Is Trump vulnerable?

Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is perhaps the weirdest exercise in messaging ever seen. In rally after rally, he emphasizes that you can vote for him even if you cannot stand him. By voting for him, he agrees, you protect your 401K and ensure prosperity. But other issues count and motivate voters more than the economy,

There is some logic to “it’s the economy, stupid” pitch. But voters are particular about choosing which issues count and those that do not. An example of how moral issues weigh heavily is that very short re-election campaign of Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson’s in 1968. Back then, the two Democratic incumbents had a roaring economy. In LBJ’s last year, the GDP growth neared 7.5%, and Truman’s economy was sizzling in 1952.

Problem was that in 1968 Vietnam was raging and racial problems were sizzling. In 1952, Korea was at stalemate and anti-Communist issues trumped the arguments of Truman. Indeed, both HST and LBJ had a similar slogan of “You’ve never had it so good.” But in the end, the appeal of economic growth did not overpower the other issues. Indeed, some voters were less concerned about a hot economy and more about society falling apart.

Trump’s arguments echo both Truman and Johnson’s message. “You can’t afford not to vote for me,” Trump intones. If you don’t, he predicts economic turmoil. He also tries to use doom and gloom as a way of persuading voters to stick with him. It is a bold strategy but highly susceptible to events changing the situation on the ground.

LBJ’s re-election message was based on the projection of strength. In New Hampshire, his slogan was a “strong man in a tough job.” Vietnam, he believed, was far more popular than the media portrayed. His poster showed Johnson in a khaki shirt at Cam Ranh Bay. So sure he was going to win, his effort was a write-in campaign.

But what eventually did him in might be a lesson for Trump. Turned out most voters in the Granite State were hawkish, but they did not like Johnson. Although he won the primary by a narrower margin than expected, LBJ was not doing enough to win the war. Negative views of the candidate can often overwhelm particular stances on issues. Harry Truman, in 1952, had so many personal negatives that he was beaten in New Hampshire by Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who was scarcely known. Again, personal animus canceled out any concern for the economy. Trump could heed these warnings from elections past. Like Truman and Johnson, he is a salty, combative figure who is comfortable in being himself. The constant barrage of insults and put downs keeps him in the news in a way that causes discomfort for some voters.

If the economy did tank in, say, fall 2019, Trump might be vulnerable for renomination. Republicans could figure that they might have a better chance with a mainstream Conservative. Like Truman and Johnson, Trump sees the economy as his best argument for re-election. If he loses that argument, he has very little to back him up. Also, GOP stalwarts have to be salivating at the potential Democratic field, figuring that Trump is the only one capable of losing to Joe Biden and the rest.


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