The logic of a Trump win

With the opinion polls showing a healthy lead for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, and the betting markets now putting him odds on, how might Donald Trump pull off a win in the US presidential contest on 3 November.

Well, Hillary also had a comfortable lead this time in 2016.  Biden’s lead is also narrower in the crucial battleground states.  

This time Trump is the incumbent.  Historically, Americans usually grant a second term, except in unusual circumstances.  But Covid does seem pretty unusual.

So the main reason for thinking that Trump might win is the old fashioned one – looking at his record and the plans of his opposition.

Start with the record. Trump – like his predecessor – can justly be faulted for not delivering on his exalted rhetoric.  But the extreme disruptor has delivered a dose of conservatism in public policy with a surprising amount of liberalism in economic management.  Running through the list: protect manufacturing jobs; (trying to) stop illegal immigration; (actually) stopping new regulations; stepping back from foreign wars; avoiding meddling with healthcare; appointing judges who look back 200 rather than 20 years; if you like your statues, you can keep your statues …

In sum, relatively little change from government, while letting free exchange do the heavy lifting of making Americans better off (in the pre-Covid economy).  

This has not been to the taste of the half of the country which watches CNN and sees a steady plod towards enlightenment as normal and civilized.  But the almost half which voted for an untried and unconventional candidate in 2016 is likely to have a more positive view.  It is noteworthy that during the most intense spells of criticism – for example during the Russia probe and the impeachment trial – his support tended to solidify.  A crucial part of his potential support saw him as more sinned against than sinning.

Turning to the opposition, Biden and the Democrats are doubling down on Hillary’s losing platform in 2016: higher taxes, more government regulation of healthcare and more environmental burdens.  The argument is that these are now more suited to current times, but it’s not obvious that there has been a decisive shift towards more government organisation, smaller houses and underpowered cars.

This may not matter to the crucial median voters. With hindsight, the Democrats may have had a stroke of genius in choosing as their standard bearer a man associated with few ideas and many compromises over fifty conventional years in politics.  The implicit message that normal service will be resumed might resonate more powerfully than any lack of inspiration.

Which brings us back to the impact of Covid.

On the one hand, Trump is in charge and bad things have happened on his watch.  It’s not clear how much damage there will be.  So voters might be more open to the suggestion that more government is the answer. Or they might just dislike the way Trump handled himself during the crisis.

On the other, they could conclude that there isn’t much Trump could have done (the record of Democrats like Governor Cuomo in New York state is less than compelling) and that his policies are more likely to generate a lasting recovery.

So should Covid prove to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back, don’t assume it will be a repudiation of the Donald’s legacy. He has forced the Republican party to restructure its coalition and given them a more consistent ideological identity than during the Bush years.

Democrats coming to power on their prospectus would face the dilemma of implementing policies likely to slow growth, while relying on growth to provide the revenues to satisfy expectations.  Meanwhile, they will have to cope with pressure from their own base to erase even the popular bits of Trump’s programme.  There don’t seem to be many options for them – not attractive ones anyway.

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