Donald Trump just had one of the worst weeks any President has ever had. He became the first President ever to receive a vote for removal by a member of his own party. Despite widespread speculation that some Democrats would break to his side, not a single Democrat voted to keep him in office. And despite his protestations, he was hardly exonerated: in fact, a majority of members of the Senate – Democrats and Republicans – agreed that he had behaved inappropriately, even if some concluded it was not enough to justify removal from office. His State of the Union and National Prayer Breakfast speeches were divisive, hateful and alienating to the majority of Americans. He was so flustered and out of control that he used the word “bullshit” on national TV. By the best estimates, his disapproval rating hovers about 7-10% above his approval rating, making him the least popular President in modern history at this point in his term.
But you wouldn’t know it from watching the news, not even the “fake news” on those left-leaning outlets. Nope, according to the consensus, Donald Trump just had the best week of his presidency – which, while admittedly a very low bar, is not only dumb, but just objectively wrong.
Look, the Democratic disaster in Iowa could only have helped Trump. And the in-fighting and stupid nonsensical conspiracy theories it has spurred show that, even in the face of the greatest existential threat in the history of our nation, the Democrats are going to try to their goddamned best to sabotage themselves again. But Iowa and its fallout are going to be forgotten in a few weeks. Trump is still going to be historically unpopular, Trump is still going to be impeached and under continuing investigation, Trump’s surrogates are going to continue flipping and/or finding themselves under indictment, and there is a whole new library of footage for campaign ads in the fall, from Adam Schiff’s powerful closing argument, to Trump’s obscene ranting in the White House, to Mitt Romney’s historically eloquent speech explaining his vote to remove Trump.
This incorrect and self-defeating narrative is an unfortunate continuation of what’s gone on since election night 2016. From the moment the election was called for Donald Trump, the Democrats and the media – even the “liberal media” – seemed anxious to fall all over themselves to proclaim Trump’s fluke win some sort of revolutionary turn in American politics and to concede the 2020 election to him as well. But as I wrote on Election Night 2016, there was (and is) no reason to believe that is true. Trump performed about average for a Republican presidential candidate; it was Hillary Clinton who catastrophically underperformed in swing states that her campaign had ignored. Nearly five million people who voted for Obama stayed home in a race that was ultimately decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Had even a handful of those voters turned out in those states, Hillary would have eked out a victory and none of this narrative would have taken hold. That is the definition of a fluke.
And, it bears repeating, that there are very good explanations for why those voters stayed home. Not only did Hillary carry with her historic negatives dating back to her time as First Lady, not only was she hit with the mother of all “October surprises” when James Comey confoundingly publicly reopened the investigation into her wrongdoing despite a total lack of new evidence, but Hillary ran one of the worst campaigns in memory. She all but ignored those crucial swing states and spent the week before the election publicly planning her victory party. If you were a swing voter in a moderate state, someone who was likely to hold personal reservations about Hillary even if you preferred her to Trump, why on Earth would you turn out to cast a vote when she had already telegraphed that her victory was inevitable? Had Hillary just focused on her get out the vote efforts instead of picking out barge-launched fireworks, the result in 2016 would almost certainly have been different, even with all the other negatives working against her.
So, is there any reason to think Trump is going to be stronger or more popular this time around? Well, there’s nothing in the objective data that suggests it. Sure, his vocal surrogates are even more vocal, whether on social media or Fox News and other right wing media outlets. That might create the appearance of popularity but, as mentioned above, his negatives are historically bad and a majority of voters say that they have already decided to vote against him.
And, before you even start to say that the polls were wrong in 2016 and could be again, that’s also not true. The polls in 2016 showed a very close race that was inching in Trump’s favor in the closing weeks. While Hillary still went in as the heavy favorite, the polls showed Trump had a much higher probability of victory than Romney or McCain had carried into their elections with Obama (and, look, it also bears mentioning in the polls’ defense that Hillary was in fact the more popular candidate in 2016, beating Trump by more than two million votes). What was wrong in 2016 was the media coverage of the polls: traditional wisdom was skewed so far against Trump’s viability, that the media took Hillary’s slight lead and presented it as an insurmountable lead (an effect she only exaggerated with her premature victory plans).
In head-to-head contests, virtually every Democratic candidate outpolls Trump in 2020. And that’s at a time when the Democrats are in disarray, before they eventually coalesce behind a single candidate and honed their messaging. By the time the Democrats come out of their convention, it’s likely that their candidate will have a meaningful lead over Trump.
That’s not to say victory is inevitable, of course. That was the biggest mistake of 2016 and no one should underestimate the Democrats’ incomparable ability to pry defeat from the jaws of victory. But let’s keep some perspective: the Democrats begin the campaign with a 7-8% edge in generic party ID, facing the least possible President to ever seek re-election, and with a base that remains highly energized to kick Trump out of office. Those are all good things. Unlike the news for Trump over the last week.