Trump might want to get a head start on packing his bags

April 2020, editorials

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

There is only one logical reason President Trump is so desperately trying to cast doubt on the outcome of an election that’s still seven months away: He knows he is likely to lose.

To use a football analogy, it’s not even halftime and Trump is already throwing Hail Marys. In recent days, he has used his coronavirus updates to rail against mail-in voting, which will probably be the way more Americans cast their ballots in November than ever before. “Mail ballots, they cheat,” he claimed Tuesday. Fact check: They don’t.

From Trump’s point of view, something that must look like a worst-case scenario is coming into focus.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the race assures the nomination of the Democrat whom Trump least wants to face: former vice president Joe Biden. For the past year, matchup polls have consistently showed Biden beating Trump, as Biden says, “like a drum.” The RealClearPolitics average of polls also shows Biden defeating the incumbent in key swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Polls now even show Biden with a slight edge in Florida, Trump’s new domicile, where he will likely cast a mail-in absentee ballot for himself. If Trump is losing Florida, he’s not about to be beaten, he’s about to be crushed.

Trump’s Republican base is still with him, but other key voting blocs — independents, suburbanites, women — have turned away. The relatively minor rally in his approval ratings that came when the novel coronavirus crisis began is now fading, and Trump remains the only president whose Gallup approval rating has never climbed as high as 50 percent.

The president’s impatience to end social distancing and get everything back to normal is dangerous and unrealistic, but understandable. He bet his reelection campaign on a roaring economy, with near-full employment and the stock market zooming to new highs. Instead, 17 million workers have filed unemployment claims over the past four weeks — more than 10 percent of the entire U.S. workforce — and the Dow Jones industrial average fell off a cliff, losing more than 35 percent of its value in a month before recovering somewhat. For many voters, looking at their 401(k) balances is like gazing into the abyss.

Even worse for Trump, he has to try to fight the narrative that his own denial and inattention left the country more vulnerable to covid-19 than it should have been and thus made our suffering worse. Unfortunately for him, this narrative is true.

His refusal to issue a national stay-at-home advisory, leaving that politically unpalatable task to the governors, ensures that the covid-19 crisis will not end when it ebbs in hard-hit metropolitan areas such as New York and Detroit. Instead, experts say, we will continue to see pockets of infection flare up in small towns and rural areas — Trump country — where the president said covid-19 was less of a problem.

The administration’s failure to carry out effective testing for the virus — far less than 1 percent of the population has been tested thus far — means health authorities in many areas are still largely groping in the dark. And until we have a better handle on who has been infected by the virus and who hasn’t, it is difficult to imagine returning to anything resembling pre-covid-19 “normal.”

If the virus turns out not to be seasonal like the flu, as the National Academies of Sciences suggested this week, it will still be with us in November. Even if the disease does die down in warm weather and return when it gets cold, it will be back with us on Election Day. Either way, we will have to find a way to vote safely and legitimately — which will be easier than many might think.

Many states, including all of the hotly contested swing states, already allow absentee voting with no requirement that voters give a reason for requesting an advance ballot, such as having to be out of town on Election Day. Debacles such as this week’s Wisconsin primary should be easy to avoid if everyone knows in advance what to expect — much more early, absentee or mail-in voting, much less in-person Election Day voting, the possibility of not having final results until days later.

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Trump, if he loses, will surely make wild and unsubstantiated claims about widespread fraud: after all, he did that after the 2016 election, which he won. But I believe state election officials will stand by their vote totals. Democrats need to spend the next seven months educating voters on how to cast their ballots in the shadow of covid-19. Trump, rather than trying to stoke fears about phantom fraud, might want to get a head start on packing his bags.