On Wednesday, the New York Times and Siena College released their first national poll of the 2020 election season. Their survey, which is put together with particular care, was unusually accurate in both 2016 and 2018, so there was some anticipation built for its release. Even so, the numbers were shocking: Joe Biden led Donald Trump by 14 points.
The Times/Siena poll is only a slight outlier for Biden, who is ahead by 10 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average and 9.5 points in the FiveThirtyEight average. In these ranges, the Electoral College’s Republican lean means little for Trump. The Economist, which recently released its presidential forecasting model, gives Biden an 89 percent chance of winning the Electoral College. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver calculates that Pennsylvania is likeliest to be the state that swings the election and notes that Biden is leading in recent polls by an average of 8.1 points.
Hillary Clinton led the polls in 2016, too, only to watch the map turn crimson on election night. Though she never led by nearly this much, the trauma of that reversal lingers, and Democrats experience good survey data as borderline triggering. “Ignore the polls,” Biden tweeted on Wednesday. “Register to vote.”
There’s something to that attitude. Polling, at this point, should be taken as information, not as prediction. But the information it offers is real: Trump’s political position is collapsing. Biden has doubled his lead since the beginning of February, and it’s not because he’s been dominating the airwaves. It’s because Trump has betrayed the first commandment of running for reelection: First, govern well.
“Imagine you took every statement they made about Hunter Biden and made it about Covid-19, and imagine they took action on it,” says Stuart Stevens, who served as Mitt Romney’s chief campaign strategist in 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. “Where would they be right now? A lot better off. And a lot of people would be alive.”
The chaos of reality is matching the chaos of Trump’s presidency
In 2016, Trump ran as an outsider because he was an outsider. He had never been a mayor, a member of Congress, or a governor; there was no record of governance for him to defend. He experienced politics as many Americans do — as televised entertainment — and brought the skills of a television reality star to the campaign. It was enough.
But Trump never changed his approach. He has continued to treat the presidency as a media spectacle, the work of governance as a dull distraction from the glitter of celebrity. He obsesses over cable news and Twitter conflict and neglects the job Americans hired him to do. And so now he does have a record: More than 120,000 dead from Covid-19 — and counting. An economy in shambles. Coronavirus cases in America exploding, even as they fall across the European Union.
“Governing has been so little on the mind of this administration from the very beginning that it’s created a bizarre, extraordinary situation,” says Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The president thinks so much about what he’s doing in terms of the show he’s putting on that there’s been very little attention paid to how the government is functioning.”
Trump has spent the past three years and 158 days playing president on TV and social media. But he has not spent that time doing the job of the president. A strong economy that carried over from Barack Obama’s presidency hid Trump’s dereliction of duties. But then a crisis came, and presidential leadership was needed, and the American people saw there was no plan, and functionally no president.
Every insider account of Trump’s presidency — from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury to Bob Woodward’s Fear to Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s A Very Stable Genius to Anonymous’s A Warning to Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged to John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened — has painted fundamentally the same picture: a chaotic, lawless administration orbiting around a reckless, distractible, corrupt, overmatched, and disinterested chief executive.
There is no secret being revealed here. These insider accounts match what is on display, daily, for the public. On Wednesday, for instance, the United States passed a new high in confirmed coronavirus cases: more than 37,000 in a single day. Thursday morning found Trump tweeting angrily at Fox News personality Ed Henry, who said Trump held a Bible upside down after gassing protesters in Lafayette Park. “It wasn’t upside down,” Trump insisted. Later, he took aim at former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who “lost so badly to me, twice in one campaign, that she should be voting for Joe.” After that, Trump tweeted “The Obama/Biden Administration is the most CORRUPT in HISTORY!” Later, he simply shouted into the digital ether, with no context, “LAW & ORDER!”
That the president’s Twitter feed sounds like Abe Simpson after a Fox News binge is old news. What is remarkable is that Trump is watching his poll numbers collapse and US coronavirus cases rise, all the while acting like he has no agency over the situation. A glance at the polling increases enjoyed by other world leaders and most US governors would reveal, instantly, the optimal political strategy for this situation: Demonstrate empathy and competence at a time when the American people are desperate for reassurance.
“In 2016, he was the outsider coming to shake up Washington,” says Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA. “The people who weren’t sure about the Democratic Party could say, ‘I’m going to give this guy a try.’ But now, he’s the incumbent and he’s responsible for the fix. Making everything us-versus-them is not a growth strategy.”
Instead, Trump is holding rallies maskless and settling old scores on social media. It is, to put it generously, a strategy against self-interest. And it suggests that what Trump did in 2016 was not a strategy at all: It was his sole way of being in the world, a mode that happened to match that moment, even as it’s failing him in this one.
“What does the dog do when it catches the car?” asks Levin. “Turns out the dog just keeps running and barking. I had this thought in the Lafayette Square madness. Trump puts on this show. And then he gets there and has nothing to do. He’s just standing there. His whole presidency is like that.”
In the American political system, of course, governance is not solely the job of the executive. But Trump’s congressional allies are mirroring his approach.
The collapse of the Republican Party
Even if the Republican Party were looking at reelection purely cynically, the calculus would be clear: Do everything possible — bear any burden, spend any amount — to contain the virus and pump up the economy. Trump’s negative interest in governing is not a positive interest in vetoing legislation. He will sign whatever congressional Republicans send him. And House Democrats, to their credit, have proven themselves willing to betray short-term political interests and spend trillions to keep state and local governments from collapsing, to make sure the jobless can keep paying their bills, to make sure hospitals have the money to handle the coming coronavirus surge.
But Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, have refused to even debate the most recent coronavirus bill passed by the House. And they have not offered an alternative of their own. Where Trump does nothing amid a manic frenzy of communication, they are doing nothing more quietly and genteelly. But they are still doing nothing, even as the virus roars back and the stock market plummets.
“The Republican Party is not a serious governing organization on the national level,” says Stevens, who in addition to working on Romney’s presidential campaign has worked for more than a dozen GOP gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns. “Look who they’re bringing in to testify as experts: Diamond and Silk. To me, the only thing remotely like it is the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, because the dissonance between what the party was and what it said it was was just so great.”
This is, again, something stranger than cynicism. Even if you believe Republicans devoid of governing principles, few believe that McConnell lacks a hunger to hold the majority. Yet Republican chances of keeping the Senate are weakening alongside Trump’s prospects: That same Times/Siena poll showed Democrats leading in Senate races in Arizona, North Carolina, and Michigan. In mirroring Trump’s lackadaisical approach to governance, Senate Republicans are imperiling their own power, their own jobs.
Both Trump and congressional Republicans are treating the condition of the country as something that has been done to them. In part, this is simply an extension of a strategy that showed some chance of working six months ago: Ride the economic expansion that began under Obama to victory in 2020. It wasn’t clear it would be enough — Trump trailed Biden then, too — but it was plausible.
Then, however, the tide turned, and so the posture of taking credit became a reality of absorbing blame. That a serious, determined approach to governance could have won public support — as has proven true for Republican and Democratic governors alike — seems not to have dawned on Trump. For all his strongman pretensions, he and his national allies are afflicted by a passivity that’s proving lethal, for both their constituents and their careers.
“How can you be a governing party if one of your principles is being against government?” asks Stevens. “It’s that line of Ronald Reagan’s: The most dangerous words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ This was a time we needed the federal government to save people’s lives, and it just imploded.”
This is the problem Trump faces in 2020, and it will not be solved by tweets or Facebook strategy. He is falling in the polls because he is failing the country.