Trump Was Never on a Glide Path to Re-Election Even Before the Virus

Why the president won’t be able to blame COVID-19 if he loses in November.

The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump is despondent these days. But not over the death, illness and economic calamity as a responsible, empathetic leader would be. Rather, he’s upset over his supposedly declining electoral fortunes:

Some of Trump’s advisers described the president as glum and shell-shocked by his declining popularity. In private conversations, he has struggled to process how his fortunes suddenly changed from believing he was on a glide path to reelection to realizing that he is losing to the likely Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, in virtually every poll, including his own campaign’s internal surveys, advisers said. He also has been fretting about the possibility that a bad outbreak of the virus this fall could damage his standing in the November election, said the advisers, who along with other aides and allies requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The president is also eager to resume political travel in June, including holding his signature rallies by the end of the summer in areas where there are few cases, advisers said. Trump’s political team has begun discussions about organizing a high-dollar, in-person fundraiser next month, as well as preliminary planning about staging rallies and what sort of screenings might be necessary, according to Republican National Committee officials and outsider advisers. One option being considered is holding rallies outdoors, rather than in enclosed arenas, a senior administration official said.

These two short paragraphs illustrate the cloud of delusion under which Trump operates.

First, there are no areas where there are “few cases.” Not only is COVID-19 running rampant in rural areas, and not only would it take only a few asymptomatic contagious individuals to infect dozens or even hundreds of other rallygoers, it would literally be nearly impossible given the dearth of testing to know whether an area had few cases or not. Second, given the fact that 72 people were infected likely after attending an anti-social-distancing gathering in Wisconsin, it seems highly unlikely that holding a rally outdoors will make much of a difference in terms of the safety of the attendees.

But even from the limited point of view of Trump’s personal electoral self-interest, his perspective is grounded more in wishful narcissism than fact.

Trump was not, in fact, on a glide path to re-election prior to the arrival of the virus. Joe Biden has been leading Trump by the same wide margin since this time last year. If anything, Biden’s average margin has shrunk in recent polls as Trump briefly enjoyed a sympathetic bounce due to the crisis.  Sanders also dominated Trump over the same year-long period by a slightly smaller margin, and Warren held a consistent, slim lead as well.

Of course, Hillary Clinton led by significant margins throughout the 2016 only to lose in the electoral college at the very end. But there were a number of unique factors in that election from Clinton’s negative favorability rating to the Russian hacking and release of her campaign emails via Wikileaks, to the final intervention by James Comey. Nor are Democrats likely to make the same mistake in overlooking electoral realignment trends and mistaking where the real swing states lay as they did in 2016, or to be complacent in the face of Trump.

Meanwhile, Democrats dominated Republicans in the 2018 midterms and in most special elections since then.

So there is little reason outside of unearned confidence for Trump to believe he had a clear path to victory. In fact, fear of Biden is why Trump attempted the Ukrainian coercion scheme that led to his impeachment.

If Trump does lose in November, he will certainly claim election fraud and a number of other conspiracies–but insofar as he strays away from conspiracies he will likely blame the virus. But there’s no reason to believe he would have won, regardless. Only the same narcissism and wishful thinking that permeates the rest of his worldview.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.