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Dems’ Perilous Underestimation of Trump
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Dems’ Perilous Underestimation of Trump

He repels swing voters, but he isn’t unelectable.

Donald Trump supporters hold flags near Trump's Mar-a-Lago home on April 1, 2023. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Republicans are very much struggling these days  to remember the lessons of the past three election cycles: 

In 2018, the party saw its worst midterm shellacking since the post-Watergate massacre of 1974. 

In 2020, Donald Trump joined Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush to become only the fourth president in a century not to win re-election.

In 2022 Republicans had the party’s weakest midterm showing against a first-term Democratic president since JFK 60 years prior.

The main reason for all these misadventures was Trump himself, whose power to command Republican primary voters is equalled only by his power to repel swing voters in general elections. Indeed, the two are very much related. 

Part of what makes it possible for millions of Republicans to be so obedient to a leader who has so often led them to woe is how very upset he makes other people. Thanks to the strong sense of victimhood on the American right today, Trump benefits from low expectations for success and high rewards for offending mainstream, moderate voters whom many Republicans perceive as agents of their oppression. Trump’s unpopularity with upwardly mobile suburbanites, particularly women, is a credential in the eyes of populistic right-wingers, particularly men, who see themselves shut out of the emerging elite. Of course they don’t like him, because he’s a threat to their power …

This has been a major problem with the electability argument many Republicans have tried to marshal against Trump. First, there are the rationalizations: That’s what you said in 2016 and 2020 was rigged. Which leads to the essential piece of the logical fallacy that constrains the GOP: Democrats and the new, woke elite are so powerful that ONLY Trump can break through. Close behind it is step three: Criticism of Trump within the party puts the accuser on the same side as the perceived oppressors. And just like that, you build a perpetual-motion machine for Trump in which his failures with swing voters become fuel for his re-re-nomination.

And then there’s this: Trump isn’t unelectable.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll has Trump leading President Joe Biden by 7 points in a hypothetical rematch, 49 percent to 42 percent. I’ll grant you the necessary caveats: It’s just one poll. The substantial number of undecided voters would not likely break in Trump’s favor. It’s about the same margin by which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis outperformed Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head.

All true, but sit with this nugget for a bit. In the crosstabs of the poll, 56 percent of respondents said that Trump should face criminal charges for trying “to illegally overturn the 2020 election results.” Of that group, 18 percent said they would vote for Trump over Biden anyway.

Nearly 1 in 5 of the Americans who believe Trump acted criminally to try to steal a second term would prefer him to Biden in 2024.

Who are these folks likely to be? These are not the victimhood feedback loopers who are backing Trump in the Republican primary. A lot of them are likely members of neither major party. Some of them probably voted for Biden in 2020. This is the other side of the suburban street from the staunch anti-Trump moderates. They believe Trump is a criminal and, presumably, a dangerous person to return to power, but would prefer that to another four years of Biden and his party in power.

Before you dismiss these voters as nihilists or partisan drones, remember that 63 percent of respondents, including 21 percent of Democrats, think Biden lacks the “mental sharpness” to serve effectively. Sixty-two percent, including 23 percent of Democrats, think Biden lacks the physical capacity for the job. The plurality of respondents think both men are too old to serve, but for Biden and age, the consensus is overwhelming: 69 percent of independents say he is not mentally able to fulfill his duties. 

Given the way the Republican establishment has been falling in line for Trump and how Trump has been trying to make nice with the party, you can see a scenario in which Trump would again pick a running mate that might allay voter concerns about his most mercurial and corrupt impulses. But Biden already has his running mate, and she has done nothing to allay concerns, and probably enhanced them.

It’s probably true that Biden is better off facing Trump than a Republican with less baggage, but that’s not the same thing as Trump being easy to beat. That kind of thinking invites Democrats to take a second term for granted and, therefore, increases discontentment on the blue team.

At this point in his presidency, Trump enjoyed a 93 percent approval among Republicans on his way to a 45 percent overall score. Biden now stands at 80 percent approval among members of his own party, helping him slide to a 36 percent rating among all voters. Biden is certainly struggling with independents, but it is members of his own party that are most responsible for his weak showing.

Republicans have been too quick to forget how badly Trump has damaged their party and its brand since 2018. But Democrats have certainly overlearned the lesson and concluded Trump can’t win. That could prove to be a perilous assumption.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.