A Field Theory of the Race

John notes below some recent survey evidence, and incipient media panic, suggesting that Trump is rallying. Let’s step back from the day-to-day numerology of polls and headlines and consider presidential elections from a long-term point of view—a “field theory,” if you like.

Over the last 100 years, only three incumbent presidents were defeated for re-election: Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. (I omit Gerald Ford in 1976 since he was appointed rather than elected in his own right, though the analysis that follows here can be applied to him as well, and he very nearly won in the end after being way behind.)

On the other side of the ledger were presidents thought to be vulnerable (or even trailing in some polls) who ended up being re-elected, in some cases by solid margins: Harry Truman in 1948, George W. Bush in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2012.

Let’s think about some of the factors that went into these outcomes, and then apply them to the Biden-Trump race:

—Hoover, Carter, and Poppa Bush were ineffective in defending themselves and their records amidst a crisis (especially Poppa Bush with the relatively mild recession of 1991-92), and diffident or incoherent in their campaign attacks on their challengers. Trump faces the twin crisis of COVID-19 and a struggling economy, and is clumsy and impulsive much of the time, but does anyone think he and his campaign won’t be vigorous in defending themselves and attacking Biden?

—Hoover, Carter, and Poppa Bush all faced talented and formidable challengers in FDR, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Anyone think Joe Biden is as “talented and formidable” as FDR, Reagan, or Bill Clinton? You can stop laughing when you feel like it. Take your time; there’s no hurry.

—To the contrary, the vulnerable presidents who were re-elected faced weak or unconvincing challengers: think Tom Dewey against Truman in 1948 (Eisenhower would have beaten Truman easily), John Kerry (again, stop laughing when you feel like it) against Bush II in 2004, and Mitt Romney against Obama in 2012, who, aside from one good debate performance, campaigned poorly against Obama. Again, Biden seems much more like these weak challengers than the strong challengers.

Carter and George H.W. Bush (also Ford, but not Hoover) faced serious primary challenges from within their own party for renomination that weakened them heading into the general election campaign. Obviously Trump didn’t have this problem.

I conclude from this that a lot of voters will decide to stick with “the devil they know” if the challenger is weak and if the incumbent does a decent job of defending himself. That means advantage Trump. (Feel free, if you want, to include Poppa Bush, a sort-of incumbent when he ran the first time in 1988, who achieved a 25-point turnout in the vote by election day with skillful attacks on Dukakis.)

But don’t take my word for it. Some of this logic is implied in today’s Wall Street Journal column from Bill Galston, “Trump’s Unlikely Path to Victory.” Galston is a Clintonite liberal Democrat (he was also Walter Mondale’s issue director in 1984), so you should read between the lines and understand that this calmly argued article conceals his panic at the vulnerabilities of Biden’s campaign:

Although the Democratic convention was successful, it did open up some political vulnerabilities. The convention did not focus on Mr. Biden’s policy agenda. A plurality of Americans told CBS/YouGov that they thought the recent focus on discrimination against minorities had gone too far, an impression the convention did nothing to dispel. . .

The sharp economic downturn has reduced but not eliminated the advantage he holds over his challenger on the management of the economy. While his support among African-Americans has not increased, his tough immigration policies and unyielding social conservatism may have improved his standing in some parts of a diverse Hispanic community.

The president’s second-term agenda as announced at the Republican convention may also help. Reducing America’s dependence on Chinese manufacturing will appeal to voters across party lines, as will requiring new immigrants to support themselves financially. On balance, defending the police will play better politically than calls to defund them.

The Democratic Party’s newfound unity is a mixed blessing. The Biden campaign was compelled to accept compromises with forces well to the former vice president’s left, exposing him to charges that his agenda is unaffordable, even if he raises taxes by trillions of dollars, which may itself be a political liability.

“Courage!”, as some forgotten network anchorman liked to say for some strange reason.

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