Donald Trump’s 2016 victory caught most people by surprise, including him. The safest position since then has been to assume he will do it again. But there is a point at which once-bitten-twice-shy becomes intellectual abdication.
Most of the numbers, including the Trump campaign’s polls, show him heading for defeat in November. Common sense points the same way. It was one thing for Mr Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton — then America’s most polarising figure. It would be another for him to beat the generally liked Joe Biden, the president having long since surpassed Mrs Clinton’s divisiveness.
Mr Trump’s worsening odds can be gauged by his rising sense of panic. The simplest metric are his tweets, which now average four times as many per day as his first year in office, and almost three times as many in his second year. Twice this year, including on Mother’s Day, Mr Trump tweeted more than 100 times when most of America was asleep.
Although it scarcely seemed possible, their content has also deteriorated. Recent nadirs include Mr Trump’s recurring assertion that Joe Scarborough, the co-anchor of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, murdered a staff member in 2001. Even pro-Trump publications felt obliged to dispute that cartoonishly nasty claim.
But Mr Trump’s most pressing theme — on social media and off — is that his opponents are trying to steal the November election. This deserves some scrutiny. I cannot find an example in any country, including the US, where an elected head of government has claimed their own system is rigged against them.
To be sure, Mr Trump made that allegation as an outsider in 2016 because he was expecting to lose. After taking office, he set up an investigation of his claim that millions of illegal immigrants had voted against him. The inquiry was disbanded in 2018 having found nothing.
It is almost as hard to find instances of leaders trying to shrink voter turnout. That is Mr Trump’s goal for November, which betrays his pessimism about the election. There is no evidence that postal voting benefits Democrats — and some to show it has helped Republicans. Yet Mr Trump is doing everything he can to make life harder for absentee voters.
In an ordinary year, that would be astonishing enough. During a pandemic, it shows clear intent of suppressing the vote. Polling stations are crowded places, which will inhibit many from voting. With some basis Mr Trump is assuming that Democrats will be more worried about the pathogen than Republicans.
Yet there are unmistakable signs that older voters are turned off by Mr Trump’s pandemic record. In late February, Mr Trump had a double-digit lead over Mr Biden among voters aged over 65. Average recent polls showed Mr Biden 10 points ahead.
By psephological standards, this is a tectonic shift. It explains why Florida, where many retirees live and Mr Trump’s primary residence, shows Mr Biden with an average four-point lead. Ditto for Arizona. Mr Biden has clear leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania and a slim one in Wisconsin — the three states that tipped the balance in 2016. Even deeply Republican Georgia and Texas show Mr Biden within striking distance. Were such numbers to hold in November, Mr Trump would lose by a landslide.
Two things could prevent this. The first is Mr Biden. The November election will be a referendum on Mr Trump. All Mr Biden need do is not interrupt the president while he is defeating himself.
That is not as easy as it sounds. Mr Biden suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. So far the coronavirus is playing to Mr Biden’s advantage by keeping him off the hustings. His choice of running mate could also prove tricky. If he picks a centrist, such as Amy Klobuchar, the party’s base might lose enthusiasm. If he chooses a leftwinger, like Elizabeth Warren, the suburban vote could be alienated.
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The second is a dramatic economic rebound. That is what Mr Trump is trying to generate by pushing for an end to social distancing. He is also threatening to move his nominating convention from North Carolina to another state unless its governor agrees to a normal (packed) event.
Here lies Mr Trump’s insoluble dilemma. A short-term rebound would put retired Americans most at risk. Seniors helped put Mr Trump into office. Jeopardising their safety is an odd way of returning the favour.