Trump’s Path to the Presidency (Again)

I’ve been asked by many in the UK what I think about the election. My view has changed since I posted on this last August. Donald Trump now has a clear path to the presidency. It will be up to Biden and the Democrats to block his way.

There are many ‘push’ factors in Trump’s favour, some put there by Biden himself.

First, the border. Obama combined security and compassion; Trump dropped the compassion; Biden dropped security. Migrants got the message, numbers soared, and the border became porous. Biden’s lackadaisical approach stretched services, is administratively incompetent, and allows Republicans to present the perception of migrants as criminals and drug runners. ‘Illegal’ border crossings have averaged 2 million per year since 2021. It’s a negative for Biden that’s beyond repair before the election. 

Border wall at Yuma, Arizona

Second, the economy. GDP growth was strong at 2.5% in 2023, jobs hard to come by, investment soaring. But the massive borrowing for this investment had the consequent effect of inflation, 9.1% at its peak, down to 3.1% in 2023. This is what voters notice, not the necessary investment that will take years to kick in. In any case, much of this is going to red states which won’t be turned. Food prices rose 25% between 2019-23 but, as the CBO concluded, goods and services in 2019 were cheaper in 2023 because incomes grew faster than prices over that four-year period. Voters, however, see the absolute price rises, not the relative ones, so the economy is another negative for Biden. 

Sign at Lake Cadillac, Michigan

Third, Gaza. Biden didn’t have any other option but to support Israel which, in any case, was the right thing to do. But he was too late in showing compassion for the disproportionate response to Hamas’s atrocity, which begat Israeli atrocities an order of magnitude higher. Biden failed to use America’s leverage over Israel. His peace plan wants the war over before the election. Netanyahu wants the war to continue, and Trump elected. Three groups are alienated by all this: Arab-Americans and Muslim voters in swing states like Michigan; young voters who have marched in numbers not seen since Vietnam; and, ironically for Biden who trumpets his heritage, Irish voters who have historically sided with Palestine, and whose homeland now recognises it. 

Fourth, RFK Jr. Granted, he’s a shadow of his father but, in an extremely tight election, he could be the difference. Gore was likely scuppered by Ralph Nader in Florida and, despite all her other failings, third party candidates eked votes from Clinton. Despite his controversial views, Kennedy can become a home for disenchanted younger voters who will decide on emotion rather than spend time analysing his policies. The Kennedy name in itself is attractive to some.

Image at John F Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, Massachusetts

Fifth, court cases. Trump is now a convicted felon, pending appeal. The even riskier cases have been delayed, with the help of a compliant judge, the Supreme Court, and Fani Willis in Georgia who likes scoring own goals. The NYC case was seen even by middle of the road voters as politically motivated, likened to regimes in India and Pakistan which prosecute or jail political opponents. Trump therefore attracts the sympathy vote as a prosecuted individual, which even allows him to empathise with black voters who, in increasing numbers, are attracted to his message. And now Hunter Biden goes on trial but, of course, there’s no political motivation in his case. 

Sixth, age. So far, this has played against Biden and there will remain a cohort of voters, irrespective of the evidence, who will retain a negative perception of his cognitive decline and view his potential VP replacement, Kamala Harris, as lacking credibility (let’s be honest, there’s a fair degree of sexism here too). But the debates could well show Trump to be the one speaking gobbledegook and taking outrageous positions. The question I get asked most from those abroad is, can America not find any younger candidates?

Seventh, Obama’s coalition. This is shattering. Biden and the Democrats fail to see groups as heterogeneous, principally, blacks, Latinos, and younger voters. Polls show that Trump may get up to 20% of the black vote, Latinos are many and varied in their political persuasions, and the youth vote is fragmenting due to Gaza and RFK Jr. This will make a real difference in the battleground states.

Sign in Glendora, Mississippi

Eighth, competence. Biden as a safe pair of hands unravelled early on in Afghanistan. Lack of foresight and rushed policy implementation; damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. Decisions around the border also fit under this heading, along with downplaying the potential for inflation resulting from massive spending commitments. Biden can’t be blamed for the wars on his watch – Ukraine and Gaza – but Trump has effectively pinned the blame on him. 

Finally, emotion. Biden’s policies and rhetoric don’t play to the emotions of Americans around inflation, immigration, and Gaza. He doesn’t ooze empathy when he speaks, unlike Obama and Bill Clinton. His good calls on Bidenomics, supporting Israel, and investing for the long-term are all undermined by the emotive issues that trigger voters. Trump triggers these emotions more effectively with his grievances and promised retribution. His voters will turn out. Will Biden’s?

Sign in Voluntown, Connecticut

Irrespective of the polls, all is not lost for Biden by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve still to have the debates and conventions, and there are five months of campaigning ahead. But Biden and the Democrats better get the thumb out, and fast. The first debate on 27 June could be make or break for Biden.

Offsetting these ‘push’ factors for Trump are a number of ‘pull’ ones for Biden. 

First, Roe. The impact of the Supreme Court decision is beyond comprehension for many. Women make up 50% of voters. Many told me they’re pissed as hell. What was the settled will of the nation for 50 years is now open to meddling by politicians who, ironically, say they want less government and regulation. Where abortion has been on the ballot – Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, California, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia, Vermont – it’s been a slam dunk for pro-abortion rights, even in red states. If you think of voting akin to the degree of difficulty in ice skating, gymnastics, and diving, this single issue will have a compound effect well beyond what its proponents hoped. 

Yard sign, South Salem, New York

Second, silent Biden voters. It was the silent voters for Trump in 2016; now it’s Biden’s turn. Irrespective of the push factors above, some voters will keep their counsel until they get in the voting booth. Will they want a convicted felon as president? Peer pressure in red communities and within families means that these things can’t be discussed, or doubts voiced, even to close friends. The cult of Maga has an unrelenting grip. 

Syttende Mai Festival, Stoughton Wisconsin

Third, Trump 2.0. Doubts might creep in as the implications of a second Trump term become apparent. Unlike 1.0, he now has a plan and team in place. Few are fully aware of the Project 2025 blueprint for a unitary executive overseen by a president who will pardon himself. Time magazine interviewed Trump about his second term and his plans to exercise power. Biden’s campaign will drive home in battleground states the implication of these plans that translate Trump’s victimhood and retribution into changes that could undermine the foundations of America’s institutions and further enable anti-majoritarian rule. 

Grafitti on Idaho Route 14 north of Grangeville

Fourth, incumbency. It’s usually an asset, like providing a platform for the State of the Union but, in recent memory, Carter, HW Bush, and Trump have all fallen at the second hurdle. Events, dear boy, events as Harold Macmillan once said. Who anticipated Gaza? What’s next, which could give a boost like 9/11 for W Bush, or prove fatal like Tehran for Carter? Who knows what’s going to happen at the Democratic Convention? Think Chicago 1968. And, in this election, Trump can campaign like an incumbent too, as long as he’s not in a courtroom.

It will get down to a handful of soccer moms (and fathers too) in a handful of counties in a handful of battleground states. The margin in 2020 was only 43,000 votes for Biden in these states. Sadly, the popular vote counts for nought. Only 1% of America’s votes will count. It’s up to Biden to win this one, not relying on hopium; he could too easily lose it. Small margins in seven states will have an outsized impact.  

Sign in Magnolia, Kentucky

I’m now sitting on a very rough draft of The Country I Left Behind. I’ll be in Milwaukee for the GOP convention though, in hindsight, there might be more fun and games in Chicago. I’ll then be in a swing state somewhere in October for campaigning and for the election, and will complete my book for publication after the election. I’ve no idea what conclusion I’ll reach.

Calatrava sail at Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
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