The 2020 presidential election is historically unprecedented for many reasons: polarization unprecedented in the modern era, a pandemic preventing many traditional forms of politicking, and an 11th hour Supreme Court fight, just to name a few.
But one of the most remarkable features of this election is that the incumbent president is trailing substantially by all available metrics, yet doing very little to try to win.
Before you scoff at that claim, take a step back and consider. Yes, Trump is holding rallies and making outrageous claims about Biden and Democrats in general. Yes, he has an expensive campaign in full swing. But he has been doing just that for over a year now in permanent campaign mode with very little to show for it. His campaign has spent itself into near penury, and his taunts, insults and norm-shattering statements have done little to move the race. It’s not just the pandemic, either: Biden has been leading Trump in head-to-head polling by essentially the same margin he is now since last October.
In order to win, it seems clear that Trump would have to do something different from what he has been doing so far. The president’s approach to politics has successfully polarized the electorate to an extreme degree–but not to his advantage. The race is remarkably stable in spite of a chaotic news year, and almost nothing seems to shake the state of the race. If nothing changes, Trump stands to lose by a wide margin.
The nation is still being ravaged by a virus he refuses to control. Huge sectors of the economy, particularly in service, dining and hospitality, remain in economic crisis with no help in sight. Trump could, if he wished, encourage mask wearing, allow the science to guide his pandemic policies and persuade Senate Republicans to push forward a major relief bill in cooperation with House Democrats. In response to continuing protests against police violence, he could pledge to take the lead on reforming policing in America. He could have nominated a moderate choice to the Supreme Court.
You may scoff once again that this would be unthinkably out of character for Trump. Yes, that is true. But it’s important to remember that Trump’s successful campaign in 2016 was not, in some ways, as far right as his presidency has been. Yes, of course he said awful, racist and authoritarian things during the campaign. But on many economic issues he campaigned to the left his GOP primary opponents, gave lip service to protecting DACA recipients, insisted he would provide a generous healthcare plan for all Americans, and promised to govern as an anti-ideological get-stuff-done businessman. Many voters who now support Biden believed candidate Trump at the time. But President Trump has governed well to the right of 2016 candidate Trump.
An incumbent president trailing by as many as ten points per the latest Washington Post-ABC poll even as nearly a million Americans have already cast their ballots, should be making some radical moves to change his campaign. The last major chance to change the state of the race is the upcoming debates (though it is doubtful even a major debate gaffe would do much to change the dynamics), but Trump isn’t even bothering to prepare for them. The lack of preparation is ominous, since recent history suggests that incumbent presidents are often caught flat-footed in their first debate, unused to the forceful pushback from an opponent in a lengthy setting.
But any major change would entail work and risk, and might upset some elements of Trump’s most rabid base. So instead, Trump continues to slam the racism lever hoping for vote pellets to pop out of the midwestern suburbs, even though the polling continues to run against him. He continues to attack Biden as slow and mentally inept, despite the fact doing so is counterproductive in the debate expectations game. He continues to act as if the COVID epidemic is already over, despite Americans being clearly upset over his handling of it–including seniors whose votes Trump desperately needs.
So in the absence of trying to win, what is left? Trying to cheat. Finagling to stack courts to decide a contested election in his favor, talking to gerrymandered state legislatures about sending electors for him against the electoral will of those states, sabotaging the Post Office, and pathetically conspiring with the Attorney General to discredit mail-in ballots.
But those attempts to cheat are not a sign of strength. They arise from desperation, but also laziness. Trump doesn’t want to try to do what it would take to win. That would be hard. Getting other people to cheat for him, though–that’s his whole life’s work. It’s part of how he won in 2016. And he figures he might as well try again in 2020.