How Trump Could Win Despite Poor Poll Numbers

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By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

Among the categories of professionals that Donald Trump seems intent on obliterating, one is Republican political strategists. The figures who guided his political rise in 2016 have been much diminished, because of criminal indictment (Steve Bannon), criminal prosecution (Roger Stone), incompetence (Brad Parscale), or domestic ruptures (Kellyanne Conway). Trump’s campaign does not have many strategists, nor, it has often seemed, much strategy. At the Republican National Convention, the idea of a second Trump term remained so undefined that the Party did not even offer a formal platform. Asked by the Times’ Peter Baker what he meant to do with a second term, Trump said, “I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.” The President has long succeeded by creating an environment of constant chaos; now his campaign seems to be drowning in it.

The professionals who remain at Trump reëlection headquarters are, with fewer than sixty days until the election, faced with a challenging set of statistics. For months, Joe Biden has led in national polls by at least seven percentage points. In order to win the Electoral College, Trump would need to beat Biden in about half of six swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. He trails Biden in all of them, though the margin in North Carolina and Florida is under two per cent.

About forty-two per cent of Americans approve of the job he has done as President, a number that has remained fairly constant throughout his Presidency, but fifty-four per cent now disapprove, which puts him behind the ratings of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan at similar points in their reëlection campaigns—though well ahead of George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. In other words, Trump looks likely to be either the least popular incumbent to win reëlection in the modern polling era or the most popular one to lose it.

To a younger generation of Republican consultants—those who have made their careers in the rancorous twenty-first century, when there have been sharp partisan divisions and few swing voters—those numbers don’t look so bad. The President, they point out, has consolidated his support among Republicans, roughly ninety per cent of whom say they support him. Nearly every poll that has asked voters whom they trust to manage the economy has found a preference for Trump over Biden, even polls that have Biden up by ten points—which suggests that any skeptical Republicans and independents might be persuaded to vote for Trump because of their perceived self-interest. Then, too, almost all of Trump’s decline has taken place among white voters. Among Latinos—a crucial electoral coalition in the swing states of Florida and Arizona—Trump’s position has held steady and may even have strengthened. Last month, a Public Religion Research Institute poll put his approval rating among Latinos in 2020 at thirty-six per cent, eight points ahead of the percentage of Latino voters that exit polls found he won in 2016. More ominously for Democrats, a recent survey of Florida Hispanic voters found Biden polling eleven points behind Hillary Clinton’s exit-poll results in 2016.

But even these strengths look more suspect on closer examination. They do not, for one thing, account for the immense suffering of the coronavirus pandemic, in which more than a hundred and ninety thousand Americans, many of them elderly, have died, and nearly thirty million people have begun receiving unemployment benefits.

In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by about twenty points among senior citizens; now poll after poll finds that he leads Biden among seniors by only a few points. His strength on the economy may have been buoyed by the temporary unemployment benefits that Democrats demanded this spring, but those benefits have begun to expire, and Republicans have declined to renew them.

I mentioned this discrepancy to Charles Franklin, who runs the highly regarded Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters. Franklin said that he had been looking into that issue: “Race is by far his worst evaluation, both in our data but, more importantly, in national data, and it has been for years.” Franklin found that most Trump voters in Wisconsin don’t support his message on race—not even close. “It is really a rural and a non-college phenomenon,” he said.

This pattern held true even after the violence in Portland and Kenosha. Trump spent days tweeting about “LAW & ORDER!” and claiming that liberal cities needed a strong hand. But the following week, polls suggested that this gambit hadn’t worked. Trump remained behind in every swing state, and an ABC poll found that fifty-five per cent of voters thought that Trump’s response to the protests made the situation worse, while only thirteen per cent thought that it made the situation better.

The raw statistical material is unpromising, but politics, at the highest level, is just talk. Is there a story that Trump could tell that would change something important about the election? Is there a way, in other words, that he might alchemize a likely loss into a win? Just before the Conventions, I called political consultants of every stripe—devoted and dissident Republicans, Democrats, progressives, and independents—to see whether they could imagine a winning path for the President.

Thompson, a native Kansan, came up as a consultant during the Tea Party era, and his view is that the transitions that culminated in Trump’s election were under way a decade before.

What Trump had done in 2016, Thompson said, was to empower the rural Republicans, turning some infrequent voters into conservative culture warriors and even flipping some Democrats.

In general, this is a losing tide for Republicans—the Party washing out from growing metro areas, leaving the suburbs open for Democrats. But Thompson and other Republicans working on congressional elections in 2020 believe that with the right message and a strong enough economy the demographic tide could be slowed. Maybe enough suburban Republicans could be persuaded to vote for their party’s candidate one last time, even though they dislike Trump. Thompson pointed to a couple of clear demographic opportunities. One was non-college-educated Latino men under fifty, who often have socially conservative views and low levels of social attachment—very similar characteristics to the white voters who had followed Trump into his coalition. “And when you ask them in polls, a lot of Hispanics describe themselves as white, even though political professionals say they are Hispanic,” Thompson said. A second, even bigger group is traditional suburban Republicans who do not regularly attend church; many are women in households attached to small businesses, whose social conservatism has helped them resist the general turn toward Democrats.

“And Trump doesn’t disgust them?” I asked.

Pollsters don’t ask about disgust, Thompson said. But those voters didn’t much like him. The shock of the 2016 election came from three demographically similar states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—but Michigan, in particular, seems like it might now be out of reach for Trump. One theory I heard from Republican strategists is that it might be worth thinking about a slightly different map than the one that won Trump the Presidency, in 2016—one in which Trump shifted his focus to Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—which might allow him to run a less traditional campaign. Each of those states has a history of intense partisan conflict—over anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, voting rights in North Carolina, immigration in Arizona, and Bush v. Gore in Florida—that has helped to entrench Party allegiances. Those states have experienced the full rancor of twenty-first-century politics; there is not much middle left to win. A Republican consultant named Jeff Roe distinguished between swing states and “split states,” which suggested a strategy based on turnout rather than persuasion. With split states, “there’s no moderating,” Roe said. “Get seventy million votes.”

The most natural Trump campaign strategy in 2020 would be to deepen that schism, to keep the upper Midwest on his side. Brock McCleary, a Republican pollster based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told me that the “mission” of Republicans in Pennsylvania is still to peel off fifteen per cent of conservative Democrats. “There are still plenty of them throughout the state. They’re getting older, but they’re still here and they’re still voting,” he said. But the polls this summer have generally found Trump’s margins among non-college-educated white voters shrinking rather than expanding. Sean Trende, of Real Clear Politics, who identified the possibility of a latent right-wing vote in the Midwest as early as 2012, told me that he doubted that Trump could do even better among white working-class voters. He explained, “We’re getting to the point where the remaining white voters without college degrees don’t have college degrees because they’re college students, baristas, the kids protesting in Portland. Trump’s not getting them.”

Polls have generally found Trump’s support among white non-college-educated voters softening. This finding was recently echoed by the eminent Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who conducted focus groups this summer with white non-college-educated voters in rural Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three-quarters of whom had voted for Trump in 2016 and less than half of whom planned to do so again. In the sessions, Greenberg wrote, many of the voters spoke of living with disabilities and expressed anxieties about their access to health care. Greenberg wrote, “I have never seen such a poignant discussion of the health and disability problems facing families and their children, the risks they faced at work, and the prospect of even higher health care and prescription drug costs. The final straw was a president who battled not for the ‘forgotten Americans,’ but for himself, the top one percent, and the biggest, greediest companies.”

In 2016, the story of Trump’s coalition was of the rise of the white voter without a college degree—of people who told reporters that they felt they had been left behind, of non-cosmopolitan places with declining economies. Perhaps that was always too narrow a story, but even if it fit the electorate in 2016, it no longer applies to this one. Winning in 2020 would require Trump to replicate elements both of his coalition and of George W. Bush’s—white working-class voters in the upper Midwest and Latino voters and business conservatives in the Sun Belt. In spending the past few weeks warning prosperous suburban voters about disorder in the cities, he was urging them to see themselves in the same way that voters in Midwestern factory towns came to see themselves four years ago—as standing on the wrong side of a demographic wave. His theme can’t be strength, not after the passivity of his response to the pandemic. But he still can convey the sensation of loss.

Part of the experience of the Trump era, for Republican strategists, has been watching their party made over, to conform to a base of white voters who never went to college, and then realizing that the primal fury of the Trump movement characterized more of the Republican base than they had previously suspected—that it moved some moderates and some nonwhite voters, too. Bill Kristol, the Republican eminence who has spent much of the past four years arguing that Trump represents a singular threat to democracy, pointed out to me that those arguments had generally not moved many Republican voters and had been rejected by elected Republicans. About the 2020 election, he sounded relatively sanguine—he thought that Biden was in a very strong position—but about the conservative temperament, he was less reassured. I asked whether he was more or less worried about the conservative preference for a strongman than he was in 2017. “Much more worried,” Kristol said.

Less than sixty days out from the election, Trump, unburdened by official campaign themes or facts, seems to be chasing a surprisingly large and protean coalition. At a Florida rally on Tuesday, Trump, who has long publicly doubted the science of climate change and championed coal mining and fracking, called himself “the great environmentalist” and called on Congress to expand protections against offshore drilling. Roe said that Trump might still be the Party’s best bet to reach conservative Latino and Black voters. He also pointed out that Trump has had more success at bringing white working-class voters into the Party than anyone since Reagan. Even in a pandemic, Trump’s crowds fill stadiums and overflow into parking lots. Roe said, “It’s a startling thing to say, but he’s the best crossover politician Republicans have.”

  • Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote this article for The New Yorker Magazine

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