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Do not underestimate Trump’s re-election chances

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Via Financial Times

Followers of sport will be familiar with the concept of the emotional hedge. On the sound premise that money beats gallows humour as consolation, people bet against their own teams to soften the trauma of defeat.

Even if gambling were legal across the US, the markets would not be liquid enough to meet the demand for such wagers on Donald Trump. Soliciting opinions on the eve of 2020, I find that people who least desire a second term for the US president are the quickest to predict it.

Foreign diplomats are no less resigned than the American liberals who will have to suffer it in person. They sometimes over-reach in their certitude but, if Mr Trump is not a sure thing, he is eminently competitive, even after impeachment, even after everything. The trick is to explain why.

One reason is the longest economic expansion in US history. Surveys indicate that voters, wise to the impersonality of the business cycle, withhold credit from Mr Trump. But the boom forces his challengers to prove that they would not endanger it with tax rises or regulations, even ones that are popular on their own terms. The most left-leaning field of Democrats in a generation is exposed to the charge of needless risk-taking.

As important as the economy is the structural role of partisanship. Such is the group loyalty in US politics, almost any sentient mammal who stands for a major party can count on 45 per cent of the national vote. Not since 1996 has a Republican or Democrat flunked that mark, and it took the spoiling candidacy of billionaire independent Ross Perot.

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For all its viciousness, partisanship makes for a perverse kind of stability in which electoral outcomes only ever vary within a tight range, even when one candidate is an impeached Twitter addict. The incentive structure this sets up for politicians is too dismal to contemplate, suggesting as it does that one can do literally anything and remain electorally viable for the grandest office on Earth.

America’s boom and its tribalism are well enough understood abroad. Mr Trump’s elemental force as a campaigner is an even better-known factor in his advantage. There is something else that accounts for his enduring competitiveness, though, and it is easy for those with too rational a cast of mind to miss.

It is almost impossible for Mr Trump to disappoint people. They never had hopes to dash. In 2016, it was forgivable to characterise his voters as innocents who believed that he would repatriate factories to Ohio and clean up politics. Logic implied that when he failed in these endeavours their support would melt. In retrospect, this was only ever true of some.

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Many others never believed that he or anyone else could, in that tellingly vague aspiration, make America great again. Their vote was more a howl against perceived national decline than a calculated attempt to arrest it. They are not standing over his shoulder with clipboards that set out key performance indicators. That would imply some hope in the first place.

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It is hard to overstate the fatalism of the country that elected him and stands to do so again. By a gap of around 20 points, voters believe the US to be moving in the wrong direction. (The margin has been in the double digits for a decade now.) According to Pew, super-majorities expect it to become weaker in the world, less equal at home and more politically divided over the next 30 years. Declinism is no longer just a trope of current affairs non-fiction. It is the national mood, and it predates Mr Trump. Of all the US founders, one of the least lionised, John Adams — to whom there is still no monument in Washington, for lack of donations — most reflects the contemporary spirit. The great sceptic always winced at the idea of inexorable progress, of America as celestially favoured among nations.

It follows that, if voters are resigned to the unimprovability of things, the performance of the president is neither here nor there. It is impossible to disillusion the never-illusioned.

None of this warrants the presumption of a second Trump term. Various Democrats still outpoll him, if by tightening margins. An economic downturn before November would be hard (though not impossible) for him to survive. His way with an unforgettable jibe has failed him in the case of former vice-president Joe Biden, unless you think “Sleepy Joe” is a zinger for the ages. Having shown voters who he is for three years, though, Mr Trump remains a contender. That, even if he falls just short, accounts for the liberal anguish at the opening of a decade.

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janan.ganesh@ft.com

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