Over the past year, Donald Trump’s prospects for the 2020 presidential election have undoubtedly improved. In the summer of 2019, polls showed most of the top Democrats beating the president soundly, often by more than 10 points, with voters strongly focused on the need to oust Trump from office.
Things began to change with impeachment. Nancy Pelosi’s fear of a partisan process that wouldn’t attract broad support among the general population came to pass, ultimately reinforcing the view among Republicans and some independents that the Ukraine scandal was merely part of a long-standing attempt to undo Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections. Along with good economic numbers and some (partial) foreign policy victories, this contributed to a slight rise in the president’s approval rating, and an improvement in his standing in general election polls, where he is now competitive in many of the key states which allowed him to win four years ago.
After Bernie Sanders’ wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, a nervous Democratic establishment scrambled to block his path to the nomination, claiming that he would lose badly and drag down Democrats in Congressional and local races around the country. At the same time, many Republicans are hoping that Sanders does win, believing he would be the best opponent for them in the fall, allowing for a broad attack against his “socialist” ideas that most of the country allegedly is not ready for.
The practical result has been the heavy pressure brought to bear against other centrist candidates to leave the race so as to allow Joe Biden to face Sanders one-on-one. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar did just that, while the endorsement of party heavyweights, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, contributed to Biden’s big win there on February 29, in turn leading a huge bounce on Super Tuesday.
To hear Biden tell it, Trump is scared to death of him, because he knows he would get beat like a drum. This is predicated on the notion that most of America wants a return to normalcy, to the more stable and civil pre-Trump world associated with the presidency of Barack Obama. Accompanying this are some more technical arguments, such as Biden’s apparent strength with white working class voters and African-Americans, which would allow him to reconstruct the Obama coalition.
Yet not everyone is convinced, including many voters in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Biden fared poorly in the early states, and got crushed by Sanders in Nevada. At the same time, surveys have begun to show that voters consider Sanders just as likely to beat Trump as Biden; an impression confirmed by national head-to-head polls with the president, where Sanders and Biden best Trump by similar margins, with Biden edging Sanders by only half a percentage point.
So which Democrat would Trump prefer? The top candidates are all convinced that they are perfect to beat the president. Mike Bloomberg calls Bernie Sanders’ ideas “crazy,” and predicated his campaign on Biden faltering. Yet even without considering his terrible debate performances, his biggest problem was the policy abyss that separates him from much of the Democratic base, that has embraced strongly progressive economic positions. His money allowed him to place well in several states on Super Tuesday, but Biden’s resurgence essentially removed the rationale for his candidacy, leading to his departure from the race.
Trump’s camp began privately expressing worries about Elizabeth Warren when she briefly rose to the top of the pack last fall. It was short-lived though, thanks to forced errors provoked by attacks from multiple sides, led in particular by Pete Buttigieg, perhaps his most notable contribution to the primary campaign. After failing to reach the delegate threshold in the majority of the Super Tuesday states, Warren’s campaign is now on the ropes, and she must calculate how to best wield her influence in the coming months, without damaging the progressive causes she has championed.
That leaves us with Biden’s institutionalism and Sanders’ “revolution.” Which should strike more fear into the president? The beltway class says Biden, but it’s not hard to recognize that many risk making the same mistakes this year, as they did in 2016. Then, Trump was considered a surefire loser, derided as an aberration not to be taken seriously. Yet a sufficient number of voters took his anti-globalization and anti-war message seriously enough to put him in the White House.
Can we be sure that Sanders couldn’t pull off the same trick with his anti-system rhetoric from the other side? Could it be that the Democratic establishment is scared of Sanders less because he might lose, and more because he represents a fundamental threat to their way of governing?
The underlying issue is whether the “populist” revolt that has spread across the Western world in recent years is based on reactionary, racist tendencies among a scared population, or on a desire for more fundamental change, in opposition to the policies that have crushed the middle class and brought endless war. Even if Sanders ultimately falls short again, his strong showing suggests that it’s not all about identity politics and narrow cultural views, but that the revolt indeed rests on a much broader foundation.
Biden’s weaknesses are well-known, and his Super Tuesday surge doesn’t erase them: apart from his tendency to misspeak and make things up, his links to the errors of the U.S. political class in recent years – the Iraq war, austerity, free trade deals – make him particularly vulnerable to the anti-establishment mantle claimed by Trump. And while Biden has now leapfrogged Sanders in the delegate race, his appeal to key voting blocs such as youth and Latinos is tenuous. The Sanders camp is already warning that Biden could essentially be Hillary Clinton 2.0.
Republicans who are closer to Trump’s base than the Washington bubble are in fact more wary of a movement candidate like Sanders. The popular conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, whose show on Fox News Trump is said to watch religiously, has repeatedly warned that assuming Trump would beat Sanders easily is dangerous, citing his anti-Wall Street message as one that can cut across the political spectrum.
Today, though, there is a new threat to Trump: the Coronavirus, which could be a formidable foe. One of the president’s main talking points is that the economy is doing well. What happens if there is a rapid slowdown due to the spread of COVID-19? Fear is rising rapidly about the United States’ ability to deal effectively with the epidemic, and has already pulled down the stock market and begun dominating headlines. A strong majority of Americans express optimism about their current financial position, but perceptions can change quickly during a crisis, and responsibility always lies with those currently in government.
We should not underestimate the health care factor, either. Trump may be able to effectively weave the Coronavirus into his anti-globalization narrative; the consequences for the current economic model are significant, and the need for national economic security becomes even more evident when global supply chains are disrupted, for example threatening the availability of drugs and medical equipment.
Yet if the Democratic candidate emphasizes the role of the state in guaranteeing health services for everyone, it could allow him to capitalize on the crisis to bolster his campaign. An emergency requires a public response, and the notion of “socialized medicine” may scare people much less than a global pandemic.