The sentiment is expressed in the plaintive question friends and relatives keep asking me: He’s going to get reelected, isn’t he?
The real answer is that it’s certainly possible. But it’s also true that the things that are making many liberals so pessimistic are being misread, or at least overstated. So let’s try to bring a little cool reason to this discussion.
To begin with: Trump retains the support of most Republicans, but he is, as he has always been, quite unpopular. A couple of weeks ago, everyone was talking about how his approval rating was on the rise, but that turned out to be a momentary blip, and a tiny one at that. The latest FiveThirtyEight average puts his approval rating at 43 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. That a president could have an approval rating that low when unemployment is at 3.6 percent and we’re not mired in an unpopular war shows how low Trump’s ceiling of support may be.
And that’s close to what Trump pulls in every general election matchup in polls: somewhere in the mid-40s, no matter which candidate he’s posed against.
But what about that Democratic race? Aren’t they doomed to nominate someone unelectable?
I’m not going to go into which of the candidates is or isn’t electable. What’s more relevant for the moment is that the obsession with electability this year has convinced many Democrats that there’s only one answer to that question, in the form of whoever they decided to support.
And, right now, the most striking thing about national polls of the primary is that no candidate has the support of even a quarter of the electorate. At the moment, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is in front, but he has the backing of only about 23 percent of Democrats, not far from what he got in Iowa and New Hampshire. Which means that things may look bad no matter who you favor.
If one candidate was leading with 40 percent or 50 percent, Democratic voters would be in the process of convincing themselves that candidate could win the general election. But right now, with no candidate getting more than a quarter of the vote, no matter who you support, at the very least you’re terrified they won’t prevail and some other unelectable candidate will be the nominee. That’s enough to make you depressed.
Then we have a collection of factors unrelated to these specific candidates that have the effect of pushing Democrats to despair. The most important may be the searing memory of 2016, when pretty much no one thought Trump would win. The shock of that night and the memory of their overconfidence has led many Democrats to go all the way in the other direction, assuming that Trump will inevitably win in the end. Any momentary glimmer of optimism they might have is quashed by the traumatic memory of that event.
But let’s not forget what an incredible confluence of circumstance it took for Trump to win the electoral college four years ago, despite nearly 3 million more people voting for Hillary Clinton — up to and including now-former FBI director James B. Comey’s 11th-hour intervention which benefited Trump. Might the same thing happen again? It might. But that doesn’t mean it’s likely, let alone certain.
Liberals also tend to get spooked by Trump’s unparalleled ability to command the attention of the news media. But it’s important to remember that when he seizes control of the agenda, it doesn’t mean he’s persuading anyone that he’s right or that they should vote for him. There are plenty of examples of his failure to do so; perhaps most vividly, just before the 2018 midterms he successfully got everyone talking about a “caravan” of invading migrants, which he thought would drum up enough fear to ensure a Republican victory. He was wrong.
Liberals are also forever gripped by the belief that most of the country, especially those “real” (i.e., white, working-class) Americans in small towns and rural areas, hate them and their ideas. The truth, however, is that most of the Democratic agenda is far, far more popular than the Republican agenda. That’s one of the reasons the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections.
Here’s the reality: This is going to be a close election no matter what. Trump could indeed win. But that’s not a reason for Democrats to despair. It’s a reason for them to get to work.