David Bell – Trump in the Lead

7 March 2024

Over the past two weeks, the chances of Donald Trump returning to power have grown considerably. Here are three reasons why.

First, Trump has established beyond any doubt his complete domination of the Republican party, whose members will enthusiastically back him in November. He swept triumphantly through more Republican primaries, wiping out Nikki Haley in every contest except in liberal Washington, DC and Vermont. Following multiple crushing defeats on “Super Tuesday,” Haley finally dropped out. She has not yet bent the knee and endorsed Trump, but will most likely do so once the memory of her attacks on him as a mentally unfit chaos candidate have conveniently faded. 

Second, the various threats to Trump in the legal system have diminished. Most importantly, he  has benefitted from two highly consequential decisions by the Supreme Court. On February 28, the justices agreed to hear arguments about whether he enjoys immunity for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results—but only to hear them on the last possible date in their term, April 25.  If they then wait, as likely, until late June to hand down a ruling, it may well become impossible for a federal trial to take place on the matter until after the election. Then, on March 4, they overruled the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to ban Trump from that state’s ballot – something it claimed it had a duty to do, since the 14th Amendment prohibits “insurrectionists” from holding federal office. 

In addition, the prospect of Trump appearing before the voters in November as a convicted felon has been diminishing. Of the four cases in which Trump is facing criminal charges, only the weakest and least damaging is still likely to conclude before the election – the  New York City case involving falsified business records for hush money payments made in 2016 to a porn film star named Stormy Daniels with whom Trump had an adulterous affair, which is set to begin at the end of March. Trump’s trial in Georgia for attempting to overturn the 2020 election results there is currently in limbo because of possible corruption charges against the chief prosecutor. And a date has yet to be set in the trial for security violations involving mishandling of presidential documents. The judge in that case, Eileen Cannon, is a Trump appointee who has so far done everything possible to delay it. 

And finally, there is the economy—yes, the economy. A new CBS News poll shows that 59 percent of Americans call the state of the economy “bad”; only 38 percent say “good.” By contrast, 65 percent remember the economy under Trump as “good,” and only 28 percent as “bad.” Bill Clinton may have been simplifying things when he said, “it’s the economy, stupid,” back in 1992. But in times of peace (and yes, these are still times of peace for the US, despite aid to Israel and Ukraine), feelings about the economy matter more than any other factor in presidential elections.

It may seem strange that Americans are judging the economy this way, but it should not—and commentators who profess befuddlement are simply not doing their jobs. Yes, the statistics look very rosy. The US is experiencing robust GDP growth, low unemployment, a record high stock market, and inflation has cooled to just over 3 percent. By contrast, under Trump the pandemic drove US unemployment levels to nearly 15 percent, and temporarily led to a 9 percent drop in GDP.

But look a little deeper. Thanks to stimulus funds of over six trillion dollars, including over 800 billion dollars paid directly to low- and middle-income Americans, and massively increased unemployment benefits, relatively few Americans suffered directly from the pandemic’s economic downturn. In fact, many did surprisingly well, including, especially, children. In 2022, thanks to pandemic benefits, child poverty levels hit a record low of just 5.2 percent. A year later, after those benefits ran out, it stood at 12.4 percent. Biden doesn’t deserve the blame for this, but it is easy to see why people think he does.

Meanwhile, a key element of well-being—housing—is becoming close to unaffordable for many Americans. As the journal Democracy reports: “Home prices nationwide have risen almost 45 percent since 2020—more than double the increase during the previous two administrations. Rents are up by an average of 22 percent.” These changes have hit particularly hard at a demographic group that Biden desperately needs to vote for him in large numbers—young adults. Restaurant prices have also risen massively since 2020. So Americans are finding it much harder to make ends meet than the rosy statistics might suggest. And for this, as they always do, they are blaming the person in the White House.

There are other reasons for the gloomy election outlook as well, of course, including Biden’s age and apparent frailty, and anger over his foreign policy. But these things are less important than Trump’s transformation of his party into a personal movement, his declining chances of a serious criminal conviction, and, especially, the economy. The most recent polls show him five points over Biden nationally, and leading in seven key swing states. Is it too early to panic? Perhaps not.

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