While Trump has an inconceivable 40.3% approval at the time this is being written, he could still win the 2020 election. His possible victory does not hinge on any pandemic miracle or other such radical change: he can win even if things keep on their current trajectory. So, how can he win?
The first thing to consider is his 2016 victory. While Joe Biden is leading Trump, the same was true of Hilary Clinton. The polls were actually accurate: Clinton beat trump by about 3 million votes in 2016, but still lost to Trump because of the way the electoral college works. Trump could do the same in 2020: get crushed by Biden in the popular vote, yet still win the election. If Trump had to win a majority of the votes, he would almost certainly lose—but he does not need to do that, and this is critical to a Trump 2020 win.
One factor helping Trump is that he has a solid base. Some of his base seem to be analogous to sports fans: they are loyal to him in way people are fans of sports teams. Professional sports teams obviously stand for nothing significant in terms of values, principles, or policies. For example, one is not a Red Sox fan because they stand for constitutional democracy or kindness to animals. You are fan because of things like where you were born, where you went to school, or which team your family rooted for. People often stick to their fandom even when their team is losing, when players are traded and when management changes—after all, they are fans of the team, which is an abstract thing. Naturally, they do want to beat the other teams and often have intense rivalries based on nothing of real significance. Fans even riot and engage in violence because of their fandom. The same seems to hold for Trump supporters—they are fans of Trump, wear his hat, buy his merch, chant his chants, and want him to beat the opposing team. They will stick with Trump like sports fans stick to a losing team—it is their team.
Trump also seems to have a cult following as well—although this analysis is controversial despite the fact that it seems accurate. Trump himself has noted that he could commit murder and not lose voters. While this has not been tested, he does seem to be immune to the consequences of scandals and misdeeds—something that will play a role if he is re-elected in 2020. Trump can thus count on a solid base no matter what he does—which gives him a shot at being re-elected in 2020. However, there is an obvious problem: his dedicated base is a numerical minority and even if he always can count on them, they would not be enough.
While Trump does enjoy the backing of the ignorant, the evil and opportunists, he faces numerous obstacles in expanding from his base. While his appeals to racism, white nationalism, xenophobia, and sexism do garner him some support, he has probably milked those cows dry. As such, his best option is to reduce the votes for Biden rather than increase the votes for him. Trump is well aware of this.
Trump, who is famous for shouting what other Republicans whisper behind closed doors, asserted that,“The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” While Trump is probably wrong about this as a general claim, he is probably right in his own case: if most people vote in 2020, then he would most likely lose. As such, Trump is following a well-established strategic plan—the big difference is that he is announcing his moves publicly.
One factor that predates Trump is the disenfranchisement of Americans who live outside of states. For example, American citizens who are residents of Puerto Rico do not get to vote in the Presidential election as Puerto Rico has no votes in the electoral college. Given Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico, he would probably not fare well if they were able to vote. While they are citizens, they do not matter when it comes to the presidential election, something that currently seems to favor Trump.
A second factor that predates Trump is the disenfranchising of felons. While people do attempt a modern defense, usually by asking “do you want rapists and murderers to vote?”, this was and is a conscious strategy to disenfranchise black voters. While there is some moral appeal in denying “rapists and murders” their right to vote, it is worth considering that even minor crimes are often classified as felonies. For example, if an 18-year-old shoplifts an Xbox in Florida, then that is a felony (stealing $300+ is a felony). There is also the fact that minorities are policed more aggressively and more likely to be convicted. While it is true that whites are caught up in this, the impact is disproportional on minorities—and Republicans tend to believe that minorities will vote for Democrats. While my adopted state of Florida is now allowing some felons to vote, the Republican controlled legislature is doings its best to sabotage this. While a full analysis of the impact of felony disenfranchisement’s impact on elections is beyond the scope of this work, when you consider that there are about 19 million Americans with felony records and most states restrict their voting rights, this can have a significant impact on elections. The Republicans think that this benefits them; and they are probably right.
A third factor that predates Trump is voter suppression. The Voter Rights Act used to provide some protection for voters, but it was recently gutted, and states leaped to passing voter ID laws and other such things that seem clearly aimed at suppressing voters. The general idea behind these tactics is to make it harder for certain classes of people to vote by requiring IDs, by limiting poling hours, by reducing the number of poling sites and so on. While this does hurt voters of both parties, the belief is that this hurts minorities and hence Democrats more. The usual argument is that these are all aimed at preventing voter fraud: something which happens at miniscule level and hence does not warrant these laws. Ironically, recent real cases of election fraud have been perpetrated by Republicans. The same holds for voter fraud, with Republican Steve Watkins making the news when he was accused of voting illegally. If these efforts at voter suppression and election fraud prove effective, they can help contribute to a Trump victory.
A fourth factor which seems new with Trump is an attack on vote by mail. As with other allegations of fraud, there is no meaningful evidence for this. Ironically, Trump votes by mail. Trump’s real worry about voting by mail is that it will allow a large turnout, which he believes will hurt him. As such, he is pushing (without evidence) a tale of fraud that is infecting the internet. He has also stepped up the Republican war on the United States Post office; he is willing to do significant damage to a service that is actually essential to many members of his base in the hopes of increasing his chances of winning.
Trump has consistently pushed his followers to reject masks and social distancing (though he has started wearing a mask on some occasions)—perhaps this is tied in to the post office plan: if vote by mail is discredited or reduced and Trump’s followers are more willing than others to vote in person, this would help Trump. That is, he is willing to put millions at risk for the hope of an advantage in the election.
A final factor is that the Republicans control many of the mechanisms of elections and election resolution. Republicans have control of many state legislatures and courts, so contested aspects of the election are likely to end up being resolved by those who favor Trump. For example, if the election ends up in the Supreme Court, it is likely to go 5 to 4 in Trump’s favor. Trump is also refusing to say that he will accept the results of the election if he loses, which is a first for an American president and shows just how much democracy matters to him—that is, not at all.
It might be objected that I am favoring democracy for sinister reasons: I want Trump to lose and know that in a free, fair and democratic election he would get crushed. My response is that I consistently favor democracy, even when my party loses—I have a written record going back that supports this.
As a final point, why does this matter? If you believe in democracy—that the legitimacy of the government rests on the decision of the majority, then these tactics should morally offend and disgust you. If all that matters is that your side wins, then the tactics do not matter—all that matters is victory. If so, you do not believe in democracy. You do not believe in America.