The humble pundit will confess that, despite the stability of public-opinion surveys on the presidential race, the outcome of that vote remains unpredictable. The composition of the electorate in November will not be known until November. Events can intervene in the interim to shake up the race. And the validity of trends identified in polling is only as good as those polls. Uncertainty reigns. There may be only one thing of which you can be sure: On November 4, whatever the results of the election, they will have been inevitable.
You already know the story you’ll hear if the president loses his reelection bid. The polls are clear, and nearly every relevant issue before voters favors Joe Biden. Voters dislike Trump’s management of public health amid a once-in-a-century pandemic. The economic growth over which he presided for four years is gone. Trump is perceived to be needlessly hostile, obsessively provocative, and racially antagonistic. Americans believe he is a chaos agent—so much so, in fact, that even the rioters in streets, most of whom are vocally hostile toward Trump, are not written off as creations of the American left alone. As Trump’s anemic job approval ratings have foretold, the election of an erstwhile game show host to the presidency 2016 election was a fluke. Voters rectified the error at their first opportunity.
If Donald Trump wins reelection, though, few will recall how anyone could have predicted any other outcome.
Yes, Trump’s handling of the pandemic receives low marks from voters. Though the political press is loathe to admit it, the issue is receding from the forefront of public minds along with the country’s declining caseloads. The president retains his edge over Joe Biden on the issue of the economy, which, while on the mend, has a long way to go from its mid-pandemic implosion and requires a capable steward to speed its recovery. And while the press continues to insist that the president’s law-and-order rhetoric “appeals to the grievances of white supporters,” a conspicuous number of non-white voters agree that the ongoing lawlessness in America’s cities represents a grave threat. This week’s Monmouth University poll indicates that nearly two-thirds of all Americans believe “maintaining law and order” is a “major problem” in the U.S.—a point of view shared by six-in-ten black non-Republicans and two-thirds of all other non-Republicans of minority extraction. The only demographic to dissent from this proposition were white Democrats.
And just look at how Joe Biden campaigned? When his electoral enterprise emerged from its protective chrysalis and engaged with more adversarial reporters, it produced a series of embarrassing debacles. The Biden team dedicated its substantial fundraising advantage to crafting a national campaign with a national message in much the same way that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign privileged national platforms over retail politicking. And when the candidate is seen in public, he is surrounded by a handful of masked supporters in funereal scenes that convey anxiety more than enthusiasm.
The Biden campaign’s commitment to the pieties of the pandemic has forced it to forego the single most effective method of revving voter enthusiasm—personal, door-to-door contacts—to the point that the former vice president’s fellow Democrats are in open revolt over the sheer foolishness of it all. The Biden campaign has taken core Democratic constituencies for granted to such an extent that even its allies are sounding the alarms. “There’s a sense of urgency, and to a large extent, a feeling that the Biden campaign is lackluster in reaching out to the Latino community,” Domingo Garcia, president of the Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens, said recently; “the Biden campaign has been so unresponsive to Latino organizations.”
All this amounts to a lot of noise today. These are distractions, at best. At worst, they drown out the signal blaring clearly from the averages of national and state-level polling that tell a clearer story of Biden’s prohibitive lead. In the event of a Trump victory, these disparate details will be retconned into a series of portents of which only the true professionals were aware.
There will, of course, be more self-pitying narratives about what a Trump win says about America. The president’s success at the polls, the usual suspects will insist, was foretold in the nation’s covert racism, its reactionary and ruthless commitment to social Darwinism, its backward attachment to religiosity, and its faith in markets over morals. But the storytellers who weave these narratives will unfurl them along a historical continuum to suggest that November’s outcome was preordained, and only the most perceptive saw it all coming.
Don’t let any of that fool you; they didn’t see it coming. That result would defy expectations, break historical precedents, and confound those who study what data are derived from the precious few presidential elections in America’s post-War history. What’s more, such an outcome may not say much more about the state of American politics than the fact that incumbency carries with it some virtually insurmountable advantages. But that makes for a boring story. This is a business, after all, and no one wants to say, “who knows?”