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President Trump was disappointed. Bad weather on Wednesday forced a delay in SpaceX’s planned launch of the Dragon spacecraft, robbing the president of a prized photo opportunity. He plans to attend the next launch, scheduled for May 30 at 3:22 p.m. EDT, but the spoiled visit to Florida punctuated another week of foreboding news from the campaign trail.
The coronavirus has left President Trump without his signature issue (the economy) and without his preferred venue (the tentpole rally). The bump in his approval rating as Americans rallied around the flag at the outset of the crisis is gone. Assessments of Trump’s performance during the pandemic look a lot like his approval rating overall: polarized by party, and upside down. He continues to trail Joe Biden in both national and swing–state polls. The margins are narrow, but they are also consistent. President Trump has not been ahead in any live-interview national poll conducted this year.
Yet an aura of invincibility surrounds the president. That is why the same polls that show him losing to Biden also show that the public expects him to win. It is why betting markets favor him, too. After all, the story goes, Trump accomplished the impossible in 2016. He defeated the second-most-unpopular candidate in American history (he was number one) against all odds. Why can’t he do it again? The president’s imagination, ruthlessness, and guile, the shortcomings of his uninspiring and slightly out-of-it opponent, and the Teflon quality of this campaign have lulled the public and the GOP into a sense of complacency. Sure, things look bad. But Trump will find a way out of it. He always does.
Well, maybe not this time. The 2020 election looks more and more like a contest between luck and precedent. On one side is President Trump’s incredible run of good fortune. On the other side is the weight of history. Consider: Every president reelected since Mr. Gallup’s first poll in 1935 enjoyed at least one day, and often several, when his approval rating was above 50 percent. That is something President Trump has not experienced.
Not since 1940 has a president been reelected with a double-digit unemployment rate. Nor has a president been reelected with an unemployment rate two or more points higher than when he entered office. Unemployment was 15 percent in April 2020, and is expected to rise for at least a while longer. It was 5 percent in January 2017. The recovery will need to have the trajectory of an Elon Musk rocket for unemployment to fall to less than 7 percent by November 3.
That is when America will hold its 59th presidential election. In all but five of the previous 58 contests, the same man won both the popular and electoral votes. The fact that two of the exceptions occurred in the past 20 years has distorted our perspective. We begin to consider it not only possible but probable that President Trump could win reelection without winning the popular vote.
History suggests that what is possible is also unlikely. Reelection was a prize awarded to just one of the four men before Trump who entered office on the basis of the Electoral College alone. John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in the rematch of 1828. Rutherford B. Hayes did not run for a second term in 1880. Benjamin Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland in the rematch of 1892. The exception was George W. Bush, who defeated John Kerry in both the popular and electoral votes in 2004.
Bush, like Trump, faced an unexpected crisis in his first term. His decisive and compassionate leadership during the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath was an important factor in his reelection. Voters for whom terrorism was the most important issue backed Bush by a 72-point margin, according to the exit poll, and at that time majorities approved of the war in Iraq (51 percent) and considered it part of the war on terrorism (55 percent). Bush’s approval rating in the exit poll was 53 percent.
In the May 27 Reuters–Ipsos poll, the public disapproved of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while backing him on the economy and jobs. His job approval was 41 percent. In the May 21 Fox poll, it was 44 percent. Nowhere close to where it has to be to win a second term.
And so, America waits for Trump to pull a rabbit out of his hat. What might that look like? A stunning economic rebound would bolster the president’s strengths and restore confidence in his stewardship. Trump’s opponent might delegitimize himself through continued gaffes, a vice-presidential selection that frightens more people than it reassures, and debate performances that heighten concerns about age and ability. Something unexpected might happen. The campaign is young. As a wise man once wrote, only an idiot would bet against Donald Trump.