Donald Trump is very, very bad at politics. In 2016, he lost the popular vote in both the GOP primaries and the general election. His net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) in FiveThirtyEight's average went underwater on his 15th day in office, and has remained right around -10 ever since. He's hemorrhaged support among women, college-educated whites and even white Evangelicals. And he's trailed Biden--and, during the Democratic primaries, all of Biden's rivals--for the entirety of the race. He's currently by a historic margin for an incumbent.
In 2016, he got very, very lucky. With 45 percent of the GOP primary vote, he beat a fractured, hapless field of establishment candidates who never figured out how to deal with him. Democrats nominated a woman whom the right had spent 30 years softening up and was widely distrusted by the left flank of the Democratic Party. A credulous media that thought he had no chance of winning harped on every baseless Clinton controversy his campaign stirred up. Wikileaks dribbled out his opponents' hacked emails for the final six weeks of the campaign. And then, 11 days before voters headed to the polls, then-FBI Director James Comey delivered the coup de grâce by violating FBI protocols and announcing that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails, which proved decisive in the Rustbelt. It was a perfect storm.
Now, as he seeks re-election amid a historic plague and after losing more jobs than any president on record, Trump and his party are clearly overwhelmed. They can't run on their record--at least not without departing from reality-- so they've been trying desperately to get the old band back together and recreate the conditions that snuck them into the White House the last time.
It's not going well.
Trump and his supporters had pinned their hopes on reprising Comey's role in 2016 on an investigation into the roots of the Russia probe by US Attorney John Durham yielding arrests before the election. Last week, Trump was reportedly apoplectic when Attorney General Bill Barr announced that Durham would not wrap up his work before November 3. And he wasn't alone. "This is the nightmare scenario," a GOP congressional aide told Axios. "Essentially, the year and a half of arguably the number one issue for the Republican base is virtually meaningless if this doesn't happen before the election."
Then on Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post tried to get the kind of traction former Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer enjoyed with his 2016 book, Clinton Cash, which spawned the now-thoroughly-debunked Uranium One "controversy." This story, which alleges that emails prove Hunter Biden leveraged his father's connections for something or another--something Burisma-related--comes complete with an email server, or at least a hard-drive.
But while The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN all laundered and added credibility to Uranium One, this one's landed with a thud. The Times' Maggie Haberman earned so much scorn on social media for credulously tweeting about the story that she later tried to redeem herself by noting some of its obvious flaws and Facebook limit its reach on their platform.
Things that are sketchy in NYP story on Hunter Biden - why wasn’t this in Ron Johnson report if it’s been in posses… https://t.co/S0IQJu3ezA— Maggie Haberman (@Maggie Haberman)1602680818.0
This followed a similarly high-profile faceplant by Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley when they tried to weaponize Hunter Biden's work with Burisma and ended up on the defensive after taking fire for disseminating Russian disinformation.
Also on Wednesday, an investigation into Obama officials "unmasking" the identities of Americans caught in foreign surveillance operations that the right has long promised would blow the lid on their silly "Obamagate" conspiracy theory ended with a fizzle when John Bash, the US attorney William Barr tapped to oversee the probe (who left the DOJ last week), not only failed to bring charges against anyone but didn't issue a report.
That was an unhappy end for a line of attack that the GOP has been developing for years, most famously with Rep. Devin Nunes' infamous "memo" that was chock full of nonsense and widely greeted with appropriate derision.
The big difference in how these contrived scandals played out is that in 2016, they were treated like legitimate controversies while in 2020, the regime's clumsy attempts to drop contrived opposition research into the race, some of it originating with adversarial foreign actors, has become a persistent storyline in itself.
And of course, all of this follows Trump's impeachment for attempting to coerce the Ukrainian government to lend weight to a line of attack that has gone nowhere. That's a big difference from 2016, when he asked Russia to produce Clinton's emails, they obliged and he won the Electoral College.
The efforts by Trump and his allies to recreate the conditions that allowed him to sneak into the White House despite winning almost 3 million fewer votes than Clinton were always doomed to fail. Voting for Trump in 2016 was an experiment. Many believed he'd take the job seriously, and be constrained by his staff and Republican lawmakers. Some bought his promises on trade and immigration.
This time, he is a known quantity. Even before the pandemic, voters had seen what Trump's style of governance looked like and most of them don't like it. Now, with the death toll resulting from his bungling of Covid-19 approaching a quarter-million, nobody who wasn't already supporting him could even care about investigations stemming from the last election or Joe Biden's son acting like a typical child of DC's power elite.
Trump needed to reach beyond his base this year, and he's way behind in this race because it turns out that he doesn't have a different set to play and is just recycling his old hits.