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The Superposition Candidacy of Donald Trump

By Dhatfield – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4279886

Following up on Paul’s post, I think this piece by John Cassidy pretty accurately describes the state of play. The structural factors look very favorable for Trump.

With nine months to go until the Presidential election, Trump’s celebratory gesture was premature, to say the least. But anyone who wants to deny him a second term needs to be clear-eyed about the challenge ahead. Most Presidents who run for reëlection win. Given his incumbency and an economy that is still growing steadily, Trump has two key advantages on his side. Defeating him is going to take a mighty effort from the Democrats and their supporters—one that combines energy, cleverness, and discipline, rather than the disorganization and dysfunction displayed in Iowa.

Since the Second World War, only three sitting Presidents have run for reëlection and been defeated: Gerald Ford, in 1976; Jimmy Carter, in 1980; and George H. W. Bush, in 1992. Nine of the twelve incumbents who sought reëlection won. In two of the three races where incumbents were defeated, the economy was—or was perceived to be—in serious trouble.

Obviously, there’s some evidence that political polarization has at least partially decoupled the relationship between GDP growth and electoral outcomes. The Gallup poll – which showed Trump at 49% approval – increasingly seems like a bit of an outlier compared (as Cassidy note) to other reputable pollsters. But Trump has been moving steadily up in the 538 weighted polling average. His task in this election will be to scare voters into not wanting to rock the boat on the economy – which will, let’s face it, be easier if his opponents are pitching big and disruptive plans like universal Medicare – while driving down the Democratic nominee’s approval ratings.

It’s already clear there will be massive investments in pro-Trump disinformation in 2020, and I’m not sure that even if the Democrats decide to bring a proverbial gun to the fight, they can gain a symmetric advantage. Here’s my working hypothesis: Trump can win reelection if his approval ratings remain close to his apparent floor among voters. But if his opponent is brought down to that level two problems develop.

One is the unfavorable electoral geography that helped defeat Clinton, The other is that instability of the anti-Trump coalition. If the Iowa debacle has taught us anything, it’s that activists on the left seem pretty vulnerable to the same kind of arguments that helped depress turnout in 2016. Or, at least, willing to amplify them. Meanwhile, like Eric, I’m worried that some of the voters who were crucial to the 2018 midterms – such as centrist suburban voters – are vulnerable to arguments that paint the Democratic nominee, whomever that is, as an extremist. And with Trump’s base solidified, he’s free, as Chris recently discussed, to try to cut into Democratic margins among core constituencies.

Cassidy argues the Democrats are most likely to defeat Trump – and to overcome some of these problems – if they adopt a fairly banal approach, i.e., the one put forth by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in her response to Trump’s State of the Union.

You can argue about whether the sorts of policies that Whitmer lauded are sufficient to rebalance a society that has been so grossly distorted by political corruption, record corporate profits, and rising inequality—this debate lies at the heart of the divide between the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden–Pete Buttigieg wings of the Democratic Party. In terms of campaign strategy, however, keeping the focus on everyday issues and on the mendaciousness of Trump and the Republicans offers the best prospect of defeating them in November. Despite it all, they are still beatable. Democrats need to get their act together and concentrate on the common enemy.

Maybe. It’s certainly no more or less grounded than the other theories of victory being thrown around. More broadly, I’m at where I’ve been for a while: Trump can’t win and he can’t lose. On one side, he’s an incumbent who averages in the lower 40s with net negative approval for basically the entirety of his presidency. On the other side, he’s had the dumb luck to preside over a mature economic expansion, the Fed is doing its best – even if it means very limited room for monetary instruments in the event of a recession – to ensure things stay that way, and 40-45% of the country are so thoroughly propagandized that they’re unreachable.

What say you all?

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