It really always comes down to this in big time elections. The last sixty days. All that came before, including the conventions, was just table setting. Now, the knives and forks will sound and spark with no respite until All Souls Day. This particular matchup is epic for all that’s on the line; maybe the least of which being the office of the Presidency itself but rather, as the eve of Election Day suggests, the soul of the nation.
Tempting as it is to treat this as a simple political contest between two candidates , it is rather our nation’s quadrennial presidential election that has a history, a culture of its own ; a beating heart, almost apart from the candidates, even the voters. A baked-in sensibility of sorts.
As Trump and Biden get into the starting gate for the sixty-day sprint, what is the organism, the thing apart, that defines this race, its structure and precedent? What does this election have to do with the man from Plains, Georgia?
President Donald Trump has one sure thing going for him and it’s not a small thing. Since 1900, an incumbent President who assumed office in the first instance upon defeating the opposition party, has not failed to be re-elected – with one exception:
Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980 .
American voters are likely to re-elect incumbents such as Trump who followed two terms of the opposition party. A corollary rubric is only once since WWII has a two-term President been able to hand off the office to his party’s successor nominee; that would be Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush in 1988 . Incumbent-party fatigue is strong after two terms. Notably, Barack Obama couldn’t make a similar transfer to Hillary Clinton. That’s why Trump won in 2016… barely won in the Electoral College… Incumbent Fatigue …Obama and Clinton.
These structural patterns reflect American voter tendencies over long period of time. To unseat Trump, Democrats must reckon with the mighty powers of an incumbent. Those powers are now at their peak. It takes some doing to take a President down. Both sides know this.
What happened to Carter forty years ago to make him a one term President? The decisive blow came from Ted Kennedy and a fractured Democratic Party. But there was also gasoline rationing and the Iranian hostages. All combined for a humiliating perception of weakness that unseated an incumbent President.
Comparing 1980 with today, the question is whether a raging storm is poised to remove Donald Trump from office. It is nothing like gas rationing, Iranian hostages, or an intra- party bloodbath; altogether overwhelming, casting perceptions that in the end allowed Reagan to walk in. This storm is something else, more sinister and foreboding. The soul sickness of our original sin.
Does Trump ride the tide of incumbency to a second term ? Or does he become engulfed in a spiral of his own making which rattles every aspect of American life touched by Black Lives Matter and Covid.
A storm that is now about to cut its swath through the core of the American soul.
Bernard Kenny of Hoboken is the former senator from LD33.