I still believe no one should presume fairness in this year’s election. Indeed, our best understanding depends on presuming that it won’t be. But it’s worth imagining what our current politics might look like years from now. From a future vantage point, it might be that most people already made up their minds about Donald Trump, and it might be that they made up their minds about him from close to the beginning.
As you know, Trump has never been popular, and his unpopularity has been amazingly stable. The only time his job approval (in the aggregate) fell below the norm of 40 to 44 percent was early last year when he shut down the federal government. The only time his job approval came close to even was in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when polling indicated what some call the rally-around-the-flag effect. Other than that, the electorate’s opinion of him has been remarkably steady despite what he does.
Some people gnash their teeth at the sight of polling unmoved by news of a president extorting a foreign country into an international criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. Some people rend their garments after seeing a major political party with majority control of an anti-democratic institution acquitting the president of treason. These people might be right in believing the US is slouching toward Gomorrah. Then again, maybe Americans have already made up their minds, and there’s almost nothing he can do, or fail to do, that’s going to change how they vote.
Consider today’s tweet-storm in which the president threatened to illegally withhold funding from states issuing mail-in ballots to registered voters in anticipation of the current pandemic forcing voters to stay home on Election Day. What Nevada and other states are considering is perfectly legal, not to mention totally moral, but mail-in voting is bad for Trump, because it overcomes the Republican Party’s carefully constructed state-by-state system of voter suppression. Knowing this, the president did what he has done many times over, especially with respect to the subject of his impeachment. Extortion is in his blood. Mafioso tactics are his go-to. He did it to Ukraine. He’s doing it to the United States. And it’s not going to change minds that are already made up.
Consider also that the new coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, which has killed more than 93,700 people (as of this writing), has moved from the coasts into the heartland, where the president’s support is strongest. Some of my liberal brethren appear to believe Republican voters will think twice before voting for him as they witness firsthand the devastation of the disease. That’s unlikely to happen, but I could be wrong—if Trump’s aggregate job approval falls below 40 percent. If so, we’ll know Americans have not already made up their minds. Suffering can move people to reconsider commitments, but it’s just as likely their suffering affirms them.
Other liberal brethren appear to believe Republican voters will reconsider now that the US economy is in a recession (or a depression, depending on whom you ask). This presumes that material self-interests are stronger than partisan attachments, and that has not been the case for many years. Republican voters believed the economy was terrible under Barack Obama. Their “economic anxiety,” however, went poof in the month leading up to Inauguration Day. Even if they’re jobless and hungry, supporters are likely to believe the economy is jim-dandy, as long as Trump is the president.
The exception to my theory, which threatens to undermine it entirely, is the elderly. Not once in our lifetimes have we seen support for a Republican president go soft in the spring of an election year. Not once. And by “soft,” I mean a 14-point drop among voters 75 years of age and older, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s polling.
No Republican has even won reelection without Florida.
When we look back at this moment years from now, it might be clear by then that the only Americans willing and able to change their minds about Donald Trump were seniors who rarely change their minds about anything, and they changed their minds not out of concern for their material interest, but because Trump was ready to sacrifice them. Lots of old people live in Florida, and no Republican has even won reelection without it. A new poll found Donald Trump behind Joe Biden by nearly five points.
My point in his humble exercise isn’t to predict the election’s outcome. Instead, it’s to understand the most constant aspect of an otherwise chaotic presidency, which is Trump’s unpopularity, and why that constancy remains so despite extortion, treason and other manifestations of a criminal mind. Yes, it could be that the American people just don’t care anymore. But it’s equally plausible that they do care, and that there’s nothing this president can do to change a majority of minds made up a long time ago.
Does that mean he’ll lose?
That question presumes a fair election.