The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How it could get so much worse for Donald Trump

What if there is no reversion to the mean?

President Trump speaks during an event Friday at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

Anyone paying attention to American politics is aware that things look pretty bad for Donald Trump right now. Over the past two months, Trump has gone from trailing Joe Biden in the polls to badly trailing Joe Biden in the polls. A fundamentals model does not help Trump, either. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver points out, “Projected economic conditions by November would have Trump favored to lose the popular vote by ~6 points.”

CNN’s Harry Enten compared where Trump stands with modern incumbents and concludes: “Polls taken around Independence Day in an election year are actually pretty highly correlated with the November results in incumbent contests. That means Trump is in a lot of trouble.”

There is an implicit assumption in some of these accounts, however: Trump has hit rock bottom and can go no further. A New York Times analysis of Trump’s political omnishambles noted, “June represented the political nadir of his three and a half years in the Oval Office.” The word “nadir” means “lowest point,” suggesting that there is nowhere to go but up. The Economist’s G. Elliott Morris similarly says that Trump has “bottomed out,” implying that a reversal of trend is likely.

Most analysis in the Trump-doing-badly genre inevitably point out the following caveats: a) Trump is the incumbent, which means he can exploit the powers of the office to reverse course; b) reversion to the mean (of a smaller Biden lead) seems inevitable; c) do not underestimate Biden’s capacity to commit a gaffe; and d) remember 2016?!

These cautionary notes are sensible. The nature of Biden’s commanding lead means that during a normal election cycle, one would predict the race to narrow rather than widen between now and November.

That said, this expectation of reversion to the mean was also what many prognosticators (though not Spoiler Alerts) expected in April. And May. And June. The trendline has gone in the opposite direction.

Spoiler Alerts will leave it to others to explain why the race might narrow. It seems sensible to explore how Biden could extend his lead even further. The race has evolved to this point because Trump has botched his handling of the crises thrown at him in 2020. So let’s consider the scenarios in which June does not represent Trump’s nadir, but rather the rest stop of a further decline in the polls.

First, the novel coronavirus becomes too big to ignore. As the pandemic continues to rage out of control across much of the United States, imagine cities like Houston, Tampa, Los Angeles and Phoenix looking like New York did in March. Based on snippets over the weekend, this is unfortunately plausible.

My Post colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey have a story about how the Trump White House plans to handle this, and it’s … something.

The goal is to convince Americans that they can live with the virus — that schools should reopen, professional sports should return, a vaccine is likely to arrive by the end of the year and the economy will continue to improve.
White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking, who requested anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Americans will “live with the virus being a threat,” in the words of one of those people, a senior administration official.
“They’re of the belief that people will get over it or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day,” said a former administration official in touch with the campaign.

Human beings are more adaptable — that is commonly understood. Americans will adjust and adapt to a reality of 50,000 to 100,000 infections a day. What they will not do is let Trump off the hook because of it.

Second, the bottom could fall out of the economy again. To be fair to Trump, the top-line economic numbers over the past two months have pointed toward a V-style recovery. Other data suggest a more modest recovery to date. A resurgent pandemic will erase many of those gains, however, and forestall investment and consumption even further. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey has written on how another economic depression could happen as the summer goes on.

Third, someone in the inner circle gets sick. People within the president’s orbit — his valet, his staff, his son’s girlfriend — keep catching the coronavirus. Trump continues to display reckless behavior in his efforts to narrow the gap with Biden. It seems quite possible that a high-ranking policy principal gets sick from attending one of his rallies. It is also possible that the president gets sick, incapacitating him for some time. While this might generate a sympathy bump, it will also feed the narrative that the Trump White House cannot do anything right.

Fourth, a foreign policy crisis gets worse. China is going on a bellicosity binge, and there seems to be little the Trump administration can do to stop it. As its behavior worsens, Trump will be hard-pressed to look strong in response. It is also possible that either North Korea or Iran tries to stir the pot while the United States is distracted with a pandemic.

Fifth, Trump’s gaffes get even worse. It has been amusing to read multiple cycles of conservative press discuss the need for Trump to demonstrate discipline, spin anything the president says as presidential and then have to cope with stuff like this:

Sixth, GOP stalwarts finally rebel. I do not place a high degree of probability on this scenario. This election is about more than the presidency, however. The lower Trump falls in the polling, the more other Republicans running for office will need to choose to distance themselves from Trump. Grumbling from other Republicans is starting to grow, and there are glimmers of daylight between the president and his party. I’m not saying that this strategy would work, but the more criticism that comes from his party, the weaker he looks.

Finally, there are probably more tell-alls to come that highlight Trump’s immature brand of leadership. Mary L. Trump’s book should be published this month. Other books are on the horizon. Additional former Trump officials might try to surf the anti-Trump wave and spill more embarrassing beans.

Yes, Trump could narrow the gap with Biden, but do not underestimate the chance that he falls even further behind.

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Nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes are concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect their families. (Video: The Washington Post)