President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one.
The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won with anything like Trump’s negative net approval rating. Truman won at –6, while incumbents who lost (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush) averaged out at about –13, roughly where Trump’s number is. The presidents who won reelection averaged an approval rating of +23.
Trump doesn’t lead in the polling on any major issues — even his lead on the economy has slipped away.
He is losing in Florida, a must-win state for Republican presidential candidates for roughly 100 years. He is behind in North Carolina, which successful Republicans have won for the last half century. Arizona and Georgia are battlegrounds, and maybe Texas, too. Biden has been reliably ahead in all the Blue Wall states, in large part by eating into Trump’s lead with whites or reversing it.
So far the polling in the race looks more like Bob Dole against Bill Clinton in 1996, when Dole persistently and substantially trailed, than like Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when Trump was behind but by smaller margins than today (and briefly even ahead).
The standard restrictions apply: There are around three months to go, state-level polling was off in 2016, and Trump doesn’t have to make up much ground to be within plausible range of another Electoral College victory.
Still, his situation is dire by any measure. Underlying conditions have turned against him, yet even when the economy was thriving, Trump was in a notably perilous position for a president presiding over peace and prosperity. The fault is not in his stars but in his tweets, erratic behavior, scattershot belligerence, and denials of reality, which had already made him radioactive before what he sometimes calls the “Wuhan flu” ever emerged.
Trump is thin-skinned, self-obsessed, small-minded, intellectually lazy, and ill-disciplined. These never seemed to be great qualities in a chief executive, but they have caught up with Trump over the last six months in particular. They have played into his poor handling of the coronavirus crisis and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. When times became more serious, he remained as unserious as ever.
COVID has been the main factor worsening his political condition. The damage didn’t register in the polls at first. At the end of March and beginning of April, polling had his handling of the crisis in positive territory, a kind of rally-around-the-flag effect. But the effect was smaller and shorter-lived for him than it was for other officials, in the states and abroad. As of early August, the average of the polling at the website FiveThirtyEight has his rating on the crisis at 58 percent disapprove and 38 percent approve. This is a flashing red light given that COVID is the most important issue to voters at the moment, a rare instance when the economy isn’t the top issue in a presidential election.
Of course, none of Trump’s critics predicted that a deadly and economy-flattening contagion would kneecap him in an election year. But his inability to respond adequately to the crisis is the kind of thing that they had in mind when they warned that his character traits were unsuited to the presidency.
Particularly in the circumstances of a novel pandemic, the president needs a process that brings him relevant information, structures his deliberation, allows him to adapt to new developments and correct mistakes, and guides the rest of the government in executing his decisions. And he must act in concert with Congress, governors, public-health experts, business leaders, and others, all of whom have their own roles to play. Nobody could perform this job perfectly.
What we have under Trump is very nearly the mirror image of this ideal. He relies on gut instinct and gets his information from what he happens to see on television or hears from friends. He is extremely disinclined to acknowledge mistakes, process bad news, or think beyond the news cycle. The structure his staff has built around him is designed more to manage his ego and shield him from bad news than to yield wise decisions. His understanding of the relationship between the president and other political actors is rudimentary, causing him to alternate between passivity and assertions of total control.
Even where his administration has acted adroitly — it did work assiduously to bootstrap the initially anemic testing effort to a different level — Trump hasn’t been willing or able to explain it convincingly. He has even complained, in varying tones, that testing should be slowed down because it makes the infection rate look higher.
Trump hasn’t conveyed steadiness, resolve, empathy, and seriousness of purpose to the public — the sort of thing that other political figures, whatever their ideologies and even competence levels, have done to their own benefit — because he does not possess them. He does not give much sign of even recognizing that the public would appreciate them. Reassurance is not his brand. “Fighting” is, and Trump especially enjoys taking public shots at people who, by virtue of their position, cannot fight back. His most successful recent such campaign has targeted Dr. Anthony Fauci — if it counts as success for Trump to persuade many of his supporters to distrust one of his own advisers.
Presidential incumbency is a powerful political asset, especially during a crisis, because a president can speak and act for the country rather than just for his party. But Trump rarely attempts to conform to expectations of presidential behavior, even when it would be useful to him. He often seems interested in the presidency chiefly as a platform to express himself. Although most Americans dislike the personality he puts on display, this tendency was more tolerable when times were good, as they were during the first three years of his presidency.
Trump has always had an ability to direct attention where he wants in a way that other political figures can only covet. These days, he uses that power to elevate issues that obsess him but are well down the list of Americans’ concerns, from the injustice allegedly done to Roger Stone to the unfairness of specific cable-news hosts to him.
Some well-wishers urge Trump to talk about a second-term agenda, but he cannot do it credibly when he has done so little to advance a first-term one. Immigration and health-care plans are always just about to be unveiled, but never are. “Infrastructure week” has been deferred so often as to become a running gag. What he is really offering is four more years of enraging liberals. That promise, at least, is something he can deliver on.
Trump won last time in large part because he was blessed by an equally unpopular opponent in Hillary Clinton. Biden has entered this campaign with a better public image. Trump’s efforts to change it have not been working, in part because he has been attacking Biden from every direction. The Trump campaign would have you believe that Biden was racially insensitive when he talked about “superpredators” in the 1990s, and now wants to abolish the police. Trump’s most consistent argument against Biden has been that the Democrat is declining mentally — which has the disadvantage of lowering expectations for Biden that he can then exceed.
More recently, Trump has been emphasizing the idea that Biden would be a tool of a rising Democratic Left. That’s probably his best line of attack, but it also indicates his challenge. If his campaign has to warn about Biden and Ilhan Omar in its email pitches, it’s because talking about Biden alone isn’t scary enough. And the correct strategic judgment that Trump can win the race only if he makes it a choice between him and Biden rather than just a referendum on his own performance constantly runs into the candidate’s desire to make himself the sun and the moon.
While policy hasn’t been his focus, Trump has done some good and important things with his presidency. He has been much better than conservatives initially expected on abortion and religious liberty, judges, and deregulation. If nothing else, he has represented a reprieve from Hillary Clinton, who, even if she had been a weak president checked by a Republican Congress, inevitably would have scored some progressive victories difficult or impossible to reverse, especially on the Supreme Court.
But a president is more than a collection of policy positions. The office has had, since the beginning, quasi-monarchical trappings, and the president is the American head of state. How the holder of the office conducts himself matters. Peggy Noonan once wrote that no personality is ever perfect enough for the presidency: It exposes the flaws of even the best men. Trump has more flaws than most, and has been less concerned with trying to hide them than any previous occupant, indeed has affirmatively advertised them.
His vices have taken a toll. There are periodic hopes that he will reset and adopt a more disciplined approach, always dashed. In 2016, he did show he could tone it down for brief periods, but he can’t help himself for long. So it is probably only events that can save him now: a waning of the pandemic, a clear economic rebound, a Biden stumble, some other exogenous event. None of this is unimaginable, but obviously none of it is certain — and none of it is in his control, or in the control of the many other Republicans whose political fates are tied to his. Trump won an upset as the de facto challenger four years ago and will have to win a bigger one as the incumbent.
— Rich Lowry is the editor in chief of National Review and Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.
This article appears as “Why He’s Losing” in the August 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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