How Trump Could Win
The President consistently trails Joe Biden in polls, but political strategists from both parties suggest that he still has routes to reëlection.
September 11, 2020
Among the categories of professionals that Donald Trump seems intent on obliterating, one is Republican political strategists. The figures who guided his political rise in 2016 have been much diminished, because of criminal indictment (Steve Bannon), criminal prosecution (Roger Stone), incompetence (Brad Parscale), or domestic ruptures (Kellyanne Conway). Trump’s campaign does not have many strategists, nor, it has often seemed, much strategy. At the Republican National Convention, the idea of a second Trump term remained so undefined that the Party did not even offer a formal platform. Asked by the Times’ Peter Baker what he meant to do with a second term, Trump said, “I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.” The President has long succeeded by creating an environment of constant chaos; now his campaign seems to be drowning in it.
The professionals who remain at Trump reëlection headquarters are, with fewer than sixty days until the election, faced with a challenging set of statistics. For months, Joe Biden has led in national polls by at least seven percentage points. In order to win the Electoral College, Trump would need to beat Biden in about half of six swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. He trails Biden in all of them, though the margin in North Carolina and Florida is under two per cent. About forty-two per cent of Americans approve of the job he has done as President, a number that has remained fairly constant throughout his Presidency, but fifty-four per cent now disapprove, which puts him behind the ratings of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan at similar points in their reëlection campaigns—though well ahead of George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. In other words, Trump looks likely to be either the least popular incumbent to win reëlection in the modern polling era or the most popular one to lose it.
To a younger generation of Republican consultants—those who have made their careers in the rancorous twenty-first century, when there have been sharp partisan divisions and few swing voters—those numbers don’t look so bad. The President, they point out, has consolidated his support among Republicans, roughly ninety per cent of whom say they support him. Nearly every poll that has asked voters whom they trust to manage the economy has found a preference for Trump over Biden, even polls that have Biden up by ten points—which suggests that any skeptical Republicans and independents might be persuaded to vote for Trump because of their perceived self-interest. Then, too, almost all of Trump’s decline has taken place among white voters. Among Latinos—a crucial electoral coalition in the swing states of Florida and Arizona—Trump’s position has held steady and may even have strengthened. Last month, a Public Religion Research Institute poll put his approval rating among Latinos in 2020 at thirty-six per cent, eight points ahead of the percentage of Latino voters that exit polls found he won in 2016. More ominously for Democrats, a recent survey of Florida Hispanic voters found Biden polling eleven points behind Hillary Clinton’s exit-poll results in 2016.
But even these strengths look more suspect on closer examination. They do not, for one thing, account for the immense suffering of the coronavirus pandemic, in which more than a hundred and ninety thousand Americans, many of them elderly, have died, and nearly thirty million people have begun receiving unemployment benefits. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by about twenty points among senior citizens; now poll after poll finds that he leads Biden among seniors by only a few points. His strength on the economy may have been buoyed by the temporary unemployment benefits that Democrats demanded this spring, but those benefits have begun to expire, and Republicans have declined to renew them. The Census Bureau has been surveying households this summer and has asked families whether they expect to make their next month’s rent or mortgage payment. The responses put a lump in your throat. Worse numbers came midway through the summer, when in Florida, a state the President has to win, thirty-two per cent of respondents said that they had either missed their last housing payment or did not feel more than slightly confident that they would meet the next one.
Such numbers are almost unimaginably bleak. So it surprised me a little to notice, in poll after poll, that the public’s view of Trump’s handling of the virus isn’t so bad—it tends to track with his over-all approval ratings and to run five or ten points ahead of the public’s view of his response to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed George Floyd’s death. Most Republicans think that Trump is doing a fine job handling the pandemic, the universal crisis that he often seemed to want to minimize, but millions of Republicans disliked his response to demands for racial equity—an issue that he has deliberately sought to weaponize because he thought it might give him an advantage.
I mentioned this discrepancy to Charles Franklin, who runs the highly regarded Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters. Franklin said that he had been looking into that issue: “Race is by far his worst evaluation, both in our data but, more importantly, in national data, and it has been for years.” Franklin found that most Trump voters in Wisconsin don’t support his message on race—not even close. “It is really a rural and a non-college phenomenon,” he said. In the suburbs of Milwaukee, as well as smaller cities, such as Green Bay and Appleton, “you have a Republican constituency that has never really wanted to embrace the negative messages on race that he focusses on and who are reluctant to see themselves as racist.” This pattern held true even after the violence in Portland and Kenosha. Trump spent days tweeting about “LAW & ORDER!” and claiming that liberal cities needed a strong hand. But the following week, polls suggested that this gambit hadn’t worked. Trump remained behind in every swing state, and an ABC poll found that fifty-five per cent of voters thought that Trump’s response to the protests made the situation worse, while only thirteen per cent thought that it made the situation better.
The raw statistical material is unpromising, but politics, at the highest level, is just talk. Is there a story that Trump could tell that would change something important about the election? Is there a way, in other words, that he might alchemize a likely loss into a win? Just before the Conventions, I called political consultants of every stripe—devoted and dissident Republicans, Democrats, progressives, and independents—to see whether they could imagine a winning path for the President. I found that, because of the pandemic, a striking number of them seemed to have spent the spring and summer far from Washington, holed up in their ski houses. (“Scout, no,” one former Presidential adviser instructed his dog, when I reached him in the Rockies. “No bark.”) But I also found that the isolation, and maybe the vistas, and maybe, too, the nearing possibility of a post-strategist politics, had caused them to focus on a single, pivotal question. Spin is such a weak, twentieth-century term for hard twenty-first-century realities: the pandemic, with more than a hundred and ninety thousand dead; the mass unemployment; the continuing patterns of unrest; the climate-catastrophe wildfires that have menaced Silicon Valley, the center of America’s twenty-first-century economy. Nevertheless, the consultants wondered, can all of this somehow be spun?
“Iactually have a strong opinion about that,” Stuart Stevens, the Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, said, when I reached him in Stowe, Vermont. “If you are thinking about what it takes for an unpopular incumbent to come back and win, there actually is a significant history. And I don’t know of any process that didn’t involve a mea culpa—an apology.”
Stevens is one of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans, a consultant to the Lincoln Project and the author of the recent book “It Was All a Lie,” which gives a decades-long account of the moral hollowing of the Republican Party. The real problem for Trump, as Stevens saw it, was antipathy for the President. “You have forty-eight per cent—this is from the Monmouth poll—of the country with a very unfavorable view of Trump. I’ve never seen anything like that, short of the Eastern Bloc,” Stevens said. “The hardest thing in politics is to get someone with a very unfavorable view to vote for you. It makes sense, right? ‘I hate you.’ O.K. ‘But now I’m gonna vote for you.’ That’s gonna be hard.” The summer, Stevens went on, had been revealing. “The most vulnerable period any challenger has is from when they first secure the nomination until they put together their campaign. And what happened in that period? Trump went down; Biden went up. That’s incredibly telling.”
The summer proved, Stevens said, that Trump’s main act had worn thin. “Trump is a candidate of hate, and candidacies of hate are ultimately exhausting,” he said. But his campaign was suffering not only from the candidate but also from world-historically bad circumstances. The President spent months insisting that the coronavirus crisis would soon dissipate; now his campaign needed voters to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. Stevens said, “If I woke you in the middle of the night and said, ‘It’s the worst economy in American history. More Americans have died from this disease in the past four months than have ever died from a disease in a four-month period in the history of the United States. How’s the incumbent doing?’ The answer wouldn’t be ‘great.’ ”
That, Stevens went on, was why Trump needed a Hail Mary. “This is going to seem like the Crimean wars, but a very well-known example among political consultants is Charles Percy,” he said. In 1978, Percy, a moderate Republican senator from Illinois, faced a primary challenge from a hard conservative and found himself on the wrong side of the cultural wave that would become the Reagan revolution. With his campaign in dire straits, Percy appeared in a thirty-second ad looking, as Time magazine put it, “haggard and close to tears.” Percy said, “I have gotten the message, and you’re right. Washington has gone overboard, and I’m sure I’ve made my share of mistakes, but, in truth, your priorities are mine, too. Stop the waste. Cut the spending. Cut the taxes.” A man who had been mentioned as a plausible Republican Presidential contender was appearing before the voters to cry uncle. Surely, it was humiliating. It also worked.
Could you imagine Trump in the Percy position? Haggard—certainly. Close to tears? Probably not. Stevens began to imagine what Trump might say—or what a conventional Republican might say in his place: “ ‘I thought more Americans would be working again. This pandemic has been a disaster. And if I knew then what I know now, I’d have handled it differently. But we can’t go back. And I want to say to every American out there who suffered that I’m sorry. This has been a horrible period for America, but we can do better, and I can do better. I want you to give me a second chance. I want you to listen to what I would do and compare it to what Joe Biden would do.’ ” Stevens considered the strategy. “Americans will always give you a second chance, but you’ve got to ask for it,” he said. “He needs to ask them to give him permission to change.”
The challenge the Trump campaign faces—to persuade the public that an all-consuming crisis is not the fault of the incumbent—is strikingly similar to the one that Obama’s campaign faced at the outset of the 2012 Presidential contest, when the economic news was so dire that Obama would lose if voters blamed him for it. Somehow, a bad situation had to be attributed to the challenger rather than the incumbent. The year before the election, Obama’s pollster Joel Benenson, a former political journalist, asked a hundred undecided voters across three swing states to write long answers to open-ended questions designed to probe their emotional relationship to the economy. The questions included “Tell me the last time you were treated unfairly in the workplace. Please describe in detail what happened. How would you like to have been treated in that situation?”
The project yielded fourteen hundred pages of personal narrative; in reviewing them, Benenson and his staffers noticed a standout theme. People wanted their companies to be profitable; what bothered them was when their employer was capricious—when the company seemed to be treating them unfairly. When I called Benenson recently, he explained that, based on this information, the Obama campaign made a few crucial choices. One was not to avoid the economic catastrophe but, a bit counterintuitively, to raise the stakes—to insist that in the 2012 election the fate of the middle class was up for grabs. A second was to contrast Obama, as a representative of a fair economy, with Romney, whom the campaign worked hard to make the emblem of an unfair one. A third was simply to acknowledge that times were bad, that there were no quick fixes—to acknowledge the depth of the suffering. “Here’s the thing: a crisis is an opportunity,” Benenson told me. “It feels cynical, but it’s an opportunity for you to show the American people your strength and your compassion. It’s a moment for you to enlist the American people in your cause.
Like Stevens, Benenson turned to the idea of the incumbent delivering a mea culpa: “I don’t know if it would work—I don’t know if it’s in his DNA. But what would it look like?” Benenson began imagining how Trump might do it. “He’d have to say, ‘I’ve said and done a lot of things I regret about the mask requirements. I probably didn’t trust people who I should have trusted more and trusted people who I should have trusted less. Nothing I could say would be sufficient to the families of those who have lost loved ones across the United States, to make their fear any less.’ And then he’d have to have a plan.” Benenson, who was also Hillary Clinton’s pollster, on a campaign that failed to measure the intensity of the anti-establishment wave, paused for a minute, considering the image of Trump giving a penitent speech. “This is good shit!” he said. Then he thought a little more. “But I don’t think he has that capability.” Benenson said, “His biggest weakness is that he won’t admit that things aren’t great.”
Stevens and Benenson didn’t say so, but this approach rests on a traditional view of the American electorate, one in which persuadable swing voters not only exist but hold the key to the election—in which there are people to ask for a second chance who have not made up their minds after the first one. As recently as the spring, this was the theory that the Trump campaign was leaning on, with an election message that began with the strength of the economy and dwelled on the threat of radical socialism within the Democratic Party. “Going into March, I thought we were in relatively good shape,” the Republican consultant Luke Thompson told me. His optimism was based in part on a read of the polls, in which Trump trailed Biden by about four points, a gap that seemed to be closing and might be closed further by a strong economy. But his outlook was also based on a reading of the ways in which Trump had and hadn’t changed the electorate.
Thompson, a native Kansan, came up as a consultant during the Tea Party era, and his view is that the transitions that culminated in Trump’s election were under way a decade before. “What you actually had going on in the Republican Party in 2010, 2012, 2014 wasn’t as simple as the base versus the establishment—you had two establishments fighting each other and two bases fighting each other,” Thompson said. These were the two factions of the old Reagan coalition: the largely suburban, business-oriented Republicans who were led by John Kasich in his Presidential campaign of 2016; and the cultural conservatives who lived in the exurban and rural areas of the country, who backed the Tea Party movement in 2010. What Trump had done in 2016, Thompson said, was to empower the rural Republicans, turning some infrequent voters into conservative culture warriors and even flipping some Democrats.
In general, this is a losing tide for Republicans—the Party washing out from growing metro areas, leaving the suburbs open for Democrats. But Thompson and other Republicans working on congressional elections in 2020 believe that with the right message and a strong enough economy the demographic tide could be slowed. Maybe enough suburban Republicans could be persuaded to vote for their party’s candidate one last time, even though they dislike Trump. Thompson pointed to a couple of clear demographic opportunities. One was non-college-educated Latino men under fifty, who often have socially conservative views and low levels of social attachment—very similar characteristics to the white voters who had followed Trump into his coalition. “And when you ask them in polls, a lot of Hispanics describe themselves as white, even though political professionals say they are Hispanic,” Thompson said. A second, even bigger group is traditional suburban Republicans who do not regularly attend church; many are women in households attached to small businesses, whose social conservatism has helped them resist the general turn toward Democrats.
“And Trump doesn’t disgust them?” I asked.
Pollsters don’t ask about disgust, Thompson said. But those voters didn’t much like him.
One question that political consultants ask themselves a lot now is whether they should think about political talent differently than they have in the past. Biden’s ascendence suggests that not much has changed—that it is still important to channel the center of the country, that elections are still decided by the middle. But Trump’s triumphs make the opposite case, that elections now are just base versus base—trench warfare—and that they require a politician with more of a talent for incitement. This has been the story of much of American politics since the rise of the Tea Party, in 2010—of Trump but also of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and of Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, all of whom evoke strong positive reactions within their own party and strong negative ones within the other, and who do not spend much time competing for a diminishing center.
The shock of the 2016 election came from three demographically similar states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—but Michigan, in particular, seems like it might now be out of reach for Trump. One theory I heard from Republican strategists is that it might be worth thinking about a slightly different map than the one that won Trump the Presidency, in 2016—one in which Trump shifted his focus to Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—which might allow him to run a less traditional campaign. Each of those states has a history of intense partisan conflict—over anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, voting rights in North Carolina, immigration in Arizona, and Bush v. Gore in Florida—that has helped to entrench Party allegiances. Those states have experienced the full rancor of twenty-first-century politics; there is not much middle left to win. A Republican consultant named Jeff Roe distinguished between swing states and “split states,” which suggested a strategy based on turnout rather than persuasion. With split states, “there’s no moderating,” Roe said. “Get seventy million votes.”
Roe is the most prominent of the consultants who came up in the post-Tea Party era. A Texan, he is known for his genial manner and his aggressive campaigns. He was Cruz’s chief strategist and has advised other national politicians. Roe told me that he followed the results of the 2020 Democratic primaries that took place after the race was effectively over, and he noticed a sign that Biden might have a weak base. The Democratic vote, now more than ever, is concentrated in cities, but again and again Biden’s share of the vote in the largest cities underperformed his totals in the states where they are located. “I was going to write an op-ed about this, but then I realized no one gives a shit,” Roe said. In any event he had the numbers handy, and he started reading them off. The Pennsylvania primary was held on June 2nd, nearly two months after Biden’s last rival, Bernie Sanders, conceded: Biden got seventy-nine per cent of the vote statewide but only sixty-nine per cent in Pittsburgh. In Rhode Island, that same day, Roe said, “statewide he’s seventy-seven, but Providence it’s fifty-seven.” A week later, in Georgia, “he did eighty-five per cent statewide and seventy-eight per cent in Atlanta.” In the 2016 election, the Clinton campaign struggled to excite the Party’s Black urban base: the vote in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia was significantly down from the Obama years. Roe thought that Biden might have the same problem and that it could cost him in the purple states.
What the polls—even the exit polls—missed in 2016 was how much of the electorate would be composed of white voters without college degrees and how many of them would back Trump. The exit polls indicated that the numbers of white voters with and without college degrees were roughly equal, but a 2018 Pew analysis found that white non-college-educated voters had constituted forty-four per cent of the electorate and white college-educated voters just thirty per cent. In the crucial Midwestern swing states, the non-college-educated voters’ numbers were considerably higher: they were more than half of the 2016 electorate in Michigan and Wisconsin. Nationally, Trump won those voters by a staggering margin, sixty-four per cent to twenty-eight per cent.
The most natural Trump campaign strategy in 2020 would be to deepen that schism, to keep the upper Midwest on his side. Brock McCleary, a Republican pollster based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told me that the “mission” of Republicans in Pennsylvania is still to peel off fifteen per cent of conservative Democrats. “There are still plenty of them throughout the state. They’re getting older, but they’re still here and they’re still voting,” he said. But the polls this summer have generally found Trump’s margins among non-college-educated white voters shrinking rather than expanding. Sean Trende, of Real Clear Politics, who identified the possibility of a latent right-wing vote in the Midwest as early as 2012, told me that he doubted that Trump could do even better among white working-class voters. He explained, “We’re getting to the point where the remaining white voters without college degrees don’t have college degrees because they’re college students, baristas, the kids protesting in Portland. Trump’s not getting them.”
Polls have generally found Trump’s support among white non-college-educated voters softening. This finding was recently echoed by the eminent Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who conducted focus groups this summer with white non-college-educated voters in rural Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three-quarters of whom had voted for Trump in 2016 and less than half of whom planned to do so again. In the sessions, Greenberg wrote, many of the voters spoke of living with disabilities and expressed anxieties about their access to health care. Greenberg wrote, “I have never seen such a poignant discussion of the health and disability problems facing families and their children, the risks they faced at work, and the prospect of even higher health care and prescription drug costs. The final straw was a president who battled not for the ‘forgotten Americans,’ but for himself, the top one percent, and the biggest, greediest companies.
In 2016, the story of Trump’s coalition was of the rise of the white voter without a college degree—of people who told reporters that they felt they had been left behind, of non-cosmopolitan places with declining economies. Perhaps that was always too narrow a story, but even if it fit the electorate in 2016, it no longer applies to this one. Winning in 2020 would require Trump to replicate elements both of his coalition and of George W. Bush’s—white working-class voters in the upper Midwest and Latino voters and business conservatives in the Sun Belt. In spending the past few weeks warning prosperous suburban voters about disorder in the cities, he was urging them to see themselves in the same way that voters in Midwestern factory towns came to see themselves four years ago—as standing on the wrong side of a demographic wave. His theme can’t be strength, not after the passivity of his response to the pandemic. But he still can convey the sensation of loss.
Part of the experience of the Trump era, for Republican strategists, has been watching their party made over, to conform to a base of white voters who never went to college and then realizing that the primal fury of the Trump movement characterized more of the Republican base than they had previously suspected—that it moved some moderates and some non-white voters, too. Bill Kristol, the Republican eminence who has spent much of the past four years arguing that Trump represents a singular threat to democracy, pointed out to me that those arguments had generally not moved many Republican voters and had been rejected by elected Republicans. About the 2020 election, he sounded relatively sanguine—he thought that Biden was in a very strong position—but about the conservative temperament, he was less reassured. I asked whether he was more or less worried about the conservative preference for a strongman than he was in 2017. “Much more worried,” Kristol said.
Less than sixty days out from the election, Trump, unburdened by official campaign themes or facts, seems to be chasing a surprisingly large and protean coalition. At a Florida rally on Tuesday, Trump, who has long publicly doubted the science of climate change and championed coal mining and fracking, called himself “the great environmentalist” and called on Congress to expand protections against offshore drilling. Roe said that Trump might still be the Party’s best bet to reach conservative Latino and Black voters. He also pointed out that Trump has had more success at bringing white working-class voters into the Party than anyone since Reagan. Even in a pandemic, Trump’s crowds fill stadiums and overflow into parking lots. Roe said, “It’s a startling thing to say, but he’s the best crossover politician Republicans have.”
Read More About the 2020 Election
- Can Joe Biden win the Presidency based on a promise of generational change?
- The fall and rise of Kamala Harris.
- When a sitting President threatens to delay a sacrosanct American ritual like an election, you should listen.
- To understand the path Donald Trump has taken to the 2020 election, look at what he has provided the executive class.
- What happens if Trump fights the election results?
- The refusal by Mitch McConnell to rein in Trump is looking riskier than ever.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.