For the last two decades, one corner of political science has been consumed by a debate over whether shark attacks off the New Jersey shore cost Woodrow Wilson votes in the 1916 presidential election.
While this seemingly arcane discussion may remind practitioners of the medieval debate (or perhaps it was a 17th century controversy, even that is debated) over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, it bears on a contemporary question of great import. To what extent do events well beyond presidents’ control influence voters’ support for them?
The answer could have a profound impact on Donald Trump’s reelection prospects.
Whatever the disposition of the shark debate, the weight of evidence suggests bad news of various kinds does impact election outcomes.
People have difficultly grasping the differential implications of detailed policy proposals. But they can look back to see their impact. The policies are either working successfully or not (or somewhere in between). Things are either going well or poorly.
To the extent voters are making decisions based on how things are going, it’s not always easy for them to discern the causes of the effects they witness. Was it the president’s or the governor’s fault, or someone, or something, else?
Bad harvests have been identified as the cause of the fall of European governments, the rise of Hitler, and the results of state elections across America’s farm belt.
No one would suggest that politicians control harvests.
Detailed statistical analysis found oil states tended to reelect incumbent governors when oil prices were rising and defeat them when petroleum prices were falling, even though no governor of any American state has an iota of influence over oil prices.
One study even suggests the weather — droughts and floods — effect votes for and against incumbents.
The economy may be an ambiguous case. Presidents are clearly punished for bad times and rewarded when the economy is strong.
But do presidents really control the economy? Reasonable people may differ, but if they were honest, most who’ve tried pulling those levers from the White House would probably agree their influence is not as great as they would like.
One form of Talmudic logic, known as kal va’homer, roughly translates as “how much more so.” If you get punished because your ox gores a neighbor, how much more so if the ox had gored previously and you did nothing?
If presidents are punished for bad news that isn’t their fault, how much more so when they do influence the course of events for the worse?
Which brings us to President Trump, who faces both an Everest and a K2 of bad news for which he is, at least partially, responsible.
President Trump didn’t unleash COVID-19, but his failure to act resolutely and expeditiously increased its severity.
In addition to its deadly impact on public health, the virus is causing a deep recession.
With a bare 50 percent majority approving of his handling of the corona crisis, some argue, it’ll benefit him.
But we haven’t seen the results yet — and sadly the worst is yet to come. Many more people will get sick and die.
A Federal Reserve Bank president is estimating 30 percent unemployment. But we’re not there yet.
Now below 44 percent, the president’s approval rating is already beneath that of any president who won reelection. After tens of thousands of deaths and a deep recession, it will be even lower.
Professor Alan Abramowitz developed a model of presidential elections based on fundamentals, systemizing the lessons of history.
His calculations demonstrate that even if the president’s approval rating remains where it is and the decline in gross national product is less than forecast by economists, Trump will garner fewer than 150 of the 270 electoral votes he needs.
In the end, reality counts — a lot. And the reality facing the country is bleak. As a result, so are the president’s political prospects.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.