Right Track/Wrong Track Shows Trump in Big Trouble

Political Wire posted this article today (behind a paywall): The Dow Jones Indicator of American Politics. It’s based on a report from Charlie Cook —  Right Direction/Wrong Track Numbers Tell the Story of the Election — and it shows Trump in deep trouble.

Cook looked at the last 40 years and found that, when an incumbent president opts to run for reelection, the most accurate predictor of whether he would win has been the right track/wrong track numbers.

Continuity prevails when voters—or at least a critical mass of them—feel good about how the country is doing. Change wins out when a majority of voters are not happy. A chart put together by a Republican campaign consultant, who for obvious reasons would rather remain unnamed, measures this via an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: “Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?” Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it “the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.”

I posted one of Navigator’s poll response charts above; you can see others here: navigatorresearch.org/… . But here are some numbers that show what Cook was talking about:

Year incumbent right track won/lost
1980 Carter 20% Lost
1984 Reagan 47% Won
1988 Bush I* 41% Won
1992 Bush I 17% Lost
1996 Clinton 39% Won
2004 Bush II 41% Won
2012 Obama 42% Won
  • In 1988, George H. W. Bush was effectively running for Reagan’s third term. I left out 2000 (Gore running to succeed Clinton) because Gore distanced himself from Clinton.

Now look at Trump’s “right track” number posted above: 19%. That’s Carter and Bush I territory.

One thing I find fascinating about these numbers is that, in all cases, more people thought the country was on the wrong track than going in the right direction. Even so, if a president was around 40% or higher, he won reelection — meaning, most likely, that enough of the people who thought he was taking us in the wrong direction still had confidence that he would improve things in his second term.

Here’s Charlie Cook again:

These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.

Cook’s argument is that, even though the economy was doing well (in a Potemkin fashion, I would say) under Trump, political prognosticators were looking at this number as a better predictor of Trump’s reelection prospects. Although the graph at the top only goes back to March, Cook says many of his colleagues realized Trump was in trouble a year ago.

My takeaway from this is that Trump had it all wrong from the start about what he needed in order to win: it’s not how well the economy is doing, but how people feel about where we’re going. That is something Trump is fundamentally incapable of understanding, since it requires empathy. Plus Trump measures success almost exclusively in dollars — and the other measurement is how much he can crush everyone else.

Any other politician would know how to turn those numbers around, but not Trump.

That’s not a reason to get complacent, of course. (There is no reason to ever get complacent around the Malignant Mangoface.) Trump may not have figured out how to win legitimately, but he certainly is working on doing it illegitimately. Still, the right track/wrong track barrier is now so high he may not be able to steal a win.