Make America acceptable again
To understand the forthcoming American presidential election, let us first bear in mind a story from the re-election of president Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Although Wilson prevailed nationwide, he lost his home state of New Jersey. He did so, at least in part, because New Jersey voters were scared.
That summer there had been an unusually high number of shark attacks in the waters off New Jersey. This, the political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen argue in their book Democracy for Realists, caused sufficient alarm in New Jersey to change public sentiment and tip the election in that state away from Wilson. He bore no responsibility for the sharks but was in some inchoate sense blamed for their actions anyway. A reminder, then, that politics is always local and usually irrational.
Sharks are not the only actors; Bartels and Achen find that natural disasters such as floods or drought have a comparable impact on voter behaviour. Incumbent politicians are punished for disasters for which they bear no responsibility and which they, plainly, cannot control.
This, then, is an unpropitious moment for Donald Trump to be seeking re-election. The shock of his victory four years ago - I plead guilty to the charge of discounting or at any rate underplaying its likelihood right up to, and including, election night itself - tempts us to over-learn the lesson of that startling, even horrific, result. Having under-estimated Trump four years ago, we now risk over-estimating him in 2020.
Since the second world war, presidential politics has typically operated on an eight-year cycle, alternating between periods of Democratic and Republican ascendancy. In that period, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush are the only presidents to lose bids for re-election (Lyndon Johnson did not seek the 1968 Democratic nomination and Gerald Ford was not elected in the first place). This is, to be sure, a small sample size and therefore something to be treated with caution. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that Trump’s defeat would in ordinary circumstances be considered unusual.
But as we all know, these are not usual circumstances. Trump’s victory in 2016 was less an endorsement of his own candidacy than, in the crucial swing states which mattered most, a rejection of Hillary Clinton and, by extension, a coastal liberalism deemed out of touch with the cultural and economic concerns of ‘ordinary’ voters. Perhaps so, though it merits remembering not only that Clinton won the popular vote but that this definition of ‘ordinary’ defaults to the assumption that white, usually male, often non-graduate, voters are America’s ordinary. That, as it has become fashionable to say, is an increasingly problematic assumption. The protestors and activists taking to American streets this week are a much broader, more diverse, selection of the American electorate than was the case in the 1960s.
Still, ‘Make America Great Again’ was a campaign slogan well designed to nurse and encourage a sense of cultural grievance. To win a second term, however, the promise of MAGA must be fulfilled. Re-election must point to the progress made and the fierce urgency of preventing it being squandered by the election of the rival party: ‘Don’t Let Them Ruin It’.
Ronald Reagan put it more elegantly than that. In 1984, his re-election campaign’s most famous television advertisement claimed, “it’s morning again in America”. Four years removed from the “malaise” of the Carter years, the United States was “prouder, better, stronger” than ever. Greatness was being restored and only the election of Walter Mondale could threaten that progress.
Well, it is no longer morning in America. Rather, there is a sense of it being twilight. Far from Making America Great Again, Trump’s toxic combination of weakness and incompetence has deprived the United States of leadership – in both a practical and a moral sense – at a time when it sorely and plainly needed it.
Until a few months ago, his re-election prospects depended on fealty to his personal brand – Own the Libs! – and a buoyant economy. That could, once, have been enough. Many voters are generous, forgiving, souls, and Trump’s deficiencies – so obvious to his critics – could be overlooked if the sun was shining. But – I put this mildly – it is not shining.
When troubles come, they arrive in numbers. The handling of Covid-19 has, by any reasonable estimation, been a disaster. Infection rates are already beginning to rise in several states that have rushed back to a pseudo-normality. This is not even a ’second-wave’; it is still the first. The race to reopen is driven by economic concerns but there is little evidence the American economy will recover in time to save Trump.
On the contrary, these are the crucial months. Voter perceptions are typically formed in the six months before a presidential election, not the few weeks of the official campaign itself. In ordinary time, these economic fundamentals are the best predictor of an election result; the actual campaigns and the identity of the candidates themselves have only a small impact on the race. They can make a difference - and a vital one at that - in close elections but they are not usually the determining factors.
And it should be noted that at present this is not a close race. A string of recent national polls suggests Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, now enjoys something in the order of a 10-point lead nationwide. Even if you allow that the intricacies of the electoral college give Trump a two- or three-point de facto advantage and even if you allow that the polls could be over-estimating Biden’s support, the fact remains that Biden is in the lead. His polling advantage it greater than that enjoyed by Hillary Clinton at any point in the 2016 cycle.
A series of state polls confirm this. Biden is ahead – or at worst tied – in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and North Carolina. Tellingly, the Trump campaign has recently purchased advertising time in Ohio and Iowa, states without which the incumbent cannot win. Two-thirds of American voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Joe Biden is not the kind of candidate about whom many people dream. He is not a vessel for your hopes of a country transformed. In the initial stages of the Democratic primary that seemed a significant weakness for Biden; it turned out to be his greatest strength. You beat fire with water, not fire of your own and, after the chaos and abrasiveness of the Trump years, ’normalcy’ has a greater appeal than the counter-revolution promised by Bernie Sanders.
None of which makes Biden a sure thing but, as matters stand, he is running significantly ahead of where Clinton was four years ago. Donald Trump is not responsible for Covid-19 but he is responsible for the federal government’s response to it. A swaggering tough guy must on occasion be expected to back his talk with action and who can be surprised Trump - the greatest aesthetic blot on the White House in living memory – has failed to rise to this, or indeed any other, occasion?
Perhaps doubling down on America’s culture wars will save Trump. It is the best, last, card he has. But right now, even though the smart money lost with Clinton four years ago, the smart money should still be backing Joe Biden this time around. Voters may be irrational but they are not mugs; they can see that America isn’t working. They will, I think, do something about that.
Written by Alex Massie
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each Wednesday. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We do hope you enjoy his work.
11 June 2020