This result has profound implications for the presidential race, and not just because of the fact that if the public is pleased with the current president they seldom elect someone from the other party to replace him. It’s about two basic pictures of America and the world, one that says things are going pretty well, and another that says things are so miserable that electing Donald Trump is not a crazy thing to do.
Even if Trump were not a bigoted misogynistic con artist, electing him would still represent a substantial risk, simply because he has no experience in government or interest in policy. Only in the context of a truly desperate situation, in which the electorate believes that radical change is necessary, does that risk seem worth taking. So there’s a logic to the nightmarish picture Trump paints of America, where nobody has a job, nothing works, we lose at everything, crime is out of control, and terrorists are probably going to kill your children on their way home from school today: If it were any less awful, voting for someone like Trump would be ridiculous.
To be sure, millions of people have accepted that portrait Trump has painted. But Obama’s healthy approval ratings show that they’re a minority, and it appears that most Americans accept the basic story Democrats are telling. That story says that while there are certainly steps we can take to improve the economy, overall it’s doing quite well, with unemployment below five percent, incomes rising, poverty falling, and inflation all but non-existent. It says something similar on issues like health care: Yes, there are problems like rising out-of-pocket costs, but the Affordable Care Act has done a great deal of good by driving down the uninsured rate to all-time lows and what we should do is fix the problems that remain.
Internationally, the Democrats’ story says that even taking account of the catastrophe in Syria, if you look elsewhere the world is pretty peaceful. ISIS is on its way to defeat, the Iran nuclear treaty is doing what it was supposed to, a historic new climate accord is about to take effect, and though there will continue to be trouble spots and challenges, the world is hardly spinning out of control.
There’s only so long you can deny these facts, and the problem Republicans face is that because of their candidate they can’t merely argue that things aren’t great — they have to say that we’re living in post-apocalyptic hellscape. There was an interesting exchange between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in Tuesday’s debate, where Kaine pointed out that 15 million jobs had been created since the bottom of the Great Recession, and Pence shook his head and said, “Senator, you can roll out the numbers and the sunny side, but I got to tell you, people in Scranton know different. People in Fort Wayne, Indiana, know different. I mean, this economy is struggling.”
I found it strange that Pence would characterize the second-largest city in his state as struggling, so I looked it up, and unemployment in Fort Wayne was 4.3 percent in August, a bit under the national average. Seems like it’s a great time to find a job in Fort Wayne! If you asked Pence, he’d no doubt say that’s because of his strong conservative leadership and Barack Obama has nothing to do with it.
This is the GOP quandary: Republicans can’t just say things should be going better, they have to say everything is awful. And if most Americans don’t see that in their own lives and their own communities, electing Donald Trump looks like a serious risk.
There are a lot of Republicans who say that if the GOP had nominated a different candidate, he’d be crushing Hillary Clinton in the polls right now. That’s possible. But let’s compare Obama’s approval ratings to the way Americans felt about the president right before other elections. I took Gallup approval data from the first week in October (or as close as I could find) and made this graph:
Only twice has the incumbent president’s approval been over 50 percent at this point and his party not won the election. The first was in 1960, and the second was in 2000, where Al Gore actually won the popular vote but George W. Bush prevailed.
Let’s think about the 2000 election as a comparison to this one. We remember that as a quiescent moment, when everything seemed fine and the public didn’t perceive that the election had enormous stakes. In that context, the Republicans’ argument boiled down to, “Let’s do things a little differently.” Bush portrayed himself as an affable guy who would come to Washington, institute some reforms here and there, and get along with everybody. He wasn’t promising radical change, even if in many ways that’s what he delivered. So just under a majority of the voters said, “Sure, why not give this guy a shot — what’s the worst that could happen?”
If this year the Republicans had nominated a more traditional candidate in the mold of Mitt Romney or John McCain who could have made the same kind of argument Bush did, they probably would be having more success. Would it be enough to win? We’ll never know for sure, but it would almost certainly have been very close, just like 2000 was. But instead, they nominated someone whose essential argument is, “Let’s just blow the whole thing up, because we’re all screwed anyway” — or, as he said to African-Americans, “What do you have to lose?”
Their response was, “Actually, we have plenty to lose, especially if we make you the president.” At the moment, it looks like the broader electorate may be thinking about things the same way.