Voters see Trump as candidate of stability

WASHINGTON — Just over a century ago, in a country reeling from a decade of war, political turmoil and a deadly pandemic, Sen. Warren G. Harding promised voters a return to “normalcy.” He won the presidency in a landslide.

Joe Biden made a similar case in 2020 — telling voters that he could return the country to normal after years of partisan strife and the trauma of COVID-19. That argument was key to his victory over then-President Donald Trump.

Four years later, however, with inflation having scrambled household budgets, unprecedented numbers of migrants crossing the southern border, wars ravaging Eastern Europe and the Mideast and the effects of the pandemic still lingering, large numbers of voters don’t believe Biden has delivered.

Stability isn’t always a winning theme in elections. There are times voters demand change, sometimes radical transformation. This does not appear to be one of those years, however, according to strategists in both parties.

Voters appear to crave a more stable world. And amazingly to those who remember the chaos of his four years in office, it’s Trump who appears to be winning the argument over who can deliver it.

Advantage for the ‘very stable genius’

A new poll from Echelon Insights, a Republican firm widely cited in both parties, underscored Trump’s advantage on that issue.

Voters were evenly split on whether Trump’s reelection would mean that “things in the United States are going to become more stable,” with 45% saying his election would mean more stability, 45% saying less stability and 7% saying things would stay about the same.

Asked about Biden, however, only 29% said that his reelection would mean more stability, 50% said less and 18% said things would stay about the same.

That’s clearly not the only issue shaping voters’ views — Trump did lead Biden in Echelon’s nationwide poll, but only narrowly, 49%-45%: A significant share of voters who don’t think Biden will make the country more stable plan to vote for him anyway.

But the issue of stability and who can restore it is a powerful one: Three of the issues that Republicans have taken advantage of this past year — inflation, crime and the border — all play on voters’ fears about events spinning out of control.

Biden’s age also ties into voter worries about stability: When people fear chaos, they often crave a leader who appears strong. Biden doesn’t. Trump, by contrast, has perfected the strongman pitch. While Democrats warn of an authoritarian threat to American democracy, not all voters share that concern.

Dumping Biden could worsen the Democrats’ problem

Democrats know they face a significant problem, but they disagree on what to do about it. Focusing on voters’ desire for stability provides some hints.

To start, that focus implies that dumping Biden in favor of another candidate — a hot topic in many liberal circles these days — would have enormous risk of backfiring.

Even without considering stability, the idea has many problems — not least of which is that Biden shows no sign of being willing to consider it. Beyond that, most polls show the alternatives doing worse against Trump than the incumbent.

But a sudden switch to a new, untried candidate would almost surely cause voters to see the the party as chaotic, Democratic pollster Natalie Jackson wrote this week. The likely result: “voters would quickly lose faith in Democrats,” she wrote.

“The perception of Democrats being unstable would be extremely difficult to overcome.”

Republican weaknesses

Looking at the election as a contest over stability also highlights the risks Republicans face.

To start, there are Trump’s personal liabilities, which will certainly get more attention as the former president’s criminal trials get underway.

Beyond that, Trump’s policy positions, such as his vows to create massive internment camps and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, including many who have lived in the U.S. for decades, aren’t going to sound like stability to many voters.

Trump must also contend with the more extreme efforts by his Republican allies to roll back decades of social change in the U.S., moves that could easily seem chaotic and threatening to a wide swath of voters.

The latest example comes from the Alabama Supreme Court which recently ruled that frozen embryos created by in vitro fertilization are children under state law.

“Unborn children are ‘children,’ ” under state law, the court, all of whose members are Republicans, held in its 7-2 ruling.

The court’s Chief Justice, Tom Parker, went further in a separate opinion explicitly linking the ruling to anti-abortion theology.

“Even before birth, all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory,” Parker wrote.

On Wednesday, five days after the ruling, the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system announced that it was suspending in vitro fertilization treatments.

“We must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for following the standard of care for I.V.F. treatments,” the hospital system said in a statement.

Even before that announcement, White House officials were warning of the disruption the ruling could cause.

“This is exactly the type of chaos that we expected when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and paved the way for politicians to dictate some of the most personal decisions families can make,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

What swing voters remember

To many Democrats, the idea of Trump as a candidate of stability is maddening. How, they ask, can voters square that with the record of his four years in office and, especially, that era’s closing event, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But swing voters — the sort who determine which side wins close elections — tend to be people who pay very little attention to news. That’s why they are swing voters; the lion’s share of them don’t have strong partisan convictions or consistent ideologies, and they’re not especially interested in politics. They’re “low-information voters,” in the jargon of political campaigns.

Amid the clamor of the modern media environment, a lot of events — even headlines that might seem indelible to those who do follow current events — simply wash over a large share of the population.

The passage of time further dulls recollections of who did what to whom. That’s one reason that the reputations of most presidents improve after they leave office: Contrary to Shakespeare, it’s the evil men do that’s “oft interred with their bones.”

Instead of public events, what many voters remember is how their own lives changed during a presidential term. And in Trump’s case, his four years in office — at least until the COVID-19 pandemic hit — coincided with a period of rising real incomes for most families.

For many voters, that memory of economic prosperity has helped foster an image of Trump’s era as a more stable time than the stormy present.

But on issues like abortion, voters also see Republicans as extremists.

This year’s election could turn on which of those images proves more powerful to the small swath of low-information voters who are likely to determine the outcome.