I used to teach students in my political science calls that, in a race between Candidates A and B, there are four ways of voting.
1) Vote for Candidate A
2) Vote for Candidate B
3) Vote against Candidate A
4) Vote against Candidate B
Option #1 and #2 reflect the "base" of voters who support the candidate because they like the candidate. But those voters often do not decide elections. You also have another pool of voters who cast ballots based on negative feelings toward candidate, i.e. Options #3 and #4. That is why negative ads can be very effective. They tap into another route for a candidate to get votes by demonstrating the other candidate is deeply flawed in some way.
But how do voters respond when they dislike both candidates? Some "double haters" (voters who dislike both candidates) stay home, others vote third party (if that's an option), but the biggest percent of those disaffected voters hold their nose and vote for the candidate they hate the least.
The 2016 presidential election featured the two most unpopular candidates ever nominated by the major political parties. As a result, there was no shortage of voters who disliked both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But, in 2016, 94% of those "double haters" held their nose and voted for one of major party candidates they disliked. Trump that election won the double hater vote by a very substantial 17% margin. No doubt, Trump's edge with double haters gave him the critical winning margin in scores of battleground states.
In short, Trump won in 2016 not by being popular, but being less hated than Hillary Clinton.
Four years later, the Trump campaign is ready to run the same playbook.. While former Vice President Joe Biden's popularity is already underwater, he still is much more popular than Hillary Clinton....and Donald Trump. No doubt, come November, the Trump campaign's attacks will drive Biden's negatives through the roof, perhaps making him as unpopular as Clinton was on Election Day The Trump campaign plans to simply substitute an unpopular Joe Biden for unpopular Hillary Clinton. The American electorate, once again faced again with a choice between two evils, chooses Trump!
There is a reason though why that strategy is unlikely to work this time around. In 2016, Trump was an outsider. Faced with a choice between two unpopular choices, most double hater voters preferred to try something new, the Donald. But in 2020, Trump is the incumbent President seeking re-election. As any analyst will tell you, such an election is inevitably a referendum on the incumbent.
Because of the referendum like election, double hater voters were already almost certain to favor Biden over Trump in 2020. What is truly shocking though is how lopsided those margins currently appear to be. A CNN poll released this week showed Biden with a 50% lead among the double haters. An NBC poll released late April also showed Biden with a 50% edge among voters who dislike both candidates.
No doubt constant bombardment of Biden with negative campaigning will cause voters currently liking the former Vice President to start disliking him. That no doubt helps Trump. But it helps only at the margins. The trouble with the strategy is that even if those voters start disliking Biden, they're still more likely to vote for him than a candidate, Trump, for whom they have a deep dislike. If the voters are unhappy with the President's performance in office, a Trump campaign that demonizes Biden does not move many of those voters from Biden back to Trump. That is why a scorched earth campaign against Biden is unlikely to work.
Trump's popularity has been underwater nearly his entire presidency. Trump was not alone, however.. A number of Republican and Democratic governors were also very unpopular, some even more than Trump. But during the Covid-19 crisis most of those governors have drastically improved their popularity by demonstrating competence, as well as being honest about the the virus and the sacrifices that were needed to counter the pandemic. Trump chose a different route, trying to spin the crisis, constantly lying when spin was not enough, and generally turning the crisis into a partisan battle. The public has not been pleased.
Go back to the four options for voting set forth at the top of this column. Considering the double hater bind, the best option for Trump, if he were a normal candidate, would be to go positive to increase the share of voters wanting to cast ballots for the President because they like him. Trump could demonstrate competence in office, treat opponents (and media) with respect, be honest, and not act like a jackass 24/7. Maybe even express some empathy for people who are suffering. While such personality changes would involve self-awareness and humility, traits seemingly absent from Trump's DNA, at least Covid-19 gave the President the opportunity to give people a reason to vote for him.
At this late date though, the only option the Trump has left is spin, to con the American public into not believing the spectacle they have witnessed the last few months, to instead believe the Trump administration handled the Covid-19 crisis "perfectly." No one except Trump's cultish base of voters, believes such nonsense.
The Trump campaign though is not without hope. The Electoral College provides that hope. Even though it is unquestioned by virtually any analyst that Trump will badly lose the popular vote in 2020, Trump can still win enough popular vote in key swing states to win the Electoral College. That scenario is unlikely though if, come Election Day, more than 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and the unemployment rate is double figures. People will, look at that carnage, and vote for a change.
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