It all comes down to the Fickle Five Percent.
Donald Trump received only 46% of the vote in 2016, and now faces a big problem: In the average of all national polls, his share against Democrat Joe Biden remains stuck at 41%. That means that about 5% of the voters who supported him four years ago have soured on the president, and they represent the difference between another slim victory or a scalding defeat.
Trump had hoped that a vibrant economy would win over the Fickle Five, but right now, the national mood is dreadful. In the latest Pew poll, a stunning 87% say they are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, with only 12% calling themselves satisfied.
That deep pessimism has caused a drastic shift in Trump’s strategy. Instead of boasting about his successes, he’s blaming the Democrats and their allies for his failures. His core theme is grievance, not greatness; turmoil, not triumph. It’s not morning in Trump’s America, it’s midnight — and getting darker.
Over the July 4 weekend, the president described a country overrun by “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters.” As Republican pollster Christine Matthews analyzed this strategy for The New York Times: “Trump needs — or thinks he needs — fear of ‘the other’ to motivate his base and create enthusiasm. Right now, people are fearful of COVID-19, but that is inconvenient for Trump, so he is trying to kick up fear about something he thinks will benefit his re-election: angry mobs of leftists tearing down American history.”
Can that strategy succeed? Yes. It has worked many times before. Richard Nixon ran a similar campaign in 1968, casting himself as the guardian of “law and order” and white privilege against antiwar protesters and counterculture radicals. In Nixon’s world, it was hard hats against long hairs; patriotism against permissiveness; flag-wavers against flag-burners.
“Love it or leave it” was the Nixonian battle cry, and Trump’s spokesman Tim Murtaugh sounds very similar when he claims that Democrats believe “there is something fundamentally wrong with America.”
Nixon’s victory ignited a string of five Republican wins in six elections. Ronald Reagan relentlessly vilified “the other” as well, from pot-smoking students who trashed campus buildings to “welfare queens” who bought steak and beer on food stamps, and George Bush 41 sanctioned the despicable Willie Horton ad in 1988.
Democrats could help Trump enormously by embracing outlandish ideas like the destruction of any monument or memorial dedicated to a slave owner — like Washington or Jefferson.
Still, 2020 is not 1968 — or even 2016 — and let’s start with demography. When Reagan won in 1980, the electorate was 88% white; this year, the white vote will be less than 70%. Moreover, Joe Biden is far more difficult to demonize than Hillary Clinton.
In July of 2016, Clinton’s unfavorable rating in the Monmouth poll was 52%; Biden’s today is 44% negative. (Trump’s is 55% negative.) Trump’s favorite insult for Biden, “Sleepy Joe,” doesn’t pack the same punch as his denunciation of “Crooked Hillary,” and it’s hard to imagine Trump rallygoers screaming “lock him up” about Biden.
More significantly, voters have now experienced three and a half years of Trump in the White House, and that’s where the Fickle Five Percent become so critical. Many of them had deep doubts about Trump’s character and judgment four years ago, but voted for him anyway. Now they are having second — and third — thoughts, and their opposition is starting to solidify.
Pew reports that 17% of Americans who approved of Trump in March now voice disapproval. A key to that shift is dismay with the president’s handling of the coronavirus: Voters in counties with a high number of cases were a full 50% more likely to turn against the president.
Then there is race. In a CNN poll, two-thirds call racism “a big problem” in America today, up from 49% who said so in 2015. And by 63% to 31%, voters say Biden would do a “better job” of handling that challenge.
Much could change of course over the next four months, but the trend is clear: The Fickle Five Percent is hardening its disdain for the president. If he cannot reverse their disapproval, he is doomed.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.