Some of my friends are feeling way too cocky about the upcoming November election. They see that tens of thousands of people have died and that the economy is in trouble, and they think Trump cannot survive. What’s more, Trump has clearly screwed this up and more recently he seems like he’s losing his mind.
It does seem like a slam dunk. But both Obama and Bush Jr had low approval ratings at this point and they went on to win re-election. And the opposite is also true. A year out, Bush Sr had almost a 70% approval rating and he lost badly. I have little doubt that if the election were today, Trump would lose in a landslide. In six months? I don’t know.
Roughly speaking, there are two ways this can go. Things could stay bad. The cases could keep mounting and the deaths could continue to climb. The economy could struggle along but more or less stay where it is right now.
If that happens, not only is Trump going down big, so is the entire Republican Party. We could see Mitch McConnell lose his seat in Kentucky. And as much as I do not want to see this happen for my own sake and that of everyone else in the nation, such a defeat would be a silver lining. (But don’t kid yourself: after the Democrats began to heal the economy, the Republicans would come roaring back.)
The other possibility is that things slowly start to get better. In two months, new cases come to a trickle. In 4 months, most people are back at work. And in six months, sports return but with limited seating.
If that happens, people will likely re-elect Trump. They will only see that things are improving; it won’t matter at all that he is the guy responsible for making things so bad. I know: it’s crazy! But this is how people vote.
(I know a lot of my leftist friends are learning this painful lesson. I’ve seen people complaining that most Biden voters are more in agreement with Sanders’ policies. Welcome to the party! Politics really isn’t about policy; it’s about relationships. And if we are ever going to get the kind of power necessary to make systemic change, we need to embrace this.)
The Lynn Vavreck Election
Probably the best scenario is that things do return to normal quickly but we get an election like Lynn Vavreck laid out in The Message Matters. According to her research, an out-party (the Democrats in this case) can beat an incumbent despite strong economic growth if they can make the campaign about something other than the economy.
In general, it’s hard to do this. People care about the economy above all else. Think of it in the most blunt terms: people want to be sure they will have food and a safe place to live. That’s what a strong economy means to them.
I’ve often noted that had Howard Dean won the Democratic primary in 2004, he probably would have won the general election. That’s because he would have made the election about the Iraq War, which was unpopular by then. Instead, the Democrats nominated Kerry, who couldn’t make that case well because he had essentially voted for the war.
Can Biden Vavreck Trump?
If Biden is smart, he will make this election all about corruption. He could also make it about norms and civility. These are things where Trump is extremely vulnerable. Trump can counter, “Hunter Biden,” but I don’t think that plays outside the people who are guaranteed to vote for him.
One of the problems for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was this weird narrative that had been going on since the early 1990s about her being untrustworthy. Vince Foster killed himself just a few months after Bill Clinton took office and already there were claims that Hillary Clinton had him murdered!
Yes, that was all in the right-wing fever swamps, but it was something that accreted so much garbage over the years that mainstream journalist started thinking there must be something there. Either that or that they simply had to cover such nonsense as though it were real. (Also: it’s pure sexism — the idea that women are duplicitous and can’t be trusted.)
Biden doesn’t have that problem. And I think that whatever happens, Uncle Joe will come out like he did in the 2012 vice-presidential debate. You may remember that Paul Ryan was going on about how Obama was stealing money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. And Biden came back with, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”
I was blown away with that because it accepts the way people think. You don’t have to look at the numbers. You might not like Obama and Biden for a lot of reasons, but you know that they would protect Medicare better than Romney and Ryan would.
Help Joe Biden Win
So I think as long as Biden does not talk about the economy, he stands a good chance of winning. I can’t say more than that because, as Vavreck showed in her book, when this approach works, it leads to extremely close elections.
Of course, there is another possibility. It could be that our current situation is so unusual that none of the political science based on elections after World War II matter. In that case, we don’t know what will happen.
In that case, we need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And that means doing what we can to defeat Donald Trump in November. Sign up to make phone calls or send texts, help people get registered to vote and to vote when the time comes, talk to persuadable people, whatever it takes.
Most of all: don’t assume November is in the bag. We really don’t know.
Trump image cropped from Donald Trump Official White House Portrait by Shealah Craighead in the public domain. Biden image cropped from Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.