May 15, 2020

Nervous Republicans are right to look around and be concerned. They see headlines such as “Trump Sinking” in the New York Times; “Trump Doesn’t Understand Why He’s Losing” (The Atlantic); “Republicans have already decided Trump is going to lose” (Washington Post); “The Coronavirus economic collapse could break Trump” (CNN); and “Trump’s White House gets ready to LOSE” (Daily Mail).

Read them and it looks like Covid-19 spells the end for Donald Trump — and the argument is not hard to make. America has now plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment has surged to a post-war record of almost 15%. More than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs in just three months while nearly 84,000 have died from a virus that has been poorly managed. Trump’s approval ratings are slipping. And of the 50 most recent polls, he has only led his Democrat challenger, Joe Biden, in one.

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Biden is not only averaging a comfortable 4-point lead nationally, but has also been ahead in many of the recent swing state polls in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And then there is the point about the big Trump rallies, which some have argued were central to allowing the incumbent to win these states in the first place: there probably won’t be any this time, for obvious reasons. I don’t know about you but I cannot see thousands of Americans flooding to mass rallies any time soon.

All of this explains why legendary Democrat strategist James Carville recently claimed that Trump has “no chance” at the election. “This whole thing is just like a crumbling empire right before your eyes”, said Bill Clinton’s former chief strategist, who went on to claim that Trump’s advisors know they will lose and are now only in the race for the money.

If this is right, then Trump is destined to become the first one-term President since George H.W. Bush and only the third since 1945, the other being Jimmy Carter (not including JFK, who was assassinated and Gerald Ford, who took over from Nixon and was never elected).

But is all of this right?

I don’t share Trump’s politics, but as a political analyst, I do think that we should heed the lesson of the past decade and challenge conventional wisdom a little harder.

Already, there is lots of talk about how economic crises hurt incumbents and help challengers. The obvious examples are Carter in 1980, the first George Bush in 1992 and then heavy Republican losses in 2008 in the middle of the finance crisis.

But are these really comparable? Is what is unfolding in America (and elsewhere) a ‘normal’ recession?

Analysts are already using models that treat this downturn like any other. But on the ground, I suspect that most ordinary Americans do not see this as a normal recession. On the contrary, and as pollster Nate Silver has pointed out, they probably view this as something that is more akin to a “wartime economy”, as opposed to an economy that has been poorly managed by an irresponsible and incompetent incumbent. It is also a crisis that quite clearly started outside of America.

The idea that Trump might not be blamed in the way that an incumbent usually would be is backed up by data. Look at the polls, and you find that the president’s numbers are actually not that bad.

Since the crisis erupted, his approval ratings have certainly slipped a little. But they are now basically back to where they were shortly before Christmas. And if you look under the bonnet you find a lot of variation; nationally, he might be on 44-46% but no fewer than 91% of Republicans say they approve of his presidency. Last week, the pollsters Ipsos reported that while only 42% approve of Trump as president, when it came to the economy and jobs his ratings were noticeably higher — 51% and 52%, respectively.

Perhaps his handling of Covid-19 is what matters?

Maybe, but again if you look at last week’s data, while only 44% of Americans approved of how Trump is handling the crisis, this figure jumps to 52% among whites, 76% among self-described conservatives and 88% among Republicans, all of whom are critical to his re-election hopes. Partisanship, as they say, is one hell of a drug.

Nor is there much evidence that the unfolding economic crisis is translating into an in-built advantage for Biden.

“It’s the economy, stupid” is the immortal line that Carville and Clinton used to win the presidency. But when Americans are asked whether they think their economy would get better or get worse if Biden were in the White House, only 30% say ‘better’ (and 38% say ‘worse’). The equivalent figures for Trump are 36% and 35%.

Last week, another survey found that just one in three Americans feels confident in Biden’s ability to handle the worst economy since the Great Depression, and then this week polling by CNN suggests that while Biden still leads Trump nationally he is trailing him across more than a dozen battleground states, where voters give Trump significant 17-point lead over Biden on the economy.

Sure, these might be outlier polls. And we should always treat polls with reasonable caution. But I do think that they are picking up on something significant — major scepticism about Biden and his ability to be an effective president.

Allegations of sexual harassment and lingering doubts about his mental health might also have something to do with the fact that, nationally, just 41% of Americans think favourably about him, a figure that falls to 34% in the all-important Midwest, a heavily blue-collar region that we were repeatedly told only Biden could win back. Worryingly, his approval ratings are even lower among self-identified independents — just 28% like him.

Compare and contrast Obama’s performance during the unfolding of the Great Recession with Biden’s performance during the unfolding of the Great Lockdown; the one leading the debate and the other  curiously absent.

And Americans seem to have noticed. The fact that only one in three feels confident in Biden’s ability to deal with the coronavirus crisis, while more than two-thirds are ‘uneasy’ or ‘not sure’, should also be ringing alarm bells. These numbers remind me of how the British people viewed the opposition Labour Party at the time of the biggest debate of the day: Brexit. During these big moments of crisis people want a clear, confident and comforting message. If they are unsure about where you stand, or how you will act, then you’ve got problems.

Trump does have a clear pitch. Regardless of its validity he will argue something along the lines of: “Under my presidency the economy was growing, we had one of the longest bull markets in history and the lowest rate of unemployment since 1969. Keep me in office and I will bring it back”. And he will urge Americans to remember what was happening to their pensions and savings during that market rally.

Some readers will inevitably quibble with this, asking who really benefitted in Trump’s economy. But the fact remains that shortly before the crisis exploded more than two-thirds of Americans thought that their economy was ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ good. Trump will urge them to remember this. Biden will hope they forget it.

We also know that when it comes to forecasting the result of presidential elections, while these economic indicators are important, they still only take you about half-way to explaining these outcomes. Other things also matter.

One reason why national populism has been on the rise in recent years is because it has been attacking on two flanks: economy insecurity and cultural insecurity. Liberal progressives tend to only talk about one.

One issue that will also play a key role this year is immigration, which Republicans are a lot more concerned about today than they were four years ago. Inevitably, Trump will pitch to this anxiety by pointing to his recent immigration ban and warning over and over again that Democrats will open the borders. This will, almost certainly, veer into xenophobia but it might also be enough to hold his coalition together.

Turn the clock back to the summer of 2016 and one reason why I argued that Trump was about to pull off a surprise was because of this strong pitch to a loose alliance of blue-collar workers as well as older and affluent social conservatives who shared their values. They wanted to slow the pace of social change, reduce overall levels of immigration and loathed much of the liberal establishment that seemed deaf to these concerns.

Another issue that lies outside of economics, and which has entered the popular psyche, is China.

Politics, in its purest form, is never really about lofty appeals to universal principles. More often than not it is about something else, something more fundamental, potent and darker: the attribution of blame. And who will Trump — and most Americans — blame for this crisis?

Last week, two-thirds of all Americans pointed the finger at China — a view shared by more than half of all Democrats and more than eight out of every ten Republicans. A plurality also said that their country should take action to punish China for the pandemic, which was followed by Republican lawmakers introducing a bill that seeks to impose sanctions on China if it does not cooperate with an investigation into the pandemic, release democratic activists and close its wet markets.

American views of China were already deteriorating before the crisis but since the arrival of Covid-19 something has certainly changed. As an array of different surveys and polls suggest, Americans have become far more convinced that China poses a “major threat” (62% think so), have become more likely to hold unfavourable views of China (66% now are) and are more likely to say they have no confidence in President Xi (71% have no confidence). Nearly three-quarters want their country’s relationship with China to change.

These views cross traditional party lines; they cannot be dismissed as the ramblings of a loony fringe. Disliking China is quickly becoming one of only a few things that appears to unite most Americans. They want to talk about localising or near-shoring supply chains and they have begun to think about China in a way that they have not had to think about any other power since the end of the Cold War: as a serious, systemic threat.

Liberals are quick to lampoon Trump’s “economic nationalism”. But advocates of free trade should remember that our post-Covid world is one in which a large majority of Americans — 75% to be exact — think that their country should end its dependence on China for key goods, such as medical supplies. The Commerce Department rolling out tax incentives for businesses to return to America is a sign of things to come.

There is a button here to be pressed and let’s not kid ourselves: we all know that Trump is going to press it. Some commentators will dismiss this as pandering to xenophobia and Trump will probably prove them right. But this should also not distract us from the point that there is still a legitimate debate to be had about China, its role in this crisis and in the global order more generally. Democrats will need to somehow engage with this debate while navigating a populist who ignores the normal rules of debate.

This helps to explain why Biden has also toughened his line on China and why, most likely, we will witness a verbal arms race in terms of who can be most ‘anti-China’. Trump will inevitably claim that he got there first and that Democrats were slow to recognise the threat. “Voters prefer the original to the copy”, as French populist Jean-Marie Le Pen put it.

Listen to podcasts around the Trump campaign — which talk of “Beijing Biden” and the “CCP-friendly candidate” — and it is pretty clear what the strategy this autumn will be.

So, while there is an emerging consensus around Trump’s impending defeat, a view that draws a crude and simplistic line from economic recession to defeat, I think that this election is still a coin-toss. In fact, if the election were held tomorrow then I would probably gamble on Trump to win. Just like four years ago, we have more than a few reasons to be sceptical of Groupthink. Democrats should not get complacent: they are in for the fight of their lives.