The Slatest

Introducing the Trump Vincibility Watch: Do White Power and Potential Treason Make for a Good Campaign Pitch?

Not as much as they used to, apparently!

Trump, wearing a white polo shirt and a red hat that says 45, holds a newspaper as he walks from an SUV onto the White House grounds
Donald Trump returns to the White House on Sunday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Trump Vincibility Watch is a subjective and speculative estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump actually loses the 2020 election, or in other words, that he suffers the consequences of his actions for the first time in his life rather than wriggling out of yet another jam (see: the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine scandal, the 2016 popular vote, his six bankruptcies, and everything else).

Donald Trump got some bad polling news last week. No, correct that. He got a lot of bad polling news last week, to the extent that he’s now trailing Joe Biden by 9.4 points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. According to the same site, he’s even trailing Biden by 5 points in Arizona, which has gone blue in a presidential election only once (during Bill Clinton’s 1996 landslide) in the last 70 years. Things are looking so bad for Trump right now that the only premise that leftist-trolling National Journal pundit Josh Kraushaar could come up with for his latest troll column is that Biden’s electoral coalition appears to be so large and inclusive that he might not feel obligated to pander to the left as president.

So what?, many Democrats who remember election night 2016 are nonetheless asking themselves. Who cares about polls and pundits? A polling lead, a pundit consensus, and 25 cents will buy you a local call on the pay phone down by Edith’s five-and-dime. (These are older-skewing pretend Democrats.) Well, here are a few reasons to believe that, this time, it’s real.

1. The polls are different. As FiveThirtyEight notes, Biden has a bigger national lead than Hillary Clinton ever did (hers, on Election Day, was 3.8 points). His lead is also large enough at the moment to overcome the advantage that Trump gains from the Electoral College. While Clinton won the popular vote thanks to her large margins of victory in places like California, Trump triumphed in the Electoral College on the basis of extremely narrow wins in swing states. But Biden currently has leads in tipping point states like Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin that are outside the margin of error. As various other polling geeks have noted, polls that predicted big Democratic wins in 2018 were generally accurate; there does not appear to be a nationwide cohort of secret underground MAGA voters who appear only on Election Day. (That said, as Nate Cohn pointed out in the New York Times, polls still underpredicted Republican support in 2018 in a few states, so if the race tightens up, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think Trump could pull off surprise wins here and there.)

2. Even Trump is admitting the possibility that he’s losing. No one has historically been more convinced that polls understate Donald Trump’s support than Donald Trump, and it is his public-facing position that the New York Times Upshot and Fox News polls that showed him down by double digits nationally are “fake” and “a joke.” He came closer to acknowledging his general unpopularity than he ever has, though, in a June 26 interview with Sean Hannity, morosely ruminating to the Fox News host that Biden “is going to be president because some people don’t love me, maybe.” Politico also reports that “behind the scenes … the president has grudgingly conceded that he’s behind, according to three people who are familiar with his thinking.” If a Trump-unfriendly reality is so real that Trump admits it’s not fake … it’s probably real. As they say.

3. He’s only got one approach to campaigning, and it’s not working. Trump believes that he won in 2016 by ignoring “political correctness” and appealing to Americans’ gut-level beliefs. (This is, unfortunately, accurate, insofar as he leveraged anti-immigrant sentiment, other issues of “white resentment,” anti-Hillary sexism, and the media’s obsession with the campaign events at which he developed those themes to reach and win older white voters in the Rust Belt.) There is, as such, only one page in the Trump playbook: saying inflammatory things on Twitter and at rallies. But in part because of Trump’s election, white voters with college degrees have become more liberal on race than they were four years ago, while the Democratic nominee is an old, moderate white man who does not frighten old, moderate white men. Tweeting a video of one of your supporters yelling the phrase “white power,” as Trump did this weekend, is not a winning move in this environment. It’s also harder to get people to come to rallies when standing next to a stranger might mean acquiring a fatal disease, which means that, when you do hold them, you end up with press coverage that emphasizes how few people want to come to your rallies.

4. He’s bad at being president. In 2016, the American economy was “good” by historic standards (though systemically unequal, racist, etc.) and Trump was running as an alternative to a status quo figure about whom many Americans had already formed an ineradicably negative opinion. This year, Trump has to run on his record of being president, and he has to continue being president during the campaign. By the objective standards of whether Americans are healthy and employed, he is doing a very poor job. This week, meanwhile, the leading Beltway news story is that he appears to have ignored a report that his old friends in Russian military intelligence may have paid bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This apparent inaction has been criticized by other Republicans, and it has potential to metastasize into a long-term, oxygen-sucking scandal involving hearings and bombshells and such. Speaking of which:

5. The idea that his loss is so certain that he might drop out of the race, while still a very long long shot, is ever so gently bubbling up out of the netherworld from which “buzz” is born. Things don’t always happen for entirely linear, logical reasons. Sometimes someone just says something, and then someone else picks it up, and eventually the idea has so much “momentum” that people in charge think they need to do something about it, just because everyone else is doing it, and all of a sudden you can’t find a plastic straw anywhere even though banning them has only a negligible effect on the environment. (A recent political example of this is when Democrats delayed the start of Trump’s impeachment trial for several weeks for no other reason than a law professor suggested it and it seemed like a good idea.) On Friday, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough speculated that Trump might drop out of the presidential race if he didn’t think he could win; over the weekend, Fox Business macho man Charles Gasparino reported that anonymous “GOP operatives” were discussing the possibility too. At this stage, all that we have are wisps of hypotheticals chasing themselves in a circle, but if the polls continue to be bad, and the rallies empty, and the news cycles gruesome, more pundits will start talking about Trump dropping out, and more Republican donors will worry if they should spend their money on a lost cause, and more Republican politicians will wonder if the MAGA brand is the right fit for their future ambitions.

Maybe that won’t happen. But I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that some politics editor, somewhere, has already assigned a story about Mike Pence and Nikki Haley making “quiet moves” to “distance themselves” from the president.

If the election were held tomorrow, assuming the pandemic-ravaged nation were able to hold an election at all, every available indicator says Trump would lose. But November is more than four months away, and many things can change between now and then. Theoretically, some of those things might be bad for Joe Biden instead of bad for Trump. Verdict: Right now, Trump is SLIGHTLY NON-INVINCIBLE.

A "Trump Vincibility Watch" graphic of six rows containing the letters T-R-U-M-P. The row that is highlighted reads "RUMP," with a hand removing the T
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo by Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images.

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