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Panic Time
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Panic Time

Even the best-case election scenario now looks very bad.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024, in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Chatting with a relative this weekend, I felt a twinge of optimism about the presidential campaign.

Don’t worry, it was fleeting.

The relative in question voted for Donald Trump twice but her politics are anti-left, not MAGA. She worries about crime and inflation, as most of us do. She resents Joe Biden for not caring about the border. She loathes the pro-Hamas campus protesters.

But she was alarmed by what she heard on Saturday night.

She had Fox News on in the background as the network carried Trump’s latest rally live from New Jersey. And for the first time in years, she got to hear him speak at length, unfiltered. “He was ranting and raving!” she complained, taken aback.

Well, yes, I said. That’s sort of his thing.

But he really was in rare form that evening. And “his thing” is darker now than it used to be.

It’s strange to think of a Republican voter being surprised by Trump’s demagoguery, as it’s been the essence of the man and his movement for almost a decade. But he has gotten worse over time—angrier, obsessively vengeful, more blatantly authoritarian, and lately prone to praising Hannibal Lecter for God knows what reason. For a casual voter who hasn’t paid him much attention since early 2021, a long look at the former president in “retribution” mode is a bit of a revelation.

And so, for a moment, I felt optimistic. Millions of other casual voters will be having the same revelation this summer as they tune into the campaign. Trump being Trump, he probably won’t even feign normalcy during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention. The next six months will be a sustained advertisement by the Republican Party that its nominee is less fit for office than ever.

Then it occurred to me that … my relative is almost certainly going to vote for Trump anyway. And if she’s willing to put aside her horror at his mental decompensation in the name of ousting Biden, many other horrified casual voters are destined to do so as well.

On that happy note, today we’re going to talk about the latest New York Times poll of six key battleground states. The results of that poll don’t guarantee a Trump victory in November, of course, but they do guarantee that a Trump defeat will be more destabilizing to the country than it was in 2020. Realistically, there’s no longer any “clean” outcome to this election for America.

There never is when one of the two major parties is led by a sore-loser manbaby. But this winter is shaping up to be even messier than most of us fear.

Biden is probably going to lose this election.

Many of us realize that already, I suspect, but grief is a process. Anti-Trumpers who are momentarily stuck in denial still have about six months to reach the “acceptance” stage and naturally some are in no hurry to get there.

The hard reality, though, is that the Southern and Western swing states won by the president in 2020 are drifting further into Trump’s column. The new Times poll finds him leading among registered voters by 7 points in Arizona, 10 points in Georgia, and 12 points in Nevada, margins that threaten to make each state noncompetitive.

Those numbers may be gaudier than in other surveys but they’re part of a trend that has Trump comfortably in front in all three states. Another poll of Arizona taken last month saw him ahead by 7 points as well while others in the state put his lead at between 4-6 points. Multiple surveys of Georgia in April found him 6 points up on Biden there. And while the TimesNevada number is a bit of an outlier, a Morning Consult poll published weeks ago detected an 8-point advantage.

As you digest that, bear in mind that polling has traditionally underestimated Trump’s support. Maybe the industry has finally figured out how to poll the low-propensity working-class voters who keep surprising everyone by showing up in droves for their hero on Election Day, but if not, his advantage in these three states is even larger than the polls anticipate.

We’re running out of rationalizations for how Biden is supposedly going to turn this around.

The most common one is that it takes time for good economic news to penetrate the public consciousness. Supposedly, once Americans awaken to the fact that job growth has been robust and steady and that the stock market has been on a sustained tear, attitudes will brighten and Biden will gain altitude.

I’m skeptical. The latest monthly jobs report came in under expectations. Consumer confidence isn’t rising; it declined in April for the third month in a row. And Americans are growing pessimistic again about inflation, with the anticipated rate for the next year having recently reached its highest level in five months. In the Times poll, more than 50 percent of registered voters rated national economic conditions as “poor” in five of the six states surveyed. 

An incumbent can’t get reelected in an environment like that. And we’re reaching the point on the calendar where even if Biden suddenly got a string of encouraging economic data, it’s anyone’s guess whether there’s enough time left before November for voters to gain sufficient confidence that the trend will continue to justify handing him a second term.

The other commonly heard rationalization for why this might all turn around is the one I laid out above. Casual voters don’t realize yet how much more insane Trump is now than he was the last time they saw him. As they wise up, the polls will move in Biden’s direction.

I’m skeptical of that too. The last time they saw him, after all, he was trying to stage a coup and egging on a mob to attack the Capitol. He may be “ranting and raving” more lately, but if you’re open to voting for Trump after January 6 you’ve made peace with his general nuttiness—even if a strong dose of it like Saturday’s rally occasionally leaves you feeling woozy.

And while my relative may not have paid him any attention until recently, millions of other casual voters surely have since he clinched the Republican nomination months ago. To all appearances, he hasn’t suffered much from the exposure: His lead in national polling over Biden shrank after January but has settled in at a steady 1- or 2-point margin since then. (On this date four years ago, Biden led by 4.5 points by comparison.) One would never know from looking at the data that Trump is the defendant in a criminal trial in Manhattan that’s been going on for weeks, where testimony has implicated him in cheating on his wife with a porn star and planting sleazy smears of his political opponents in national tabloids.

Trump critics have spent nine years waiting for Americans to have a “eureka” moment that he’s unfit for office. But the problem has never been getting voters to recognize that he’s unfit; the problem has been getting them to agree that he’s less fit than his opponent.

Between persistent inflation, left-wing wedge issues like the war in Gaza, and of course his very advanced age, Joe Biden is less qualified now than he was four years ago to make the case that he’s the fitter of the two candidates. Despite his best efforts to turn the race into another referendum on Trump, the data suggests that for most voters it’s more of a referendum on the incumbent, as reelection bids tend to be. For cripes sake, he’s at 33 percent in the Times swing-state poll when Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jill Stein, and Cornel West are included as options for respondents.

In fact, despite Biden trailing Trump in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, the same Times poll finds the Democratic candidates for Senate in all three states leading their Republican opponents. Democrats likewise lead in the generic ballot average nationally even though Biden consistently trails Trump head-to-head. He’s the weak link in the party, plainly; a meaningful share of swing voters who are open to voting for Democrats in principle really, really do not want to vote for him again.

All you need to know about how grim things look is the fact that Biden’s own campaign can’t do better than this bit of lame, half-hearted hand-waving when confronted with the polls:

None of this is to say that he can’t win, of course. He’s still competitive in the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the so-called “blue wall” that Trump flipped in 2016 against Hillary Clinton and which Biden flipped back in 2020. If the president wins those three, he can lose Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada and still clinch a second term.

Realistically, that’s his best-case scenario at this point. But even that is very dark.

It’s not unheard of for an incumbent to win by a smaller margin in his second campaign for president than he did in his first. Barack Obama did it in 2012, taking 332 electoral votes after winning 365 four years earlier.

But 332 is a comfortable margin. If Biden holds off Trump in the Rust Belt while losing Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada and all other states vote the way they did in 2020, the president will prevail by a margin of … 273-265.

How do you think a country in which half the voters have already been driven to the brink of authoritarian madness with propaganda about rigged elections will react to an outcome that tight?

It gets worse. If Trump flips multiple battlegrounds won by Biden in 2020 but loses the election narrowly, it’s a cinch that the president’s margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin will be extremely tight. We may all get to relive the “hanging chads” insanity of Florida 2000 in November, except this time it could play out across three states instead of one.

Or we may get to live something more sinister. Thanks to gerrymandering, both houses of Wisconsin’s legislature are dominated by Republicans. That will change somewhat soon, but it’s plausible that the GOP will retain control of both chambers in this fall’s elections and/or that it’ll gain control of both chambers in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Imagine Team Trump rerunning its 2020 effort to pressure Republican state legislators into overturning their state’s election results, except this time any one of the three battlegrounds I’ve just named could single-handedly push him over 270 electoral votes by doing his bidding.

Imagine what those states would look like between November and January.

The last time we had an election as close as 273-265, Al Gore conceded following a court fight for the good of the country. If we have another one this year, the losing candidate will be a narcissistic freak who continues to hedge about political violence if, in his considered opinion, the outcome of the election isn’t “fair.” “If everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results. I don’t change on that,” Trump said recently. “If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.”

That’s code for “if I lose, it was rigged,” and his cronies in the GOP establishment know it. Already, prominent figures in the party have refused to commit to accepting the results this fall lest they offend the heroic Republican myth that Trump is invincible in a fair fight.

We have all the makings here of “Stop the Steal 2.0,” in other words—except this time, thanks to Biden’s persistent weakness in polling, a Democratic victory will seem more inexplicable and suspicious to those expecting a Trump victory. In 2020, the fact that Biden led comfortably throughout the campaign probably ended up persuading many Americans that his narrower-than-expected victory was legitimate despite the caterwauling from Trump and MAGA. How will those same Americans react to a second, even narrower Biden victory in November after months of polling that consistently showed him likely to lose?

Believing that the election was rigged will become Republican orthodoxy overnight, cynically amplified by every pandering striver with an eye on higher office, and may catch on considerably among independents. Instead of a country in which one-third of citizens believe their leader gained power illegitimately, we may find ourselves in a country in which one-third do not.

But you don’t need conspiracy theories to explain how a Biden upset could happen.

It could be that the current polling is simply wrong. Some of the president’s voters may be so unenthusiastic about him that they’re not answering calls from pollsters (or are embarrassed to tell those pollsters how they intend to vote), leading to artificially low numbers for him in surveys. Disgruntled Democrats who don’t want to confess their preference for Biden might well sigh and come home to him in the end when the prospect of a second Trump term finally stares them in the face.

Or perhaps the low-propensity voters whom Trump is counting on to turn out are being overestimated and will end up staying home, reflecting the anemic interest Americans have shown in their choices this year. Already, in fact, Biden performs better in polls that screen for likely voters rather than for registered voters. (As pollsters shift to likely-voter screens this summer, expect Biden’s numbers to improve and Trump to cite that as evidence that “the rigging” has already begun.) Democrats will probably also end up with more money to turn out their marginal voters than Republicans will have to turn out their own.

Or, maybe, Democrats and state referenda down ballot will have a sort of “reverse coattails” effect in which disaffected liberals show up to vote for their party in Senate or gubernatorial races and then end up casting a very reluctant ballot for Grandpa Joe while they’re there. That’s what Democrats are counting on in Florida, in fact, where a ballot initiative on abortion currently enjoys massive support—albeit not quite massive enough to rescue Biden.

Even if Trump were to lead in polling all the way to Election Day, a critical mass of undecideds might go into the voting booth, stare at the name on the Republican line and remember January 6, and conclude “I just can’t do it” before gritting their teeth and pulling the lever for Biden. Public revulsion is a meaningful X factor when you have a coup-plotting lunatic on the ballot. An upset isn’t hard to imagine if you’re thinking seriously about the race.

But if you’re a loyal Republican who knows that Trump tends to overperform his polls and you’ve spent the better part of a year in a state of high excitement that he’s polling better than he ever has, defeat will be unfathomable. Motivated reasoning will assure that your explanations for his failure are nefarious ones.

That’s especially true given the sustained hype about Trump making inroads with voters who are young and/or nonwhite. “Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are essentially tied among 18-to-29-year-olds and Hispanic voters, even though each group gave Mr. Biden more than 60 percent of their vote in 2020,” the Times reports on its new poll. “Mr. Trump also wins more than 20 percent of Black voters—a tally that would be the highest level of Black support for any Republican presidential candidate since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

How could he possibly lose an election when the Democratic base was moving right? There’s an answer to that question, but it’s not going to be persuasive to Trump voters who’ve gorged for months on data about an alleged racial realignment triggered by Trumpy populism and a widespread consensus forming that Biden is too old to serve another term.

Victory for an enfeebled president who’s hemorrhaging voters from his own racial coalition will seem incomprehensible to true believers, casting not just the result of this election into doubt but making the hysteria around 2020 seem newly credible in retrospect.

We’re destined, then, to reprise the “Stop the Steal” hysteria of 2020, this time with a race whose outcome is harder to explain, with a losing party that’s more cultishly loyal than it was even four years ago, and with a candidate who’s facing more than just the end of his political career if he fails to regain power. The fate of multiple criminal prosecutions pending against him hangs on the outcome. Trump has nothing to lose by resisting defeat as desperately as he can.

And of course, that too will influence how Republican voters react to an upset Biden victory. Insofar as anyone on the American right rejects Trump’s narrative of ballot-rigging and accepts the results of this race as formally “fair,” they’ll insist that it was fundamentally unfair because he was forced to run for reelection with a cloud of criminal suspicion hanging over his head. Without those four indictments, they’ll insist, Trump would have beaten Biden in the Rust Belt.

They might be right.

Americans had two opportunities this year to avoid an election that would plunge the country into a civic nightmare. One was to defeat Trump in the Republican primary, of course; failing that, the other was to hand Biden a solid and consistent lead in polling followed by an easy victory this fall, making Trump’s inevitable screeching about election fraud implausible. The first opportunity was squandered, the second is evaporating before our eyes.

Not only have we handed matches to an arsonist, we’ve soaked the civic stability of this country in gasoline for him—and many of us have done so quite purposefully. There’s no way to argue we won’t deserve what we get.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.