President Donald Trump is in much worse political shape as the Republican convention begins than he was at the start of the year.
He was unpopular even then.
At the end of January, he was about five points behind Joe Biden in national polls, which also showed that a small majority of the country disapproved of his job performance. But his numbers had been improving, and he had three great assets going into a campaign year.
First, his party was unified in support of him.
Unlike every incumbent president who had lost an election since the Great Depression, he had avoided a serious primary challenge. Trump has sided with Republican voters on the issues that large numbers of them care deeply about, from guns to taxes to the courts.
That record, and the fact that Democrats are on the other side of those issues, has kept Republican voters with him. Their support has in turn kept Republican politicians in line.
The Democrats’ impeachment and attempted removal of Trump from office — remember that? — only strengthened Republicans’ commitment to him.
Second, the economy was strong. Democrats were in denial about it, but both economic statistics and public-opinion surveys agreed.
Third, the president’s opposition was moving further to the left of public opinion.
Several of the Democratic presidential candidates came out for outlawing the private health insurance on which most Americans rely. Republican strategists could hardly believe their luck as a self-described "democratic socialist," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., got the most votes in the first three Democratic contests.
It all changed rapidly, starting in March.
Democratic voters who don’t consider themselves "very liberal" consolidated behind Biden, and clinched the nomination for him.
Biden’s victory made it much harder for Trump to base his campaign on fear of left-wing extremism. "He’s not radical Left," Trump himself has conceded.
That same month, the president declared COVID-19 a national emergency, and much of the country shut down. The unemployment rate, 3.5% in February, jumped to 14.7% by April. Trump can argue that the economy is improving, or say that the pre-COVID-19 record vindicates his economic policies.
But he no longer has at his disposal the clean case that times are good — which would surely have been a major theme of this convention week if we still had the economy of the start of the year.
Trump is down to his first asset, a solid base of support.
He continues to do a lot to keep it.
When former President Barack Obama delivered a tough critique of him at last week’s Democratic convention, Trump tweeted in response that Obama had spied on him.
It’s the sort of riposte that appeals to people already in his corner.
But that base won’t be enough for Trump to win re-election, or for his party to avoid losses down ballot. It wasn’t enough in 2016, even with a coalition that was efficiently distributed among the states for electoral power: About a fifth of his voters were people who disapproved of him.
And building on his base will now be far harder than it looked in February.
At the start of the year, there was a plausible strategy: Convince enough people who didn’t like Trump that they should vote for him anyway, because he had delivered positive results and the opposition was too risky.
Now, he has to win over people who don’t like him when the economy is weak, close to 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and the opposition is led by someone who beat a socialist.
Republicans have been saying that the Democratic convention was too grim in its depiction of American life and that their own convention will be upbeat.
They will surely try to lift Trump’s approval ratings this week. But they may find bringing Biden’s numbers down is more feasible.
Trump and other Republicans have already made several attacks on Biden.
They may continue to say age has diminished him too much for him to be able to do the job of president, a criticism that plays into the Democrat’s hands by making it easier for him to look competent.
They will surely press the argument that the Democrats are too far left, and that Biden will enable rather than restrain them. That strategy attempts to make the election a referendum, not on Trump or even Biden, but on the Democratic Party.
The task for Republicans this week is thus clearly defined, if difficult to execute: Persuade some of those voters who don’t approve of how Trump has performed as president that they should fear the Democrats more.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." Read Ramesh Ponnuru's Reports — More Here.
© Copyright 2020 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.