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In Trump Years, It Feels Like Late in His Second Term

Intelligencer logo Intelligencer 6/16/2020 Ed Kilgore
Donald Trump, George W. Bush are posing for a picture: Three-and-a-half years of Trump may be like eight of a less exhausting presidency. Left: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/Right: Ron Sachs/Shutterstock © Left: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/Right: Ron Sachs/Shutterstock Three-and-a-half years of Trump may be like eight of a less exhausting presidency. Left: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/Right: Ron Sachs/Shutterstock

In October of 2017, when the Trump Era was young, I made this weary observation:

2020 seems impossibly far away, particularly as measured in Trump years, in which every day, week, and month can be excruciatingly long.

That was from the perspective of a digital scribbler who had to pay attention to this exhausting man’s every rambling utterance and perverse instinct, not to mention his occasional but often astounding acts. But as Charlie Cook suggests, perhaps the wear-and-tear of the Trump presidency is beginning to show on the general public:

It might be that one Trump year is the same as two years of another president in office — and that the electorate has already reached a tipping point with him.

Polling suggests that there is an accumulated weariness that has been developing over time but may have reached a critical mass in recent weeks. The question is whether, for Trump, the “time for a change” that is normal after eight years may be happening in just four.

That’s not to say there isn’t a virtually unshakable Trump base that can’t get enough of what he’s serving, much as millions of people have bottomless appetites for Real Housewives spinoffs or Doritos. Cook estimates his actual base as about 40 or 41 percent of the electorate. But it has never much expanded, and we’re getting to the point where it seems unlikely it will. Indeed, it’s beginning to feel like the second half of George W. Bush’s second term, when big chunks of the country tuned out and his job approval ratings generally drifted downward. Voters were getting tired of the Decider, and generally worsening objective conditions in the country made it impossible for him to recover his mojo. If Cook is right about the extra effort Trump’s very presence requires, he may have used up his opportunities to change anyone’s opinion of him to the better, while building an inchoate desire among millions for someone — anyone — different.

Even if that’s inaccurate, and Trump’s not on the edge of a quick slide towards overwhelming unpopularity, he actually needs a trend in the opposite direction, as Cook’s protege Amy Walter observes:

[Trump’s] ability to win re-election is centered on him being as close in his job approval ratings as his popular vote showing in 2016. The closer he sits to 46-48 percent job approval rating in October, the better chance he has to squeak out another narrow Electoral College win. But, when he gets much below 45 percent, his path to Electoral College victory gets more and more narrow.  

In part that’s because we are very unlikely to have the kind of minor-party voting we saw in 2020, for reasons ranging from ballot access problems, to obscure nominees, to Trump’s own polarizing effect. He carried seven states in 2016 with less than a majority of the vote, and wound up with a lower percentage of the popular vote (46.1 percent) than Mitt Romney received in a losing effort in 2012 (47.2 percent). Even granting him an Electoral College advantage, he’s not going to win unless his approval ratings go up, and at present they are going down, along with his vote share in trial heats:

Polling taken in late May/early June has seen Trump’s position in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin, slide anywhere from 4 to 7 points from his 2016 showing. In other words, he’s not only struggling to improve on his 2016 standing, but he’s losing ground from his already anemic performance. Moreover, even those states where his vote share was just above 50 percent, like Iowa (51.2 percent) or Ohio (51.3 percent), Trump is struggling. The most recent Des Moines Register Poll put Trump’s showing against Biden at 44 percent. And, again, even before COVID or protests began, there were signs that Trump’s showing in those states in 2016 were a high-water mark. A Marist poll taken in March showed Trump at just 46 percent of the vote to Biden’s 47 percent — a five-point drop from his 2016 showing.  

Add in the fact that the base-obsessed Trump seems unwilling to try out any new messages or policies that might appeal to persuadable voters, and it begins to look like all the money and social media ads and monster rallies the president puts together may simply amplify the noise created by the same people who have been with him even when his approval ratings were in the 30s. As in 2016, his prospects for victory may depend heavily on the ability to demonize his opponent. But to do so he may need to get his scene-chewing narcissistic persona out of the way before his show gets canceled. And he’s shown time and time again he just can’t leave us alone.

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