Letter to the Editor: Even as incumbent, Trump fights uphill battle

With the presidential nominating conventions in the books, it is time to turn to the 2020 general election campaign for president. President Donald Trump is running for reelection but is not well-positioned to win. Still, he has a fighter’s chance, even as history and current circumstances conspire against him.

Throughout American constitutional history, there have been two instances of three consecutive elected presidents serving two terms. In the first case — with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Monroe serving two terms each — all were members of the same political party. In the second instance — with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama being reelected to second terms — both major political parties were represented. In the current example, President Trump’s reelection would set a precedent of four consecutive reelected chief executives if achieved.

Often, an incumbent’s likelihood of reelection can be assessed from performance in the last year of the first term. When things go well, it can certainly impact support at the polls. Conversely, when trouble mounts, the president is vulnerable to attacks from his own party and the opposition alike. So it went with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush in 1992, who suffered an economic downturn, foreign policy crises and a third-party challenge.

Unfortunately, there have been more negatives than victories for the Trump White House so far in 2020. These include President Trump’s impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to find dirt on his eventual opponent, his response to police shootings and race issues in the country, the plethora of scandals involving previous staff, criticism of American intelligence agencies and the ill-advised attack on the U.S. Postal Service. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and some of its consequences were not Trump’s fault, but the incompetent reaction to the health crisis and the slow economic recovery from it have hampered the necessary momentum required for victory.

With two months weeks to go in the 2020 presidential race, there are yet opportunities for the Trump team to right the ship. For one, there are three presidential debates scheduled, and both President Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, have agreed to participate. For sure, a stellar debate performance can quickly turn the tide of support for either candidate. While debates have hurt recent presidential incumbents seeking reelection, there are few instances where the debates have significantly helped them.

Further, there is always the possibility of a foreign-policy issue intervening. Probably the best example of this is the October 1972 announcement by President Richard Nixon’s team that there was an imminent peace deal with North Vietnam to end American involvement in the Vietnam War. Few remember that when North Vietnam backtracked on the prospective agreement after Nixon’s landslide, he ordered a massive bombing to convince them to sign it.

While Vice President Biden’s basement strategy worked well throughout the summer, his return to live audiences is expected. That presents a two-edged sword, as Biden has not shown the capability or willingness to free-associate to a large audience without a teleprompter. Another one of Biden’s off-script gaffes could tighten the race.

President Trump’s base of support comprises at least 40% of the electorate. If anything, this group is proud of Trump’s record in filling judicial vacancies with conservatives, renegotiating international treaties and being tough on immigration.

For the Trump team, the remaining duration of the 2020 presidential campaign must be spent by convincing independents and converting Democrats to back him.

The prospects for Donald Trump’s reelection do not look good, and if he goes down, he could take the Senate, and eventually, the Republican Party, with him. But he shocked the world once, and the political class likes upsets.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff
Dover