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Trump’s luck finally runs out

By Keith Naughton, THE HILL, 10/04/20

Trump's luck finally runs out

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People underestimate the role luck (or chance) plays in an individual’s life. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are brilliant and accomplished, but more than a little good luck has helped them. Sergey Brin and Larry Page almost sold Google for $1 million (it’s now worth nearly $1 trillion).

And so it is with Donald Trump. Trump has been lucky his entire life. But, as anyone who has ever been at a craps table knows, good luck doesn’t last forever.

Pundits, political scientists and various other promoters of “big ideas” can opine all they want about the larger forces and deep strategy that got Trump into the White House — and there certainly was plenty of agency in Trump’s rise — but the fact is he also got a lot of luck along the way.

Winning the Republican nomination was a close-run thing. Trump took longer to secure the nomination than any other Republican nominee since 1976. And, in the GOP primaries, Trump faced the most inexperienced field since 1964 with none of his opponents having been on a national ticket. Since 1948, only three Republican nominees had not had previous national experience: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater and George W. Bush.

Consider just some of the luck he had on the way to the White House:

  • Jeb Bush aggressively pursued former Romney staff and donors, boxing out Romney. Romney had run twice before and was the strongest contender. Jeb! pushed out Romney and then flopped spectacularly.
  • No CNN president other than Jeff Zucker would ever have courted a presidential candidate, appearing to tilt the race in his direction by providing an enormous trove of free coverage.
  • Hillary Clinton’s campaign fumbled its targeting, polling and creative content — a rarely achieved trifecta of failure in a general election for president.
  • All presidential candidates make verbal gaffes, but Clinton seemed to be determined to drive away big parts of the traditional Democratic coalition.

Trump definitely took advantage of the opportunities afforded him, and his team was much better at targeting and content. But it is hard to come up with a past American presidential election where so many fortunate factors came together for one candidate.

Even as president, Trump had a lucky streak — a growing economy and a fairly peaceful international scene. Conflicts started under Bush and Barack Obama were (and are) diminishing. The Democrats cornered themselves into pursuing a doomed-to-fail impeachment trial that left Trump higher in the ballot test against Joe Biden than before.

But the coronavirus upended all that. A natural phenomenon impervious to criticism and uninterested in human preference, the virus short-circuited the economy — Trump’s best issue area. The protests sparked by the death of George Floyd likely would not have been as extensive and long-lasting if it wasn’t for unemployment and cabin fever.

For Trump, these problems exposed his loose management style, conflicting messages, inconsistent policy, his domestic policy adviser publicly feuding with health advisors. Chaos that never mattered when times were good has been damaging with the country facing a serious issue. Trump’s numbers on the coronavirus and on civil unrest have been consistently and badly underwater with independents. The virus spreading through the White House will not help those numbers.

As Warren Buffett is wont to say, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” 

The problem for Trump is that he needs to gain votes on Biden, and he is running out of time. If he is on the shelf, recuperating at Walter Reed, he cannot exploit some of the errors Biden made in the debate. A delay in the next debate would be problematic, as votes are being cast every day. In addition, an aggressive Trump in the face of a clear failure by the White House would look foolish.

Trump’s best hope is that his reduced presence and subsequent vacuum in media coverage will put the spotlight on Biden. Biden’s keep-away strategy has been working, but he made some mistakes in the recent debate, and his stonewalling on Supreme Court packing is a challenge for him.

Often in politics the best strategy is to lay low and while your opponent sabotages himself. Trump has never figured that out — or has found it simply impossible to not be the center of attention. Just maybe Trump being forced off the stage will help. Democratic voters might figure the race is over, and turnout might fall. That is clearly a concern for Team Biden, as it has recently done an about-face and started in-person canvassing.

All things considered, contracting the coronavirus is much more likely to put a lid on Trump’s ability to collect the votes he needs to pass Biden.

Trump is lucky, but even the hottest roller at the table cannot avoid the seven forever.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies

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