The 2020 Presidential Election – assuming it happens – promises to be the most fraught in our lifetimes. It will be ugly, it will be divisive, and it will stretch the political patience of an already-exhausted American public to its outer limits. It will occur against the backdrop of the biggest medical crisis of the past century, and an economy which has been ripped to shreds. The violence which is happening on American streets night after night at the moment might easily still be occurring night after night on American streets then. To his supporters, and even to some of his detractors, there’s only one question worth answering. Can Donald J. Trump, the incumbent President, possibly win?
If this were any normal presidency, the answer to that question would be a resounding ‘no.’ No normal president would be able to survive such a low approval rating for almost his entire term. A normal president would be rushed out of office by a landslide because of the state of jobs, the economy, and the deep racial divisions that have once again risen up and threatened to rip apart the fabric of American society at the seams. Divisiveness has been at the core of the Trump presidency for the past four years, almost as if it were a political tactic. He electrifies his base, but he appalls his critics and seems to enjoy doing it. Those who still support him tend to be fanatical in their support and will vote for him whatever happens. That’s the only thing that gives him a fighting chance.
Even talking about the Trump presidency in the context of any kind of normality is a worthless exercise, though. This has been a presidency conducted via Twitter and delivered through soundbites and vitriol. It’s been a presidency that’s seen the country become a laughing stock in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. Except for popular games like Slingo Rainbow Riches slot, there’s even an online slots game called ‘Rocket Men’ that pits a cartoon version of Donald Trump against Kim Jong Un in a nuclear arms race. Nobody made online slots games about Obama. Nobody made online slots games about George W. Bush either. Trump might know a thing or two about online slots given his struggles to operate profitable casinos in Atlantic City, but even the odds of the stingiest online slots game on any website you could find would appear to be more generous than the odds of Trump being re-elected with most bookmakers.
Despite all of this, there’s a chance. It speaks volumes – all of them damning – that the Democrats had four years to prepare for this moment, and the best candidate they could find to stand across from Trump was Joe Biden. It probably speaks volumes about American politics in general that the best candidates that either of the major parties could find were rich, old, white men who would be long retired if they did any other kind of work. Biden is not especially popular. Young people, in particular, are distrustful of him, and he has an unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing almost every time a live microphone is put in front of him. Indeed, there are some who believe the best tactic that Biden could employ between now and the day of the election is to say and do as little as possible. He has the unfortunate ability to drive people away from him the more they see and hear him, and so ensuring that the public see and hear as little of him as possible might be his best shot at winning. The key to success for Joe Biden and his bid to become President isn’t to be Joe Biden; it’s merely to not be Donald Trump.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Trump doesn’t have to ‘win’ the election in the truest sense of the word in order to stay on as President. He didn’t ‘win’ the election when he faced Hillary Clinton; she racked up almost three million more votes than him from the American public. Trump won because of the unusual way in which the American electoral college system works. That, even with him trailing in the polls by the extent that he is, may still be his saving grace. Trump can afford to be a few percentage points behind Biden. He can even afford to be a few million more votes behind Biden than he was behind Clinton when that election was called. He cannot, however, afford to stay as far behind as he is now. At the time of writing, the most recent reliable national poll has Biden on 50.5%. Trump is on 42.2%. The polling company and forecaster FiveThirtyEight currently place Biden’s probability of victory at 69%, and FiveThirtyEight is usually cautious in its outlook. These numbers don’t just point to a defeat for the President; they point toward total electoral obliteration.
If you’re getting a sense of deja vu about all this, we don’t blame you. The polls also said that Clinton would win handily. The bookmakers were almost sure of it. Clinton was never as far ahead as Biden is right now, but polls aren’t reality. There’s an argument that says many Trump voters aren’t represented in polls. There’s also an argument that says polls skew toward some demographics more than others, and that America as a whole is a difficult country to get an accurate political picture of because views vary so dramatically from north to south and east to west. The Republican party’s own polling data will paint a different picture from the one we see on the news. Logic tells us that if the Republicans were convinced they were heading for disaster, they wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about backing Trump again. Something, somewhere, is telling them that he’s still the right man to give them another win. We have no way of knowing whether or not they’re right to hold that opinion.
No matter what you read today, tomorrow, or next week, the election isn’t over until it’s over. If Trump can quell the violence on the streets, move the country past the current health crisis, and put money back into the pockets of the unemployed, the election is still there for the taking. In order to grab it, he’s going to have to become a unifying force in a way he’s shown no sign of being during the past four years. Only the President and the people around him know whether he’s capable of that, or even willing to do it.