It was just a few months ago when Donald Trump told Reuters that he sees the 2020 election as "a referendum on all the things we've done." In other words, according to the president, the national race isn't really about his opponent; it's about whether the American electorate is impressed by Trump's record: those who are pleased will back the Republican ticket, while those who aren't will vote Democratic.
For an incumbent with a weak approval rating, it was a curious thing to say. Many presidents seeking second terms go out of their way to frame elections as "choices," not "referenda" -- incumbents want to be compared to their opponents, not some idealized public vision of how things ought to be.
But Trump said it anyway. Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff, suggested yesterday that he and his party are hoping voters don't see the race the way the president does. Politico reported:
“If the president can go back to drawing those contrasts between him and Joe Biden -- that becomes a race between Trump and Biden -- I think the president does extraordinarily well,” Mulvaney told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo. “And he shows people, ‘Look, if you hire me, this is what you get. If you hire him, you end up with no jobs.’” But “if it ends up being a popularity contest or, worse, a referendum on President Trump, I think he’s got some real headwinds to face,” Mulvaney, who now serves as the U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, said.
Much of this analysis seems badly flawed. For one thing, there's no reason to believe "a race between Trump and Biden" somehow favors the Republican. Most polling shows the Delaware Democrat is more popular and better liked than the incumbent.
For another, the idea that Trump has an impressive record on jobs is foolish. Even before the pandemic caused unemployment to soar to gut-wrenching levels, the GOP president's record on job creation was plainly disappointing: for all of Candidate Trump's boasts, job growth fell in the United States over his first three years in office when compared to the previous three years.
But even putting these relevant details aside, it was the rest of Mulvaney's analysis that seemed important: Trump's former right-hand man in the West Wing hopes the 2020 contest does not become a referendum on the president.
Mulvaney certainly didn't say this explicitly, but the implication of the comments was that if the election comes down to whether Americans like what they've seen from Donald Trump, most American voters won't want four more years of the status quo.
This isn't to say Mulvaney thinks the president is doing a bad job, but he seems to believe that much of the electorate will reach that conclusion.
No wonder Republicans seem so nervous about this cycle.