Future presidents take note: President Donald Trump’s economy-only re-election strategy is a textbook example of how to lose the White House.
Trump’s decision to focus his campaign on a rosy economic message concerned senior Republicans even before Covid-19 devastated the global economy. As far back as August of last year, party officials were already nervous that the president’s prolonged trade war with China could stunt growth and damage his re-election prospects in key rural states like Iowa and Ohio. Now the sweeping damage caused by coronavirus has turned the GOP’s economic argument into a major liability.
Few things are as deadly to an incumbent president’s popularity as an economy in freefall. Just how toxic is it? Emory University professor and political scientist Alan Abramowitz found that incumbent presidents facing a weak economy nearly always lost. Abramowitz’s model not only accurately predicted the winners of the past 11 elections, but it did so with amazing accuracy.
The lesson is clear: Don’t stake your candidacy on a booming economy.
There’s only one problem for the Trump campaign — the economic message is all they have. The Trump administration has failed to deliver on a single substantive promise made to independent and swing voters in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. What remains is the unspinnable truth that self-proclaimed genius Donald Trump has lost control of the country Americans trusted him to govern.
With 30 million Americans out of work, Trump’s plan to claim victory over unemployment now looks like a joke. Even worse, his administration has been caught completely unprepared for serious economic disruptions they were warned about months in advance.
The situation has degraded so completely that even Trump’s chief defenders can no longer gaslight the American people. In a May 24 interview, Senior White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett admitted unemployment would likely hit 20 percent over the summer, and the White House has no clear strategy for providing emergency relief to those new jobless.
The news gets worse. On May 26, Trump confidante Larry Kudlow announced the White House would no longer fight for a $600 weekly boost to unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs during America’s Covid-19 outbreak. “I frankly do not believe the $600-plus will survive the next round of talks,” Kudlow told Fox News.
A key part of Trump’s economy-only messaging is his commitment to “get America back to work,” reopening the country’s economy without regard for the dire warnings of bipartisan public health experts and even his own administration’s medical advisers. But a bipartisan majority of Americans prefer waiting to reopen the economy until the public health situation improves. By a 30-point majority, Americans agree public health should be our national priority. This week, a Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape Project survey found over seven in 10 Americans fear Trump is attempting to open the country too fast.
As it turns out, many Americans — especially older people more likely to fall into the Covid-19 increased risk profile — aren’t thrilled about their president putting the economy ahead of their lives. In 2016, Trump won voters aged 65 and over by an impressive 8 points. Today, those senior citizens now support Joe Biden by a stunning 17-point margin.
Let’s be clear: If Donald Trump heads into November losing senior citizens by 17 points and independents by up to 13 points, he faces a defeat of landslide proportions. In that scenario, he is likely to lose not only Michigan and Pennsylvania, but North Carolina, Arizona and Ohio as well.
The intense level of political polarization in American life means we likely won’t see a blowout of that scale, but these figures do highlight the incredible self-inflicted headwinds Donald Trump now faces. With a Covid-19 crisis that can’t be spun away with snappy Facebook ads or a clever hat, Trump’s erratic and directionless leadership style now threatens to alienate voter groups essential to his re-election roadmap.
Americans facing the cliff of unemployment and the pains of coronavirus can’t afford another damaging four years of directionless Trumpian “leadership.” Not in this economy.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly appears on NBC News Now, Fox News, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns