the last two weeks LARPing as extras from The Battle of Algiers probably won't bother to show up to throw out the guy they believe is an actual fascist dictator.
The presidential election is still half a year away. Voters have spent the last several months in state-enforced isolation from one another. We still don't know exactly when or where or how or even whether both parties are going to hold their conventions. There could be another, even larger stimulus package or a second wave of lockdowns, or both. Declaring Trump a lame duck at this juncture makes about as much sense as, say, not campaigning in Wisconsin.
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