Politics & Policy

Why Trump Can Still Win While Losing

(Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
Poll data showing Trump retaining his voters suggest he could hang on despite a mainstream consensus that his presidency is a disaster.

Is anyone surprised by a new ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows Donald Trump is the least popular president approaching 100 days in office since they started taking such surveys? Trump won the office while losing the popular vote and was inaugurated as the least popular new president. Since then, Trump has failed to repeal and replace Obamacare and, among other distractions, has been dogged by publicized palace intrigue in the West Wing and an FBI investigation about collusion with the Russians. But the same poll that puts Trump deep under water compared with every president since Truman also should give his critics pause. In a bifurcated nation where Republicans are seemingly unaffected by the cacophony of disdain thrown at Trump, his ability to hang on to his voters may, as it did in 2016, yet prove decisive in determining the future of his presidency.

Throughout this difficult period during which he has been almost continually blasted by the mainstream media as unprepared and incompetent, his supporters and apologists have continued to point out that Trump’s base is still with him. That point has left his critics unimpressed. Sure, they concede, Trump’s fans are sticking with him now, just as they did when a tape of his admission of sexual assault surfaced and at every point during the 2016 campaign. But as the new poll shows, with only a 42 percent approval rating, he’s losing independents and Democrats at a rate that theoretically dooms any hope that he will be able to garner majority support for any of his legislative projects. That’s why his opponents are not merely fantasizing about impeachment. They’re also increasingly confident of a midterm comeback for the Democrats in 2018 and treat the very notion of Trump securing re-election in 2020 with contempt. But a deep dive into the ABC/WaPo poll should remind us that the same sort of thinking had most pundits convinced Trump couldn’t win in November.

Trump has had no traditional post-election honeymoon. But he has done something remarkable. A stunning 96 percent of those who say they voted for him in 2016 would do so again. This stands in contrast to the buyer’s remorse of Hillary Clinton voters, with 15 percent saying they would not vote for Clinton again if given the chance. Together these numbers explain why the poll shows Trump winning the popular vote in a rematch with the Democratic nominee.

How is that possible with such low popularity ratings for Trump? It all comes down to the stark partisan divide in our current political culture. As was plainly illustrated in 2016, right- and left-leaning voters not only disagree; they also don’t listen to/watch/read the same media and thus draw vastly different conclusions from the same events.

Why are Republicans so pleased with Trump? Justice Neil Gorsuch and a kept promise about the Supreme Court is a big part of it. So, too, are his moves on regulatory reform and his nominating the most conservative cabinet in recent history. A more sensible foreign policy than was anticipated also helps. But the main thing is that whatever they may think of Trump’s character or shortcomings, almost everyone on the right thinks him superior to any possible Democratic president.

This illustrates the Democrats’ dilemma. The Trump “resistance” and its media fellow travelers have largely controlled the narrative about the administration. Each gaffe or blunder has been thoroughly denounced and comprehensively exploited by the Left. That has reinforced the belief of his opponents that Trump is unfit for the presidency. But neither the administration’s problems nor all of the efforts of its opponents have been able to do a thing to undermine the rock-solid backing he gets from Republican voters. It is true that only guarantees him the support of a minority of Americans. But, in the absence of a viable and/or popular alternative, this may mean that what liberals think is a consensus about Trump’s failure is not enough to ensure Democratic victories in 2018 or 2020.

Drilling down further in the poll results reveals that Trump is viewed as out of touch with voters by a 58–38 percent margin. The Republican party is also damned as out of touch by 62–32 percent. But Democrats do even worse at 67–28 percent. Moreover, Trump gets good marks from voters on a number of issues including job creation and even foreign policy in the wake of his attack on Syria.

Events that determine the state of the economy or the possibility of foreign crises will have a decisive impact on future elections. But if opinions about Trump are as set in stone as the latest survey indicates, all the abuse hurled at the president by his opponents, mainstream-media talking heads, and television comedians won’t matter as much as the basic calculus that makes him the lesser of two evils for conservatives.

That means the same basic formula of decisively winning  the white and male vote that delivered the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 could still apply no matter how much his administration is perceived as tottering. Democrats may assert that changing demography will make that a much harder trick to pull off with each passing year. They may also hope that working-class voters will eventually turn on Trump when he is perceived as failing them.

But that hasn’t happened yet, and if the gang tackle of Trump in the media during his first 100 days hasn’t done it, the tipping point may never happen. That’s not what Democrats cheering the thought that Trump is the most unpopular president in history want to hear. Nor should Republicans count on this guaranteeing them success if things continue to head south for the administration. But Republicans may well retain enough of a critical mass of their core voters to hold on to contested congressional districts and Senate seats in 2018. And if the dynamic holds, Trump will have more than a fighting chance to replicate his victory in 2020.

— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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