Who will win the the 2020 presidential election? Right now, with Donald Trump plummeting in polls, the best guess would be Joe Biden. But there is a scenario that could reverse that trend.
I present this, not a prediction, but as provocative analysis, food for thought.
Ask yourself this first: why is Trump falling behind?
Up until March of 2020, Trump had been lucky. There were no real crises for him to deal with (I mean actual national crises, not political crises). This meant he could cut taxes, rail against rivals, befuddle allies, lie incessantly, and not lose too big a chunk of his core set of voters. He was “shaking things up,” just as they’d asked him to. And Republicans in Congress were falling in line, partly because he helped deliver things they wanted, like tax cuts and judges, and partly because they feared that any defection would bring his wrath down on them, costing them the support of Trump voters.
But now we have a deadly pandemic and a massive racial uprising.
These are crises Donald Trump is particularly ill-suited to deal with. The virus demanded an approach that would unify the country and deal with unpleasant facts and science, things that Trump is quite bad at. And there is no one else to blame — try as he might, Trump can’t seem to get voters to pin the worsening disaster on China or Democratic governors.
The racial uprising, similarly, demands a unifying touch. Blacks already mostly believe that Trump is a bigot with sympathies for white supremacists. Police may like him, but those concerned about racial justice — not just minorities, but anyone who’s seen the videos and worried about who we have become — are not ready to give Trump a pass.
Add to that a disastrous photo op that combined gassing peaceful protestors, military action in domestic city streets, and a tone-deaf embrace of a bible, and Trump is even losing some of his evangelical support.
I’m not counting Trump out. He tends to come back, and Joe Biden is not the most vigorous of counterpunchers. But Democrats are prepared for that scenario. They’re not prepared for the Pence-Trump gambit.
The Pence-Trump gambit
After his difficulties drinking a glass of water and shuffling down a ramp after a speech at West Point, Trump looks feeble.
At some point, it may become clear to everyone that he can no longer govern. He may catch COVID-19 and become incapacitated (since he never wears a mask). He could die, or even be assassinated by one of the millions of Americans who passionately hate him.
Assuming he survives, he will cling to power for as long as possible. But imagine, for a moment, that he doesn’t — that he can’t. Imagine that he resigns, or that his cabinet bands together and threatens to remove him with the 25th Amendment.
What happens then? Here’s a possible sequence of events:
- Trump resigns. Pence becomes president.
- The Republican convention in August selects Pence as the 2020 Presidential nominee.
- Pence secretly agrees to pardon Trump after the election.
- Trump, clearly ill but struggling mightily, endorses Pence at the convention. Republicans go wild.
- In an attempt to unify the wings of the party — the never-Trump conservative Republicans and the Trumpists — Pence selects Ivanka Trump as his vice-presidential nominee.
- On the stump, Pence campaigns as a traditional conservative. He reunifies the support of evangelicals and traditional conservatives.
- He claims that he was unable to mount an effective plan to address the Coronavirus due to Trump’s interference. He attempts to put a more competent plan in place, including the involvement of actual scientists like Dr. Fauci. Most people don’t buy it, but some who are on the fence, do.
- He repudiates white supremacists and creates an actual, credible plan to address racial disparities and policing. Most people don’t buy it, but some, who are on the fence, do.
- He reaches out to everyone — Democrats included — in a call for unity in a time of crisis. They reject him. Most people blame Trump and Pence, but some blame Democrats.
- In his campaign, he and surrogates point to the feebleness and gaffes of Joe Biden, and call for him to step down, as Trump did, due to being insufficiently healthy and competent to run the country.
I ask you not to judge the moral qualities of such a plan, nor even its likelihood. What I ask you to imagine is this:
The election now hangs on people who voted for Trump in 2016 — or didn’t vote, or voted third-party — but will vote for Biden in 2020. Many of these people are holding their nose and voting for Biden, because while they have no affinity for Democratic policies, Trump finally went too far for them. They are looking for an excuse to go back to the GOP. Would they now hold their nose and vote for Pence?
The question is not whether Pence is equally responsible for Trump’s actions. The question is whether enough conservatives are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, in preference to Biden.
Could a Pence-Trump ticket, assembled in a time of crisis, win back the moderate, Republican, or working-class voters that Trump has lost? Could it retain the Trumpist voters by virtue of Ivanka’s presence on the ticket?
Would it not be more likely to beat Joe Biden than Donald Trump is?
Together with voter suppression and foreign interference on Facebook, could this be enough to elect a Republican presidential ticket? And could it save some of the Senate seats, like those of Susan Collins and Mitch McConnell, that are now in jeopardy?
The most likely scenario for this year’s election is still that Trump runs and loses. But I’m sure there are Republicans wishing that they had a different man at the top of the ticket.
The next time you see Donald Trump stumble or mumble, ask yourself just how possible this is. Because it certainly could happen.
It wouldn’t even be strangest thing to happen this year.