According to most indicators, it is highly likely that Donald Trump is going to become the first President since George H.W. Bush in 1992 to fail to win a second term. He currently trails in most of the opinion polls to his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and recent data implies that his approval rating is around 44%, which is dangerously low for a sitting President in an election year. Yet many believe that the billionaire maverick who defied the odds four years ago, is set to shock the world again. But in a vastly changed political environment, there are a few reasons that suggest he won’t.
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1. The Electoral Map Is Changing
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was comfortable, however this was largely due to the Electoral College – the system used to decide US elections. Each state is given a set number of delegates, depending on the size of its’ population, and the winning candidate in each state (besides Maine and Nebraska, both of whom use a slightly different format) wins all of its’ delegates, regardless of the margin of victory. Trump won the Electoral College with 306 votes, comfortably beating Hillary Clinton’s total of 232. Despite this, he failed to win the popular vote, meaning that many of his individual state victories were slim – had Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania all swung just 1% to the left, Clinton would be in the White House today. As well as having to defend traditional swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Iowa, Trump is no longer guaranteed victory in the historically Republican strongholds of Arizona, Texas and Georgia, all of which he won less convincingly than the party’s 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, despite performing better nationally. Whilst it is unlikely that the President will lose either Texas or Georgia, he is having to spend time and money in both states in order to guarantee a victory. Arizona looks even bleaker for Trump – in the 20 polls released by FiveThirtyEight between 12th and 18th October, he is behind in all but 1. Given that Trump can only afford to make a net loss of 46 Electoral College Votes, this leaves him very vulnerable.
2. Most Americans are Already Familiar with Joe Biden
The ‘Joe Biden and the hard left will burn down the suburbs’ rhetoric isn’t going to wash with many voters outside of the President’s core support. Whilst the United States public has been historically suspicious of the threat of left-wing extremism, most are aware that if such a threat were to arrive, it wouldn’t be in the form of a Joe Biden presidency. The social unrest in the last few months is more severe than anything that occurred during Biden’s two terms as Vice President. Whilst the ‘hard left’ tag may have been easier to attach to a more radical candidate, the attempt to associate Biden, a moderate who has repeatedly called for violence to end, to the riots, is speculative. Furthermore, Trump himself is often unable to condemn right-wing violence, even appearing to justify it in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, which damages his desired reputation as a President of law and order.
3. Trump Isn’t a Plucky Outsider Anymore
Trump’s 2016 campaign, railing against an undefined establishment, was effective. Even his fiercest critics acknowledged that his “Make America Great Again” slogan perfectly encapsulated the feeling of resentment felt by many Americans towards the economic system. However, his 2020 campaign doesn’t have a clear message. Whilst “Keep America Great” is the official phrase, the President is still occasionally tweeting his slogan from four years ago, suggesting that he is unsure whether to pitch himself as the outsider once again or run a campaign based on his record as an incumbent. This lack of clarity also signals to voters that Trump has failed in his attempts to deliver on his promises during his first term – and the statistics suggest that the President’s trade war has contributed to a recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the rust belt states that carried him over the line in 2016, despite his promise to revive the sector.
4. Trump Isn’t a Unifying Figure
Once they are no longer the outsider, Presidents win second terms by bringing people together. History has shown that can either be achieved through their policies or their personality. George Bush’s response to 9/11 and focus on national security resulted in a ‘rally around the flag’ effect that eventually saw him re-elected. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all possessed a personal charm that allowed them to woo voters, despite dissatisfaction with their records in office. Trump is gifted with neither. His divisive personal antics have continued since his election, such as telling black US-born congressman to “go back and help fix the… places from which they came” and on the policy issue of the day, the Coronavirus, he has a net approval rating of minus 16. Neither is likely to help his cause.
5. Most Voters Have Already Made Up Their Minds
Many are quick to point out Hillary Clinton’s failure in the 2016 election after leading in most polls, and use this as evidence that Trump will repeat his surprise victory. However, the current numbers are very different. Both Clinton and Trump were the least popular candidates nominated by their respective parties since polling began, amassing net approval ratings of minus 12 and minus 21 respectively. Despite the former First Lady consistently polling ahead, she rarely held double-digit leads, and crucially wasn’t usually able to command the support of 50% of the electorate in pre-November surveys. This meant that a large number of people were unsure of their vote until election day, and according to statistics published in the New York Times, for every undecided voter that opted for Clinton, 2 backed Trump, which helped him over the line in the battleground states. By contrast, according to all 17 polls released by FiveThirtyEight on the 26th-27th October, 50% of the electorate are planning to cast their vote for Biden, meaning that if the public opinion remains steady, Trump will need to win a virtual clean sweep of undecided voters in order to prevail again.
Another challenge the Republicans will have to overcome is the expansion of mail-in voting. CNN estimates that 17 million Americans had already cast their ballots by 15th October, with many battleground states having accepted twice as many early votes than they had 4 years ago. And with more people voting at a time when Biden leads in the polls, Trump’s mountain may be a bit too steep to climb come election day.
Of course, it is not completely inconceivable that Donald Trump is able to win a second term, by hook or by crook. His recent call for supporters to “watch very carefully” at polling stations has sparked accusations of voter intimidation, and if the result is close, the President will likely take it to the courts. However, it is unclear how he will be able to put together a winning electoral coalition for a second time. For that to happen, he will have to continue his norm-defying traditions, but at present, the evidence suggests that even in a year that has seen many political and societal surprises, the 2020 election will be a bridge too far for the Donald.
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