The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elections are an unpopularity contest. And Trump knows how to win them.

President Trump arrives at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

A lot of writers like to dwell on the things President Trump doesn’t know, such as the location of Myanmar and the proper verb tense for discussing Frederick Douglass. Democrats hoping to defeat him in next year’s election had better pay attention instead to the things he does know.

Trump knows in his bones the central fact of two-party presidential politics. Namely, that this isn’t a popularity contest. Less expert commentators often say it is, but they are wrong, and Trump is right. A presidential election is more like an unpopularity contest. Trump can win by making his opponent just a little less popular than himself.

And he knows that this isn’t a question for the summer of 2019. It’s a question for one specific day in the autumn of 2020 — whatever day each voter marks the presidential ballot. For that day, and that day only, Trump seeks to be slightly less unpopular, a wisp of a whisker less loathed, than the Democratic nominee.

And he knows that presidents are not necessarily elected by popular majorities. His challenge is to be only the second-least-popular candidate in just enough states to win 270 electoral votes. He can lose by millions of votes in California and New York and Illinois, but he’ll be reelected so long as he beats the Democratic nominee by a vote or two in Florida, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania — all places where he defeated Hillary Clinton, using precisely this knowledge, in 2016.

Trump knows instinctively the power of an insight often attributed to the late comedian George Burns: “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” In today’s lingo, the key might be called “authenticity.” But whether we call it sincerity or authenticity, Trump fakes it very effectively in his effort to be just a little bit less unpopular than his opponents.

How? By doing and saying things no ordinary politician would dream of. The most common assessment of Trump I hear from his voters goes like this: I might not approve of everything he says, but I like that he says what he thinks. Trump knows that politicians, as a class, are held in contempt by much of the public. Thus, making his opponents appear to be more thoroughly political than he is can be a good weapon in the unpopularity contest.

He knows this goes double for the media. Triple for Congress. When Trump says or does something to earn denunciations from Congress, the media and a host of career politicians — whether it’s an attack on Baltimore or a reverie about his imaginary see-through, solar-paneled Wall — he cashes a trifecta.

All this Trumpian knowledge is useful in tracking the race for the Democratic nomination. Forget the polls that show various Democratic candidates beating the president by wide margins. The only horse race that matters is the one in the electoral college. And forget the poll that showed 54 percent of respondents pledging never to vote for Trump. That’s what Lindsey O. Graham used to say, until he ran across a less popular alternative to supporting Trump — namely, the threat of losing his Senate seat — and lo! He decided Trump was not quite so unpalatable.

Trump knows that “never” has, for many people, an elastic meaning. Sort of like “till death us do part.” Furthermore, if 54 percent of voters in fact “never” vote for Trump, he’ll still have a shot at 46 percent of them, which just happens to be the percentage he won in 2016.

If Democrats are interested in polls, they might spend some time absorbing the rolling average of their own candidates as measured by RealClearPolitics. What it shows at this admittedly early point is a pandemic of no-mentum.

Heading into the second round of two-night marathon debates, the field is nearly stuck where it was before Round One. The surge of support that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) drew at the expense of former vice president Joe Biden has ebbed. The left wing appears evenly split between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose falling poll numbers seem to have found their floor, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose rising numbers might have hit a ceiling. No sign here of a groundswell rising to embrace the promise of free everything.

As for the rest of the field: damp kindling. Even the much-ballyhooed Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is drawing a trend line as flat as the Texas Panhandle.

Half the Democrats in the United States are running for president, yet so far no one can touch Biden — the same Biden who was whipped in 1988 by a guy named Michael Dukakis. The same Biden who won less than 1 percent of the votes in Iowa in 2008. Trump knows exactly what he thinks of that situation. And he likes it.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new racist tweetstorm is actually a sign of weakness

David Ignatius: Wake up, Democrats. Trump is on something of a roll.

Henry Olsen: If the latest polls are right, Trump is favored to win reelection

Ed Rogers: Will 2020 be about the economy or Trump’s behavior?

David Byler: What President Trump doesn’t understand about his approval rating