The 2020 Forecast – Episode 5: Fortune Frowns

Ancient people had deep respect for the will of fortune and Homer’s “strong force of fate.” These, they said, were the ultimate arbiters of human affairs. A good character can secure a better fate, but reversals of fortune are inevitable for everyone. Resiliency in character is how we deal with bad fortune and take advantage of the eventual upswing to secure a better fate.

Donald Trump has completely failed on this in the last three months.

When misfortune struck, he responded inadequately, and refused to even attempt to mitigate his vices. The stupid tweets and petty fights that anger people for no strategic gain, the nepotism that permits Jared Kushner and his cronies to ruin the America First offer that proved so persuasive in 2016, the talking and tweeting while doing nothing as cities burn, the bizarre tangents and lack of discipline generally – it all creates the impression of someone who has completely lost control. Here’s a good one-liner from a reliable voice:

If you want to counter that Democratic “leadership” has failed in this time of crisis just as much or even more than the president, you’d be right, but as you’ll recall, facts don’t matter to persuasion. Donald Trump is the incumbent. As such, he’s going to get most of the blame, especially when the media and big tech are arrayed against him, while many of his supporters are squelched or thrown off social media, leaving the discredited fake media more room to spew propaganda unhindered.

If you don’t like me saying this because you “trust the plan,” or something, that’s OK. I won’t stop you from believing that, but unlike the fake media, I’m never going to willfully deceive you. To say that Donald Trump is in anything but serious jeopardy would be to lie through my teeth. Let’s get right to it.

This article contains…

  1. An overview of the fundamentals of the race.
  2. An overview of the persuasion in the race.
  3. Is there a way out for Donald Trump?

The Fundamentals

After the coronavirus hit, the fundamentals of the race turned on their head. We’ll again turn to Allan Lichtman’s The Keys to the White House. Yes, Allan Lichtman has a serious case of Trump-Derangement Syndrome, but he’s been successfully predicting presidential elections throughout his career, including in 2016. The only time he was wrong was in 2000 and keep in mind, that election was decided by 537 votes in Florida. Lichtman’s 13 keys stand as good measurements of the fundamentals that decide the political marketplace in any given election year.

Knowing the marketplace is crucial to knowing what kind of messaging and persuasion you’ll need to use in your campaign. If the marketplace is too tipped against a candidate, persuasion matters a lot less. If you’re selling a car, but nobody wants a car because they’re moving to walkable neighborhoods, the glitziest advertising in the world won’t do you much good. The keys are a good measurement of this.

The idea behind the keys is that if five or fewer of them are false, the political marketplace favors the incumbent. If six or more are false, it favors the challenger.

At the beginning of this year, Donald Trump had a very favorable political marketplace, with at most four keys being false. The State of the Union was in many respects his zenith, with Nancy Pelosi looking like a petulant, defeated child as she ripped the speech transcript up in rage. It seemed she knew where the winds were blowing.

And then the coronavirus and its fallout hit a month later and dramatically reversed those winds. Misfortune had struck. Now, let’s look at the 13 keys.

1. Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

False.

2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

True. This key is lost when the incumbent party has a strong figure that commands at least 1/3 of the votes in the nominating convention, but still loses the nomination. Not only is this not the case, but Donald Trump has received a historic share of support in his own party this year in both raw votes and vote percentages, usually hanging in the low to mid-90s.

3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

True. Does anybody even remember impeachment?

4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

True. There is no independent conservative like McMullin this year, and with the total collapse of the Libertarian and Green Parties, it’s truer this year than 2016.

5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

False. This is where fortune reared her head and unleashed her wrath on Donald Trump. His greatest achievement in terms of persuasion, the booming economy, has been gutted. GDP shrunk between 4 and 5% in the first quarter and will have at least a 20% decline this quarter.

6. Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

False. We don’t know what the final number will be yet, but the coronavirus recession is almost certain to trip this one.

7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

True.

8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

False. The ongoing Year Zero insurrection has now tripped this one.

9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

False?*

10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

True.

11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

False. I was wrong in December. The NAFTA replacement wasn’t quite big enough by historical standards.

12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

False?*

13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

True.

In an honest reading, that’s seven false keys and six true ones, indicating that the market is tipped heavily against the incumbent. Joe Biden is clearly a defective product, but what if the market has passed Donald Trump’s product by? In that case, by just being the alternative on the shelf, Joe Biden is positioned to win despite his gaping holes and glaring flaws. People will choose an imperfect version of something they want over a perfect version of something they don’t – every time.

Is there a way out of this predicament? I put asterisks next to two of the keys for a reason. We’ll discuss that in the third section.

Persuasion Factors

If you’ve read Stumped, you’ll know that there are certain other persuasion factors that successful candidates have tended to embody, as the president did successfully in 2016. How is he doing now? How is his opponent doing?

1. Recognition of the irrational: Humans are usually not acting as rational, self-interested agents, but can be influenced by many, often completely irrational factors. Visceral cues are far more potent than rational ones.

Donald Trump himself keenly understands this, but his campaign hasn’t been on the same level as it was in 2016. There have been a few fantastic ads, such as this one:

But the messaging has been inconsistent and confusing. Reportedly, some in the campaign are unhappy with Brad Parscale, who has his place in data collection but seems out of his depth as campaign manager.

So far, the Trump campaign has been far more focused on facts and figures than it was in 2016. I remember one national ad that talked about “Donald Trump changing Washington” and showing how he got out coronavirus tests. It was unimpressive and doesn’t press into the hopes and fears of his voters.

If Donald Trump wants to turn the situation around, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity given to him by the riots and mix it with the push to reopen the country.

The president should present himself as the candidate of…

  1. Freedom
  2. Jobs
  3. Patriotism

While using an Alinksy strategy to isolate and polarize his opponent as the candidate of…

  1. Lockdowns
  2. Riots/looting
  3. Woke moral preening and Year Zero

Or, to put it more simply, Donald Trump should run as the candidate of normality while polarizing his opponent as the candidate of anarcho-tyranny. Not only is it visceral and visual, it would go a long way to undercutting Biden’s key offer of a “return to normalcy.” This sums it up:

https://twitter.com/wandaoaj/status/1269174262297800704

I have my own anecdote. My aunt is as normie as normie gets and voted against the president in 2016. The Year Zero mob and the Democrats’ collusion with it has infuriated her so much that she’s voting for him now.

There’s a path, but it requires a focus and discipline we’ve yet to see with the campaign. This is the ideal, but don’t confuse it with the current reality. We’re not there yet. We’re far from there. One gets the feeling that the campaign has been domesticated by Kushner’s cronies and the very Republican establishment it demolished in 2016, the same establishment that only knows losing.

Biden’s messaging isn’t particularly good either. He too, has incompetent cronies all around and controlling him. Yet, he has a lot more room for error given the present environment.

Advantage: none.

2. Tribal leadership: Humans are tribal animals that organize themselves in teams and in/out-groups. In such a structure, the strongest tribal leader, the one who inspires feelings in supporters that they’d want to follow him into battle, will usually have the most alluring leadership appeal. This is a factor closely related to masculinity. Thus, the candidate that can telegraph this strong, often masculine leadership ability will usually win.

“Sleepy Joe” is indeed apt. He won’t pass this test. Unfortunately, Donald Trump is also failing it. Inexplicably, he is giving us the message that he’s a weakling. The meme that he retreated into his bunker as Washington burned has stuck. It’s the exact opposite of tribal leadership and conveys disgusting weakness. By failing to take a strong stand against these riots and the mob early, the president isn’t lending the impression that he’d lead his supporters in battle. Tweeting and retreating is not tribal leadership. Can you see the present him pulling a Thutmose III and marching with us through that gorge?

This matters a lot. Tucker Carlson excoriated him for it. It’s the biggest reason why so many of his own supporters are furious.

Donald Trump controlled by Jared Kushner
Cartoon by David Horsey, LA Times (via Pinterest).

This present, domesticated, Kushner-controlled president won’t have the tribal leadership card in this campaign, a card he should be playing to the hilt.

He better wake up fast and rediscover the energy that brought him to the White House if he wants to win. Biden doesn’t have this at all, but he can more afford to lose it than Trump can, thanks to the environment.

Advantage: none.

3. Spatial dominance: Problems arise that people seek answers to, and communications are the key to power. The candidate that dominates the most space on the issues people want solved and the communicational space upon which they are intermediated with will usually win.

The president completely lost the information war with the coronavirus. This is partly his own fault. The press briefings turned into a disaster, as he couldn’t control himself and spent more time sniping with “journalists” than in bypassing them and bringing his response to the pandemic directly to the people.

That his administration failed to respond adequately has become an accepted truism. That the United States has done much better than other advanced countries, and would have done even better if it hadn’t been for the malicious decisions of Democratic governors to send coronavirus patients into nursing homes and uninfected areas of hospitals, has gone underreported.

And if you don’t observe it, it doesn’t exist.

He could have hammered this message relentlessly, but chose not to.

The riots gave him a potential second wind by revealing the Democrats’ own hypocrisy on the coronavirus and the absolute hackery of the public health “experts” that advocated lockdowns and are now supporting mass gatherings. As I mentioned above, he has a chance to retake the space of the conversation.

With clear majorities against the goals of this insurrectionist movement (“defund the police”), he has an easy enemy to define and fight, as seen with Biden’s taking a knee. In other words, he needs to use all communication available to take this conversational space.

So far, we’ve seen some baby steps. Indeed, the campaign is much better at spreading viral memes, while the Biden campaign is totally inadequate, signified by its complete retreat from TikTok.

Still, the campaign isn’t where it needs to be. It will need to get there fast, because the usual suspects are already trying to blame the president for these riots (the goal all along) and paint any response to them as “racism,” including people in the Pentagon.

Normal people are against this. The president must be their champion and help them find the courage to speak out so as to unleash the kind of preference cascade seen in 2016. I’m not seeing that yet, though.

Biden’s campaign hasn’t done anything, but they have the media to do their work for them, and right now the conversation is all about how bad the president has handled the crisis of 2020.

Advantage: Biden.

4. Frame control: The candidate who has the strongest offense and the stronger frame to impose his will and deflect criticism will usually win.

Trump’s lost his frame. He’s been reactive rather than proactive, even now still giving into the bullshit Imperial College “model” that 2 million Americans could have died from the coronavirus without lockdowns. On the riots, he’s been wishy washy, tweeting about law and order but not visually doing anything and even to some extent buying into the frame of the insurrectionists about police “reform.” He attended one such summit this past week, though said good things there.

Joe Biden is a candidate that can’t impose his own frame to save his life, but the campaign has the media to do that for them.

Right now, the Trump campaign is losing.

Advantage: Biden.

5. Charisma: The more charismatic candidate, naturally or otherwise, will usually win.

No debate here. Joe Biden loses.

Advantage: Trump.

6. Social proof: The candidate with the strongest social proof will usually win.

Ordinarily, Donald Trump would be leading in this to the point that Joe Biden can’t catch up, but the coronavirus has done a lot to even the score. By preventing the president from holding his rallies, the coronavirus has concealed one of his greatest strengths while concealing one of his opponent’s greatest weaknesses. Biden gets to stay in his basement and conceal his lack of support and enthusiasm while Trump can’t do his jam-packed rallies with thousands waiting to get in.

That should start to change before this month is out, as the president is planning to hold rallies again. Nevertheless, it might not change entirely, as the rust belt, minus Ohio, is controlled by Democratic governors who have every reason to prevent the president from doing his rallies in their states.

At the very least, though, holding some rallies and conventions in free states will put the president back in his best element and force Joe Biden to get out of the basement and expose his weaknesses. That change should tip this factor back in Trump’s favor. It would also go a long way in retaking the frame and conversational space factors.

To be continued.

Advantage: none.

7. Personal brand: The candidate with the strongest, better-known personal brand will usually win.

Both are as well-known as the other, which means their advertising should remain effective. I consider this one a tie.

Advantage: none.

8. Best offer: The candidate with the strongest perceived offer to the most concerning issues of the time, the ones that people react to in the most visceral, rather than cerebral way, will usually win.

Truth be told, I’m not sure what the Trump campaign’s offer is right now. The inconsistent, muddled response to the coronavirus and these riots has confused the situation, to the point that many of Trump’s own voters are wondering what they’re voting for. Tucker Carlson laid it out in his already-legendary opening monologue on June 1st.

Are his supporters voting for Donald Trump and America First or whatever Jared Kushner wants to do?

In contrast, Joe Biden is centering his campaign on a vague “return to normalcy.” Before the coronavirus, this was a hard sell, and he was the absolute worst salesman to do it. He’s still the worst salesman to do it, but the environment has shifted so radically that a “return to normalcy” sounds appealing right now.

If Donald Trump wants to turn this situation around, he needs to do what I advised above. He must offer himself as the candidate of law, order, freedom, and prosperity and polarize Joe Biden as the candidate of mobs and lockdowns, which is as far from normal as it gets.

Deep down, he seems to know this. Jared Kushner and his cronies don’t seem to get it, though. They’ve been advocating a soft stance and putting out ads about Joe Biden’s voting for the 1994 crime bill in a hope to reach black voters, which muddles the message, making him look stronger on law and order.

Advantage: Biden.

9. Pendulum: The candidate benefiting from the pendulum effect, the reaction against the previous regime, will usually win.

We went over this above. The fundamentals of the race suggest that a pendulum is swinging against the incumbent regime, in this case, Donald Trump. This is perilous, because this trigger essentially determines the political market.

Advantage: Biden.

Is there a way out for President Trump?

Allan Lichtman may have been an accurate predictor of presidential elections, but his TDS means he has a strong emotional attachment to the subject which may make his calls less reliable than someone less emotionally attached. That’s why I put a couple of asterisks next to some of the keys.

Can we really call impeachment a “scandal?” It was underwater the longer it went on, particularly in the battleground states. Most people understood it to be an exercise in partisan politics, rather than an urgent national concern. Does that truly qualify as a “scandal?” At the time, I doubted it would move any votes. It feels like even more of an afterthought now. This key is questionable.

What about the charisma key? This one is more justifiable. Allan Lichtman opines that somebody like Donald Trump, who can’t break a 50% approval rating, can’t be qualified as charismatic, despite the enthusiasm he draws among his own base.

But the electorate is so polarized right now that it just might be that nobody can get over 50%. In that case, it comes down to base mobilization and turnout, and Donald Trump has much more charisma than Joe Biden to do that.

Another interesting thing is that Donald Trump consistently leads Joe Biden, sometimes by 10 points or more, on the economy, despite a ~15% unemployment rate. That’s unheard of, and suggests that we’re in the midst of ahistorical events. Might it just be that the incumbent will get a bye on the two economic keys because the public doesn’t consider the downturn to be his fault?

If just one of these keys can be turned back, there is a feasibility that the president could lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. Keep in mind that the keys predict the popular vote winner, and in this case, Lichtman was wrong on that particular outcome in 2016.

If the president can turn two back somehow, or if two don’t apply, he’d be favored to win.

One brave thing he’d be able to do is fulfill a major campaign promise and end the War in Afghanistan, which he’s taken baby steps to doing. Why not just tell the generals (many of whom are proving to be seditious) to pound sand and that he’s bringing the troops back to their families? Not only would that be great for persuasion, it would turn the foreign policy achievement key in his favor.

Another point in the president’s favor is that his opponent’s lead is far less robust than it appears on the surface, as you might expect by now after having read the persuasion factors above. For example, he’s facing a real enthusiasm problem, as he’s having difficulty consolidating his base in some primaries in key states, including in Pennsylvania. For more on that particular primary, I recommend watching Richard Baris’ analysis on his show, starting at 38:00.

Joe Biden also seems to be getting historically low support among black men and Hispanics. In fact, given some data and special elections like California 25, it’s possible that the bottom drops from the Democrats with Hispanics this year in the same way it did with working class white voters in 2016. That would put Florida out of play for Democrats while giving the president a lifeline in Arizona, a path to victory in Nevada, and maybe on a perfect day, New Mexico as well.

Trump, in contrast, has exceeded his Republican support in polling, holding Republicans together better than his opponent is holding Democrats, and every little bit counts.

Furthermore, as I’ve been saying for a while, the coronavirus pandemic is basically letting Joe Biden be an imaginary, idealized non-Trump candidate. When he actually does anything in public, his flaws come out immediately, as seen with the “you ain’t black” comment just before the riots hit. He doesn’t resemble successful candidates for president in the slightest, as you might have guessed from the persuasion factors above, where he’s ahead in some only by a series of defaults, rather than his own virtues. We see this weakness in some data.

The president can define his opponent much better than the reverse. If he can do this successfully, possibly using similar steps to what I posted above, in the midst of a rapidly improving economy (as seen in the May jobs report), fortune might just smile again.

Another thing you should pay attention to is what issue the public cares most about as Election Day gets closer. If it’s the economy, that should advantage the president. If it’s the virus or racial tensions, it’s his challenger.

This would be key, as Trump may be gaining in minority support, but he’s lost some of the white voters that put him over the top in 2016. He needs to get some of them back. Defining his opponent in this way may help them to come home. And we know the power of habit. Voting for someone you already voted for is easier than voting for someone new. Reportedly, 2/3 of those who voted for the president in 2016 but voted for Democrats in 2018 will swing back to him in 2020. However, that news was before the coronavirus hit. Will that overcome the power of habit? Some of these voters are also notoriously difficult to poll, especially this far out when polls aren’t predictive, so perhaps we’re overestimating the loss. That would be rosy though, so I’m not counting on it, I’m just saying it’s a possibility.

Perhaps this situation is just so ahistorical that no prediction based on historical factors can be made and we’re just riding the winds of chaos to see where fate brings us.

Perhaps political polarization means that historical factors and fundamentals matter less and it’s all about messaging and turnout.

But as of now, based on what we know, I can’t realistically say that the president will be reelected. If things don’t change quickly, he’s on the way to defeat. You may not like hearing it, but I don’t work in narratives.

Trump should read and regain the spirit from Stumped if he wants to have a shot at a better fate.

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