He apparently came just to spook the Democrats by reminding them of what’s ahead. The most telling moment of the rally might have been when he previewed the nicknames he’d use against likely opponents: Pocahontas. Sleepy Joe. Mini-Mike. And as for Mayor Pete, he just pointed out the difficulty of pronouncing his actual last name.
If you’d been attending Democratic campaign events, however, this seemed superfluous. Everyone has Trump on the brain. Candidates explain, at great length, why they are the one whom Trump fears most in the general election. At question time, the audience offers likely Trump attacks and demands a detailed plan to counter them.
Despite having listened to those questions, they might not understand the biggest problems they face:
The economy isn’t as bad as Democrats think. When the 2019 gross domestic product growth figures came out, the media treatment was generally glum, and rank-and-file Democrats seemed almost cheery. Why, growth was only 2.3 percent for the year! Darn those trade wars! Surely now voters will realize what a disaster Trump is.
Avid Democrats underestimate this strength, because partisanship strongly influences how we see the economy. All their poor-mouthing is, however, unlikely to influence swing voters, who tend to look at their own circumstances, and those of friends and family, not the headlines.
Incumbents presiding over strong economies are very hard to beat. A recession remains possible, of course. But it hasn’t shown up yet, and there’s no particular reason to think that it will hit in time to hamper Trump’s reelection.
Trump is a good public speaker. “Nails on a chalkboard” doesn’t quite capture how educated urbanites feel about Trump’s speaking style. A closer analogy would be having your teeth drilled — without Novocain.
His fragmented sentences, simplistic formulae (see those insults above) and rambling style would drive them wild even if the content and partisan ID were more to their taste. They like “polished” candidates who speak in complete sentences that read well when written down.
Trump, by contrast, sounds like … well, actually, he sounds a lot closer to how most people talk than a “good” public speaker. He speaks in short sentences and uses a small vocabulary. He makes up names for stuff to aid listener memory. He repeats himself. He digresses at random.
Trump talks, in short, the way people talk when they aren’t expecting their words to be written down. This informal approach horrifies those of us who love reading enough to do it on weekends. But one way to think about this is that it is not so much the difference between good and bad; it is the difference between an oral culture and a written one.
What intellectuals think of as a “good speech” is heavily influenced by the fact that for two centuries, most Americans consumed most speeches by reading them. Writing is linear and well organized in a way that oral texts can’t be, and speeches were written to maximize those qualities, rather than what you might call “good orality.”
These days, we are moving back toward an oral culture, because most Americans, like Trump, get most of their news from television, podcasts or Internet video. Trump is better at that format than he sounds to people who actually prefer to read.
Voters aren’t paying much attention to impeachment. It obviously isn’t even a top issue for the attendees at Democratic campaign events — which means it’s definitely not going to move independents or Republicans. Maybe it should. But “should” doesn’t win elections.
The Democratic field is extraordinarily weak. Consider that FiveThirtyEight currently considers Joe Biden the most likely nominee — even though he dropped out of previous primaries before Michael Dukakis and Hillary Clinton, two of the least charismatic candidates in living memory. Both ultimately lost general elections.
Biden couldn’t even beat the JV in his prime, and he is not now in his prime. He is the Democratic Party’s first draft pick only because the Democrats don’t have anyone better.
The race is now down to four geriatrics and three younger candidates whose best hope at this point appears to be that one of the geriatrics can’t make it through the race, opening up space for them to compete.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that any of them would be a better president than Trump. But for all the reasons I’ve listed above, I’m less than sure that any of them will get the chance to prove me right.