And he will never get it back.
The 2020 election is only three months away, and with the onset of the Democratic National Convention it has become the key talking point of this week’s political discussion. Commentators have continued to parse every national and swing-state poll between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. They have closely watched reactions to Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate, along with Trump’s response. Also, projections released in recent weeks have pointed to the high likelihood of Joe Biden’s victory. Trump, of course, can take solace in the fact that most of these forecasters picked Hillary Clinton to win four years ago.
One of the keys to Trump’s success in 2016 was that few serious political observers believed he had a chance of winning. Just before the election, FiveThirtyEight predicted that Hillary Clinton had a 71% chance of winning. The Princeton Election Consortium was even bolder, asserting that she had a 99% chance of winning, as certain as a pollster could ever be. This belief was bolstered by constant stories about Republican unease regarding Trump on the ticket, including a report that Republicans tried to replace Trump with running mate Mike Pence at the top of the ticket after the release of the Access Hollywood tape.
In a world where Trump was certain to lose, liberals and those on the far left felt emboldened to criticize the Democratic Party and its standard-bearer. They continued attacking Hillary Clinton, either for her speeches to high-priced donors or her perceived inability to unite the party. Bernie Sanders took months to fully support her. Numerous high-profile figures on the left refused to campaign with Clinton as well.
This climate also led to a general lack of seriousness about the prospect of voting for the Democratic ticket. There was a playful air about the election, an ease that came from assured victory. Two events proved indicative of this mindset. One was the infamous Pokemon Go! To The Polls joke, an instantly mocked comment made by Clinton in July 2016. This sort of comment proved to be ironic after the campaign was criticized for limiting and withholding funding to Latino get-out-the-vote efforts, which could have turned the election towards Clinton.
The other event was the launch of an app that allowed third party voters in swing states to “swap” their vote with a Democratic Party supporter in a supposedly “safe” Democratic state. This app showed the indifference that many Democrats showed towards third parties in 2016. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein should have been seen as the key to Trump’s victory and even to Russian propaganda, especially after Stein’s appearance at a 2015 dinner for Vladimir Putin. They and their supporters should have been treated like Trump voters. But with a Clinton victory assured, the thinking went, why not indulge a party dedicated to a pure expression of an individual’s ideals? The nation would never, ever elect a man as horrible as Trump, so why shouldn’t someone vote for Jill Stein if they wanted to?
These elements helped Trump in numerous ways. They significantly depressed voter turnout for Clinton. They made room for many of his attacks on the Democratic candidate and helped shape media coverage. Confidence about Clinton’s chances helped open American minds to Russian propaganda, which was amplified by traditional media sources. Overconfidence in Clinton even penetrated the White House and the FBI, where political leaders hammered Clinton in an attempt to show their impartiality leading up to what they believed to be an inevitable Clinton administration. With fewer Democratic voters and the highest third party share in decades, Trump secured a shocking but substantial Electoral College victory and the electoral win.
Trump will not have this advantage in 2020. As much as he wants to run as the outsider, he is the president. No American believes that he cannot be elected president because that theory has already been disproved. There are no carefree events or vote-swapping apps in the run-up to this November’s election. Third parties have received a massive drop-off in support and media attention as well. A Google Trends search shows interest in the term “Libertarian Party” is less than half of what it was in 2016, and that rate has dropped over the past few months. 2020’s election is a serious event in which millions of Americans are less interested in expressing their political ideas and more interested in the singular goal of voting the current president out of office. Trump had better be prepared.