Guest post: Popular enough but toxic enough

Originally a comment by Screechy Monkey on For months.

It’s possible that the GOP is in a bit of a box here — Trump is popular enough with their base that they can’t afford to abandon him (and couldn’t if they wanted to), but toxic enough with everyone else that he screws up their chances of winning elections.

I mean, really, what’s the argument for Trump’s appeal to the general electorate, as opposed to Republican primary voters? It seems to boil down to:

1. He eked out an Electoral College victory in 2016.

2. He didn’t get utterly blown out in 2020.

But (1) isn’t really that impressive an accomplishment. It’s actually pretty rare for a party to win three consecutive presidential elections — George HW Bush in 1988 is the only time it’s happened since Truman in 1948. And while I think Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate are often overstated, it’s fair enough to say that she wasn’t an especially strong candidate. Add to that some ratfucking by the Russians and James Comey, and the media’s addiction to covering every Trump rally live, and ignoring every policy issue that wasn’t EMAILZZZZ, and in retrospect the closeness of the race is a testament to Trump’s toxicity, not some secret electoral magic he possesses. I think the polling miss in 2016 led people to the conclusion that Trump had some magic secret appeal, instead of “Trump almost, but didn’t quite, blow a very winnable election for the GOP.”

And (2) isn’t exactly a huge achievement either. The election looked closer than it was due to the “red mirage” effect of counting GOP-heavy votes first, the quirks of the Electoral College, and again polls overstated the Dems’ lead. But it’s unusual for incumbent presidents to be defeated at all, and globally most elected leaders actually experienced a “rally around the leader” effect from COVID that Trump managed to blow.

Basically, a Trump-free GOP probably would have won 2016 and 2020 easily, and (if for some reason they had lost in 2020), would have had a big win in 2022 due to normal midterm thermostatic reaction. (2018 would probably have been a GOP loss with any GOP president in office for the same reason.) Trump almost cost them 2016, did cost them 2020 and turned a big win in 2022 into a draw.

Of course, this doesn’t give me a lot of comfort, because elections are so close that it’s still possible Trump could win in 2024 in spite of himself. So he’s not just the GOP’s problem. But he may be primarily the GOP’s problem!

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