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Donald Trump is not a political genius

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Legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein talk to Anderson Cooper about President Trump's legacy and his remaining time in office.

Posted: Dec 4, 2020 2:01 PM
Updated: Dec 4, 2020 2:01 PM

There remains a widespread view that, regardless of whether you agree with President Donald Trump's policies, we must all admit that he is a shrewd politician. Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Stephen Miller, one of Trump's senior advisers, have called him a "political genius" while Dilbert creator Scott Adams has made a new career of presenting Trump as someone he calls a "Master Persuader": that is, someone with "weapons-grade persuasion skills."

"Give the President his due: Trump is a genius," Frida Ghitis wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year.

Now that the Trump presidency is coming to a close, can we finally stop with this nonsense? The evidence is in, and Trump is far from a once-in-a-generation political talent. Just the opposite: he is a polarizing politician who was lucky to eke out a victory in both the 2016 primary and general election. He could have won in 2020, but squandered his chances by failing to tackle the coronavirus, playing to his base, and focusing more on tweeting than on problem-solving. If the Republican Party wants to increase its odds at winning more elections in the coming decades, it should jettison Trump, instead of allowing him to hijack the future of the party.

To assess Trump's political prowess, let's look at his electoral results. In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Trump took advantage of a divided field and won it narrowly: he ended up with 45% of the overall popular vote. This is the lowest percent of the vote for any Republican primary winner in the last two decades: Mitt Romney won 52% of the primary vote in 2012; McCain won 47% in 2008; Bush won 62% in his only contested primary in 2000.

Trump earned only tepid support from the party during much of the general election cycle in 2016. He did, of course, go on to win the presidential election in a surprising upset. But it was a narrow victory that ultimately came down to about 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Trump received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — who was among the most disliked major party nominees in recent memory — and won with only 46.1% of the popular vote, a historically low number for a major party candidate.

It's true that a win is a win, and Trump should get credit for his 2016 victory. But we don't call a basketball team historically great if it wins a single championship on a lucky shot after the opposing team's best player gets hurt. Sorry, but that's the 2016 cycle.

Trump's political chops didn't improve once he entered the White House. He wasn't only bad at governing (he had historically high staff turnover, failed in his promise to replace Obamacare with a Republican health care plan, and got nowhere with a promised infrastructure plan that should have been a slam dunk). His party also had a difficult four years at the ballot box. The Republicans got thumped in the 2018 Congressional midterms and lost several gubernatorial races in states he had won in 2016. In fact, in an Alabama special election in late 2017, he gave a late-breaking endorsement to the controversial Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who proceeded to lose in one of the most-Republican leaning states in the nation. Not exactly genius-level stuff here.

In 2020, Trump had two major advantages: he was an incumbent, and incumbents tend to win, and the election was held during a national crisis, which usually leads Americans to rally around their leader. But Trump lost anyway, and pretty badly at that. As in 2016, he failed to break the 50% mark in the popular vote and instead won only 46.9% of all votes, losing to Joe Biden by more than four percentage points and 7 million total votes.

And Trump's Electoral College advantage wasn't enough to save him this time around. Come January 20, Trump will join the club of one-term presidents alongside Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Herbert Hoover.

Trump also did worse than other Republicans in 2020, signaling that voters preferred the Republican Party over Trump himself. The overall House vote, for instance, was about 2 points closer than the presidential race, which means that several million more people voted for Biden and a Republican House candidate than the reverse.

Trump also ran behind Republican Senate candidates in many key states, and those margins were particularly wide where the candidates were known for breaking with Trump. In Maine, moderate Republican Susan Collins won her race by nearly 9 points while Trump lost the state by 9 points. In Nebraska, frequent Trump critic Ben Sasse beat his Democratic challenger by substantially more than Trump's margin over Biden in the Cornhusker State.

All of this leads to one conclusion: if Republicans are smart, they will quickly realize Trump is a polarizing demagogue who poses a liability to the GOP. In 2012, when Mitt Romney got 47% of the vote and lost to Barack Obama by about 4%, Romney's performance was widely considered disastrous. That loss lead Republicans to conduct the famous autopsy report that declared the GOP was "increasingly marginalizing itself" at the federal level and noted "public perception of the Party is at record lows."

Yet the GOP just suffered a similarly disastrous defeat; Romney's 2012 results in the popular vote are very similar to Trump's in 2020. So why is the Republican Party still treating Trump like he's a two-term hero and not a one-term loser?

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