With the presidential election fast aproaching, a flush of polls hoping to predict its outcome has arrived. Most tilt in favor of President Donald Trump’s Democratic rivals, as was the case with one reported by Fox News that placed him behind candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. While many Democrats find these predictions reassuring, the stats are reminiscent of those published leading up to the 2016 election, one of which gave former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a 99% chance of securing the presidency.
Today, the number might better represent our pre-Trump naiveté, but it should also remind us to be realistic about the odds. It is true that Trump does not have the same standing as he did coming into the 2016 election, campaigning as an underdog with the benefit of a somewhat unprecedented candidacy. For better or for worse, the American people have witnessed the reality of a term under Trump, and many are soured on the prospect of another. His approval ratings have hovered around a discouraging 40% throughout his presidency and slipped to 36% as of early August. This dip may be attributed to his recent attacks on the “squad” of four congresswomen of color and the polarizing treatment of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Perhaps the most crucial factor in the prediction of 2020’s presidential election is the state of the economy, which tends to be a reliable indication of a sitting president’s chance at re-election. As a general rule, people who are satisfied with their financial outlook are more likely to stick with the incumbent administration. Economists have predicted that a recession is nearing, and the warning signs — an 800-point dip in the Dow Jones, for instance — are flashing. Though Trump’s initiation of an aggressive and unyielding trade war with China may not be the root cause, he would stand to lose voters if a recession were to occur.
But it would be foolish to rest the outcome of this election on the workings of a highly fickle economy (and uncouth to hope that a recession will arrive for political purposes). But it would also be a mistake to underplay the likelihood of Trump winning. As we have seen, the man may not be so easily written off.
There is a reason that his approval rates have remained stagnant these past years. He has cultivated — wittingly or otherwise — a cult of personality that inspires impressive support. Democratic candidates will have a hard time budging the stauncher of his followers, whereas Trump’s flashy and derisive political style may very well pull moderates and Democrats to his side. Unlikely as voter crossover may seem, a deciding factor in 2016 was the millions of Trump voters who had voted for former President Barack Obama in 2012.
This trend makes sense when you look at which areas swung: mainly struggling Rust Belt states that were looking to bounce back from heavy job loss these past years. Trump, along with the Republican Party, has a strong demographic advantage in these crucial swing states, such that he could lose the popular vote by several million ballots and still win the election (as occurred in 2016).
Another 2016 trend of note was the Russian interference in American voting systems and social media. Leading up to the election, thousands of fake accounts spread misinformation over the internet intending to sway Americans away from Clinton. The Russian government was also involved in the hacking of a Democratic National Committee server, releasing emails and information that damaged Clinton’s campaign. As the GOP recently struck down several election security bills, Trump may again proceed with the added advantage of a foreign government’s support.
This is all to say that Trump is not out of the race — and should not be considered as such until the ballots are tallied and the outcome has been declared. If a Democratic candidate can rouse voters with a substantial message instead of trusting Trump to self-disqualify, then they will have an honest chance of winning the election. If Trump manages to recapitalize on the moral divisions, immigration fears and economic angst of the American people, then he might amble again to the Oval Office.
The only surety is that this year will test the strength of the nation, its institutions and its people. For the time being, it is important to keep in mind that a nation is more than its president. The pursuit of democracy and liberty persist over the four-year term, and whether Trump wins or loses, it will be sure to prevail.
Dillon Cranston is a sophomore writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Wednesday.