The Democratic and Republican conventions couldn’t be more different. The former emphasized empathy and compassion, the latter celebrated an autocrat. But they had one thing in common: Each declared that if the other guys won, they would destroy America.
Biden’s convention repeated over and over again that “democracy is at stake.” (I think he’s right, for all the reasons you know). The Republican speeches were nuts and even more apocalypto. Matt Gaetz, the Trump-loving Florida congressman, set the tone for the week by saying of Democrats: “They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.” Mike Pence said: “The choice in this election is whether America remains America.” Trump capped the orgy by saying he wouldn’t let a radical movement “completely dismantle and destroy” America.
I’ve tried at times to explain fiercely contested but non-hellscape elections, like Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole in 1996 and Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter in 1976 to my 21-year old son. I want him to know what it was like before the deluge. I end up sounding like Grandpa Simpson.
Will raising the stakes raise turnout? Will it mobilize one side more than the other? Will the Democratic “coalition of the ascendent,” as Ronald Brownstein has famously described the alliance of more educated whites, minorities, and the young, be fired up by Joe Biden’s combo of nice-guy-next-door and doomsayer? Or will it be trumped by Trump’s rural, white working class, more nativist ensemble? We don’t know. But some things still seem to work in Biden’s favor that get overlooked.
First, Biden’s ahead and he’s been ahead. That was no comfort to Presidents Mike Dukakis and Hillary Clinton, but it does suggest that minds are fairly set. And, in a sense, why wouldn’t they be in an Armageddon Election? If each side is saying the other represents Armageddon, are you going to wake up one day and decide that, you know, the other side isn’t so bad? The election can change and will surely tighten, but the stability of the polls is a good sign for Joe.
Second, presidents who win reelection usually get bigger margins on their second time around. Since World War II, five presidents have been reelected, four by larger margins than at first. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton topped their first-term numbers, with Tricky Dick and The Gipper winning the biggest electoral romps of all time on their second shot. Only Barack Obama saw a lower vote reelection total and he’s the exception that proves the rule. His 2008 victory was born of his mad political skills and a country fed up by the Bush legacy of Katrina, Iraq, and the financial crisis plus a pinch of Palin. He went down a tick in 2012 against Mitt Romney, losing Indiana, for instance, a state the Democrats hadn’t even really contested since 1964. Going back farther, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt did much better in their second bids. FDR’s 1936 win was a fundamental realignment. Granted, Wilson didn’t have to face a Howard Taft-Teddy Roosevelt double whammy as he did in 1912, but still, he’d build his popularity.
This isn’t just idle history. It’s an omen for Trump. Reelection bids are, as the cliche goes, about the incumbent and if Commander-in-Chief gets reupped it’s because he or she’s made the case to some of the once skeptical that they’re not unqualified lunatics.
Who is going to say that the country has greatly improved under Trump? We know it’ll be those groups that favored him already—white evangelicals, working-class white men, and other assorted Republicans. It’s hard to see Trump getting more votes than he did in 2016, when he ran against a demonized Hillary Clinton, who was saddled with sexism, Jim Comey, and a media still in the throes of “But her emails.” Trump really can’t afford to lose any votes as Obama did in 2012. His margin is just too narrow. He lost the popular vote and his electoral college victory was, as you know, built on tiny margins in a few states.
Sure, you say, but Republicans will try to screw with voting—and that may be enough to reelect Trump. But it’s going to be harder this time. Democrats control the governor’s mansion in Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina which they didn’t in 2016. That’s a big f-ing deal. (Pennsylvania, Minnesota governorships are still in Democratic hands while and Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire remain under Republican control.) Having a Democratic governor doesn’t eliminate any possibility of malfeasance, but it limits the chances of ballot canceling like Stacey Abrams faced in her 2018 gubernatorial bid. It doesn’t mean Trump can’t steal the election, but it makes it harder.
Biden also has other things in his favor. Obviously, there’s the in-the-toilet economy, quack cures for COVID, and the insane corruption and puerile behavior of the toddler-in-chief. (Remember: We’ve never had an impeached president run for reelection. Somewhere in the collective psyche, it may still matter.) Plus, Biden has a super unified party unlike 2016 when Hillary was still facing disaffected Bernie voters, and Black turnout dipped.
The problem for Biden is that the economy is getting better, enough people seem like they’re accepting the COVID-19 death count as an Act of God or Freak of Nature rather than as a reflection of his King Joffrey’s cruelty.
Maybe Biden wins in a blowout. Maybe. But if he doesn’t, he’s got an electoral problem: picking up just a couple of the barely-Trump states isn’t enough. Democrats take Michigan and Pennsylvania—probably the easiest to take back—and they still need Wisconsin or Arizona.
Biden would have to hold the states where Trump lost but was very close to winning—New Hampshire, Minnesota—or pick up the tantalizingly close, increasingly Hispanic gems like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina. Good luck with that. The Midwest states that Clinton, Obama, and Trump won—Ohio and Iowa—have had only moderate Hispanic growth and are rich in white working-class voters and are a reach for Biden. In 2016 for instance, Hillary did better in Texas than Iowa, even though the state had gone Democratic since 1988.
The Hellscape Conventions are obviously just a preview of the fall’s carnage. Maybe come January it’ll lift, like when the McCarthyite fever broke in 1954 when the Wisconsin bully got bodyslammed in his hearings about Communists in the Army. The country’s madness cooled quickly. It could happen this time. But I don’t think so.