Only two of the past six presidents before Donald Trump lost their bids for re-election. That’s good news for him.
But their stories are bad news for him, too.
In their final years in office, both of those presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, experienced a noticeable slide in popularity right around the time — early May through late June — that Trump hit his current ugly patch.
According to Gallup’s ongoing tracking of the percentage of Americans who approve of a president’s job performance, Carter’s and Bush’s numbers sank below 40 percent during this period and pretty much stayed there through Election Day. It’s as if they both met their fates on the cusp of summer.
And the cusp of summer has been a mean season for Trump, who has never flailed more pathetically or lashed out more desperately and who just experienced the Carter-Bush dip. According to Gallup, his approval rating fell to 39 percent in early June from 49 a month earlier. So if Carter and Bush are harbingers, Trump is toast.
He’s toast by other measures as well. Two much-discussed polls by The Times and Siena College that were published last week suggested that in key swing states, as well as nationally, he’s the limping dead, trailing Joe Biden by double digits. That assessment is mostly consistent with other modeling and projections since the economy turned on Trump.
According to some abstruse algorithm that The Economist regularly updates, he has only a one in 10 chance of winning the Electoral College and thus the presidency. According to a historical averaging of election-year polls by the website FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s lead over Trump right now is the biggest at this stage of the contest since Bill Clinton’s over Bob Dole in 1996, when Clinton won his second term.
Trump’s response? To set himself on fire.
His gratuitously touted instincts are nowhere to be found, supplanted by self-defeating provocations, kamikaze tantrums and an itchy Twitter finger. There’s a culture war for him to exploit, but instead of simply pillorying monument destroyers, he created his own living monuments: a white supremacist astride a golf cart in a Florida retirement community and a pistol-toting Karen shouting at peaceful Black protesters from the stoop of her St. Louis manse. As a statement of values, it’s grotesque. As a re-election strategy, it’s deranged.
“Trump is in a deep hole and his reaction is to keep digging,” David Axelrod told me. “What he’s doing is shrinking his vote to excite his base.” But that base is almost certainly not big enough to carry him to victory.
Of course, November is still plenty distant. “Nobody could have predicted what these last four months would bring,” Axelrod said. “We can’t predict what the next four months will bring.”
And Trump has at times seemed to live beyond the laws of political gravity, untethered by precedents and unanswerable to pundits. For instance, his approval rating since his inauguration has been consistently — and unusually — low, lingering between 35 percent and 45 percent, according to Gallup.
But his situation appears to be dire — direr than Democrats allow themselves to admit. They remember how they counted their chickens last time around and got totally plucked.
“Every Democrat rightly has 2016 PTSD,” Lis Smith, a communications strategist who has advised Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Cuomo, told me. “But right now? You can’t imagine normal suburban people voting for Trump anymore. He has really, really alienated everyone but the MAGA true believers.”
Additionally, 2016 is a possibly irrelevant point of reference, for reasons that become clearer all the time. I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if Biden stages a rout in November — or at least as much of a rout as this era of hyperpartisanship permits — and the commentary afterward casts Trump’s reign not as some profound wake-up call but as a freak accident made possible by a perfect storm of circumstances.
In fact that commentary has started. In The Washington Post last week, Matt Bai astutely observed that even as Trump won the presidency, most Americans rejected the core tenets of his campaign and viewed him darkly. His margin of victory “came from reluctant voters who almost certainly thought they were voting for the losing candidate, and who felt confident he’d make a terrible president,” Bai wrote.
“It was mostly about the intense emotions triggered by his opponent,” he added, referring to Hillary Clinton. “In the only national referendum on Trumpism since 2016 — the midterm cycle two years later — the president’s party was resoundingly rejected.”
There are many ways in which the last presidential election doesn’t apply to this one, when Trump faces a much tougher challenge. In 2016, an unusually high percentage of voters, especially in such pivotal states as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, told pollsters that they’d decided whom to vote for in the final week. And these late deciders favored Trump.
That could mean that many of them didn’t have an entirely fixed opinion of him. But just about every American does now. He has dominated the media like none of his recent predecessors, with flamboyant behavior that repels ambivalence.
His luck with late deciders in 2016 could also speak to Clinton aversion. But there’s no comparable Biden aversion. If many voters can’t bring themselves to adore him, they also can’t bring themselves to abhor him.
And Trump and his minions know it. That’s why, instead of simply portraying Biden as some lefty nightmare, they’re claiming that he’s so mentally diminished that he’ll be the puppet of progressive extremists.
“Biden is just not scary enough for Trump,” Axelrod said. “He’s culturally inconvenient.”
And because of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has less time and fewer ways to change the dynamics of the presidential race than he would have had in some other year.
The party conventions, for example, may have less impact than ever: They’re not rival shows but rival coronavirus narratives, with the Democrats planning a largely virtual event. Also, more Americans than usual are certain to vote early, by mail, possibly casting ballots even before the expected Trump-Biden debates.
“If somebody were asking me for advice on an October surprise, I’d tell them to do it in September,” Doug Sosnik, a longtime Democratic strategist, told me.
Meantime we’ve had other surprises, all cutting against Trump. There was the early June surprise of tear gas being used on peaceful protesters so that he could walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op; the mid-June surprise of John Bolton’s book; the late June surprise of The Times’s scoop that Trump was informed about Russian bounties on American soldiers but didn’t pay attention or care.
The surprises will no doubt keep coming for an administration as steeped in incompetence and corruption as Trump’s. That’s the other thing about chickens: They come home to roost.
Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and me.