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What Path Is The Trump Presidency On Now?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Soon after President Trump was inaugurated, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver laid out 14 possible paths his presidency might take — ranging from him shifting to the middle and emerging as a fairly popular unifier to him resigning in disgrace or being impeached.

And while going through all 14 paths at this point is a little overwhelming, it’s still a useful way to think about the trajectory Trump finds himself on now. For instance, there’s a real question of whether the economy will have sufficiently recovered from a recession (Scenario 9) by November. But by the same token, it seems pretty unlikely that Trump cedes control to anyone in his administration in any meaningful way (Scenario 5). If anything, the fact that former National Security Advisor John Bolton is the latest former administration official to speak out against him underscores just how comfortable Trump is with not listening to anyone.

So maybe the answer is Trump is verging on some hybrid version of Scenarios 1 and 6, where he defies conventional norms and jeopardizes democratic values (firing Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in charge of investigating major crimes in the influential Southern District of New York, is just the latest example). But will it be in a way where he still manages to appeal to enough of the electorate to win reelection? His approval rating and recent polls would suggest this may not be a winning tactic, but with his recent rally in Tulsa, we’re definitely in full-swing reelection phase.

So what path is Trump on now?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): So I think we should start with the caveat that, clearly, Trump isn’t on any one specific path. The last three and a half years have just been too unpredictable. But I think there are elements of several of Nate’s paths that have come true.

For example, “1. Trump keeps on Trumpin’ and the country remains evenly divided” seems pretty accurate, but Nate’s supposition that that path would “sort of work” and would “make for a very competitive 2018 and 2020” does not seem to be coming true.

sarah: That feels like … a cop-out.

nrakich: LOL, Sarah, have you met me?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I am here to out-cop-out Nathaniel and point out two important variables in the 14 scenarios: Trump himself, and the rest of the political environment.

And I don’t think they play an equal role in each scenario. So I would actually adjust Nate’s original framework to think about how the Trump administration has shaped up and also what’s happened in the rest of politics.

That being said, I think we should still consider the “things fall apart” genre and why what’s happening now looks a bit different, as well as Nate’s original Scenario 8 — “Trump is consumed by scandal.”

nrakich: Exactly, Julia. Trump has faced a lot of scandals. He has presided over a pandemic and civil unrest. He has routinely violated democratic norms and values. He was impeached. But Trump’s popularity hasn’t cratered in response (although it is dipping).

Nate’s scenarios kind of assumed that if bad things happened under Trump’s watch, he would become extremely unpopular. But that hasn’t happened in these polarized times. (He’s only pretty unpopular.)

sarah: I agree. Scenario 8 in Nate’s original article implied scandal would sink Trump, but it really hasn’t. That said, as you’re saying, Nathaniel, it doesn’t mean Trump’s approval rating is indestructible — even if it is weirdly steady. This passage from Geoffrey Skelley’s piece on Trump’s latest dip in his approval rating has really stuck with me.

The downward movement in his approval rating belies the notion that nothing matters when it comes to public opinion of this president — his actions and events can, in fact, affect his standing. And for that reason, his reelection chances could now be in real danger.

julia_azari: Right, so things have kinda fallen apart: We have a recession. We have a pandemic. A few weeks ago we had national protests with curfews and Trump making some very authoritarian statements.

And at one point, I think Trump might have entertained going fully authoritarian — which was a path in Nate’s original scenarios — but the rest of the political system pushed back.

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone is here to save norms, but one thing we’ve seen in the Trump presidency is that systems are resistant to change, and a lot of people have incentives to push back against changes. The political system has worked largely as expected, too. For instance, party loyalty kicked in as we expected during the impeachment process.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): That’s key here — congressional Republicans and the party overall have been so loyal to Trump.

Trump has had scandals and mistakes that I think rival or perhaps even top George W. Bush’s. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Everything with Ukraine.

But my perception is that prominent Republicans have been less willing to criticize Trump than they were with Bush. Party loyalty under Trump has been extremely strong. He is fairly unpopular overall, but very popular within the Republican Party. For instance, Trump is way down in the polls right now, yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking the same stance as Trump on Confederate monumentsthat too many of them are being taken down.

This is not a great position for a party trying to win elections.

julia_azari: Right, the party environment has changed.

nrakich: (Yeah, as a side note, I was thinking about this chat we did in December 2019 about the most consequential episodes in Trump’s presidency. That was only six months ago, and yet it feels like the list we settled on is totally defunct.)

sarah: Something I think we’re all dancing around now is that Trump has fewer paths to choose from, right? Initially, Nate had outlined 14 potential paths, but Trump’s options feel far more limited now.

julia_azari: Yeah. I mean, the path where Trump pivots is not happening — which was evident very early on.

nrakich: The Trump-controlled part of his path seems to be more or less decided at this point. The thing that’s left is the political-environment-controlled part.

And, of course, whether he wins reelection, which will be a part of how we assess whether Trump’s path “worked.”

Although I would quibble with even that characterization. If something doesn’t work for 3.5 years but then we have a fast economic recovery or something and he hits 47 percent approval just in time to win reelection … did his path really “work”?

julia_azari: So in one of the pivot scenarios, Nate wrote that maybe one conclusion from the 2016 election was that Trump is actually pretty good at politics. I think this deserves some unpacking — Trump is clearly good at building a base, but I think he’s bad at legislative coalition-building, national politics, etc.

perry: Trump has been brilliant in terms of consolidating power within the Republican Party.

For example, he basically pushed Sen. Jeff Flake out of the Senate. He has interjected himself into gubernatorial primaries to get his favorites to win.

He has forced people out of his administration who would not do his bidding. Being a Republican is about being loyal to Trump in a way that being a Democrat was not about being loyal to Obama from 2009 to 2017.

julia_azari: Right. But then when you take out the Republican Party, the results fall apart pretty quickly.

perry: In a country this divided, I would argue being good at base politics is quite important.

The media and other institutions in American politics, like the courts, are always trying to remain nonpartisan. So Trump’s approach basically forces out intra-party critics. It means the media can’t easily say, “Even Republicans think Trump is doing something strange here.” That gives him more power. He has been great at accumulating power within the Republican Party.

julia_azari: Right, but power to do what?

Trump governs mostly by executive order, in part because Congress is divided and in part because even when it wasn’t, no one could clarify an agenda and turn slogans into an actual governing coalition.

nrakich: I agree that Trump may care most about being loved by a segment of the population and having Republicans depend on him for their political livelihood. But I think Trump is bad at politics. He’s good at building a loyal personal following (this was always true, by the way — it was his MO as a reality TV star!), but that’s not the same as governing effectively or winning elections.

perry: And for three and a half years, he was close to maintaining power for eight years in America.

julia_azari: So I think the sum total of what you’re both saying is that Trump has mostly succeeded at his goals, and those goals were pretty tangentially related to governing.

perry: Yes. Trump has been fairly effective at what Trump wanted to do, which is hold power.

nrakich: I think we need to be more specific than just “power.” That word can mean a lot of things. But I get what you’re saying.

perry: What I’m saying is pre-pandemic, Trump was at slightly below 50/50 odds of winning reelection. And that was not because he was good at governing — as defined as achieving policy goals — but because he commanded 100 percent loyalty with 50 percent of the electorate or so.

So if Trump is only going to lose reelection because of the pandemic and the recession, then that means he wasn’t too bad at politics.

nrakich: Perry, we’ve had this discussion before, but I think Trump was an underdog even before the pandemic.

sarah: Yeah, I was going to ask… how much do we actually think the pandemic, the recession and now the protests have altered Trump’s reelection odds? They definitely don’t seem to have helped him at this point.

nrakich: The events of the last month — which are probably impossible to disentangle — seem to have meaningfully hurt Trump’s reelection odds. We don’t have a model yet, but I can give it to you in terms of a polling average. On May 24, Biden led by 5.8 points in national polls. As of Tuesday, he led by 9.3 points.

perry: Trump’s reelection odds, it seems to me, went from like 45 percent earlier this year to 20 percent. In April, The New York Times’s Nate Cohn, who is a great elections analyst, wrote about Trump’s strength in swing states. And the entire Democratic primary seemed to be, “Who can beat Trump,” which suggests to me not everyone perceived him as easy to defeat. So it really does seem to me that the pandemic and the resulting recession have rewritten his entire presidency. Trump was running on economic success, which he claimed credit for even if he had little do to do with it. And that was an argument that was kind of working.

So in some ways, Trump’s path was to do crazy things but focus on the economy and say, “Whatever I tweet, I get things done.”

And that was a decent path until COVID-19.

nrakich: I think the fact that electability was such a big deal during the primary reflects the perception — among Democrats, maybe you’d call it paranoia — that Trump would be a formidable opponent. But he basically spent all of 2019 down by around 6 points to Biden.

(Now is the part where I insert the caveat that everything is still subject to change with more than four months until the election, regardless of whether Trump is down 9 or 6 points.)

sarah: Huh, so maybe Trump isn’t that bad at politics. Maybe the external environmental factors have just become too much for Trump to course-correct in any real way?

nrakich: I certainly agree with Perry that the pandemic and recession have rewritten Trump’s presidency. But things have just gone from bad to worse for him. The economy used to be a plausible thing for him to campaign on, although it was really the only arrow in his quiver. Now he doesn’t even have that.

perry: Trump is not great at politics — he barely won in 2016. But he if loses in a landslide in 2020, that may be more about COVID-19 than his political skills.

julia_azari: Right. I think it’s worth noting that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton would all be struggling politically right now. They probably would not have dismantled the unit in the National Security Council dedicated to pandemic preparedness and might have had a more coherent response, but presidents have limited control over events like the political environment, particularly when a recession is involved.

That’s an interesting question, Nathaniel. What could change between now and November?

nrakich: Seems to me like quite a bit? The pandemic could be totally under control and the economy could be roaring back. Or we could be in the middle of a second wave and the unemployment rate could be in the 20s.

Not to mention, all the possibilities that exist in a normal year: A bad debate. A scandal. God forbid, a terrorist attack.

sarah: So how much does Trump’s path matter moving forward? Do external factors matter more?

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I think at this point external factors matter more. Trump has shown us who he is and how he’s governing.

perry: I think the most important thing is not any actual event, but rather how many Republican elites and voters decide to break with Trump. Will more of each say “this incident was the last straw” even if the incident was similar to something Trump did in 2017?

I don’t think Trump will do anything different, but I think people might react differently to his behavior, with four more years of his presidency looming.

julia_azari: Yeah. I agree that this is a big variable, and not the focus of the original paths.

perry: If it’s clear the ship is going down, people will want to get off of it.

Loyalty to the king does not matter if the king is going to be dethroned.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”