Tomorrow the American electorate heads to the polls to decide whether to keep its 45th president, or to elect its 46th. This comes at a time when the country is deeply polarised, due in no small part to the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is a controversial figure, one who elicits strong and oppositional opinions. He is seen as either a political genius and patriot working to restore America’s greatness, or as a self-serving narcissist who is tearing apart the country’s social fabric.
Despite being an unconventional candidate in the 2016 election, he nonetheless managed to win over a sizeable portion of conservative voters. It’s a contradiction that a silver-spooned, serial philandering, city slicker would be embraced by hard-working, church-going, rural-living Americans. But part of his appeal isn’t for what he is – an uncouth, tough-talking businessman, but for what he isn’t – an out-of-touch, smooth-talking politician.
This unwavering loyalty was only one of a combination of factors that resulted in his victory. Firstly, after securing the Republican nomination, the party leadership quickly threw their support behind him. Secondly, his opponent was even more unpopular than he was, making him appear as the lesser of two evils for independent, undecided, and disenchanted Democrat voters. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, while not winning the popular vote, he did win the Electoral College, and he did this by flipping several Democrat states… albeit by slim margins.
But it’s four years later. Donald Trump is no longer the self-styled political outsider lambasting the Washington establishment – he is now part of the establishment with a political record to defend. Furthermore, while incumbents typically have the advantage when it comes to getting re-elected, the events of 2020 have derailed some of his domestic achievements and brought his leadership into question.
Before I continue – I admit to not being a fan of President Trump. But instead of listing a myriad of his shortcomings, be they of his character or his political and personal agenda, I will focus solely on the election itself, specifically on what I believe might determine and/or influence the outcome.
Donald Trump has never been a president for all Americans. Regardless of party affiliation, modern American presidents have always sought to bring its citizens together following an election. Trump did the complete opposite, and has stoked the “us versus them” animosity by demonising and denigrating his opponents. One could argue that Democrats brought this ire on themselves as its Congressional members never showed a willingness to work with him in good faith. But Trump also revels in the adoration he receives for his inflammatory rhetoric. His preference has always been to appease his base instead of courting the other side. And that may be where his re-election prospects come up short.
Throughout his presidency, his approval numbers have consistently hovered around 40 per cent. Granted, as we saw in 2016, he doesn’t need to win the popular vote to win the election. But, if that be the case, he would need to replicate those electoral dynamics i.e. not lose those voters who “took a gamble” on him.
Up until this year, that was an easy case for him to make; the economy was doing well and unemployment was at an all-time low. Unfortunately for him, the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed those gains. While he can’t be blamed for the pandemic itself, he does deserve blame for his administration’s slow handling of the response. His comments about the virus have also been misleading. Not only has he purposely downplayed its severity, but he has repeatedly dismissed the effectiveness of the safety measures. This puts him at odds with his own medical experts, resulting in public confusion. Trump has tried to pivot on this by focusing on the economic recovery, assuming that Americans are more concerned about losing their jobs and closing their businesses than catching the virus. But that doesn’t distract from the fact that the death toll stands at 230,000 – that’s 230,000 families in mourning. And the number of new cases continues to rise daily.
What makes Trump’s poor handling even more poignant is how he botched the negotiations with the Democrat-controlled House over the passing of a stimulus package, and instead prioritised the confirmation of a (conservative-leaning) Supreme Court Justice. This undoubtedly pleased the Republican Party, but it also risks alienating the disenchanted-Democrat voters who flipped those crucial states in his favour. Remember, it’s the Electoral College that matters; Trump could win the traditional battleground states (like Florida), but if he loses Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – states previously won by President Obama in 2012 – he loses the election.
Whether you love or hate Donald Trump, he deserves some credit. Even with the odds stacked against him, he beat an entire party establishment and a seasoned political opponent to become president. But what worked for him four years ago might not necessarily work for him now. If past elections tell us anything, it’s that anything can happen. So it would be unwise for the American electorate to underestimate Trump, and for Trump to overestimate the American electorate.