Not since the beginning of time has anyone ever made greater use of superlatives than Donald Trump. He has constantly been “the most” this, “the least” that and always the “best ever.”
Superlatives and exaggerations are a common indulgence to which we all succumb. Journalists are, well, just the worst. Take the first line of this story (see above). Or take Politico’s summary Saturday morning: “It’s been the most unconventional and contentious election season of our lifetime.”
We know what we mean when we say such things. We also know what Trump means when he says things like “you’re going to see things you’ve never thought about seeing” or “they will get hit like no one’s ever been hit before.” We have long since become inured to him saying he is “the greatest jobs producer God has ever created” or, on the other hand, “the least racist person you will ever interview” or “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
To some degree, all this rhetorical excess makes it difficult to take what the president says seriously when he says serious things. Moreover, it becomes difficult to be taken seriously when reporting things that really do happen and really are unprecedented or truly record setting.
So as we head into an election week “unlike any other” and contemplate “the most important election of our lives,” let us acknowledge that there will be events that are legitimately extraordinary. And actual records will be, in fact, shattered.
For starters, someone in all likelihood will win the presidency with a record number of votes, more votes than anyone has ever received before. Polls say that person will be Joe Biden, who is expected to lead in the popular vote even if he does not win the Electoral College, which elects the president.
This year’s popular vote is likely to be huge. With a growing population and early participation prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the total now projects to be in excess of 150 million. So even a plurality would be over 70 million, enough to eclipse the current record of 69.5 million votes for Barack Obama in 2008.
Obama is also in second place all time with his 2012 reelection total of 65.9 million. Third place belongs to Hillary Clinton for her 65.8 million in 2016, which was a plurality of the popular vote that year. Fourth place is held by Trump, whose 63 million in 2016 was better distributed among the states than Clinton’s, enabling him to win the Electoral College and the presidency.
A potential for firsts — and fourths
If Trump should lose the popular tally but again overcome that to reach a majority in the Electoral College, he’d set several other records worthy of note. He would be the first president reelected after being impeached. He would be the oldest president to win reelection (seven months older than Ronald Reagan) and the first president to have two terms without winning the popular vote either time.
His reelection would also mark the first time in U.S. history that voters reelected four presidents in a row. The current record of three was set by the team of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe in the years from 1801 through 1824. They were not equaled until our era, with the trio that Trump would make a quartet: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
What does it mean that presidents are again being reelected so regularly? It surely does not reflect a general satisfaction with Washington or with politics as usual. But it may mean that the advantages of incumbency are at least as difficult to overcome as ever. Put another way, the national parties have struggled to nominate sufficiently compelling alternatives.
That was true when Richard Nixon and Reagan won their 49-state superlandslides in 1972 and 1984, respectively. But it has also been true when the chances of knocking off the incumbent were far more promising.
After all, while the last three incumbents never trailed their challengers the way Trump does in polling now, they each won a second term despite significant burdens. Bill Clinton had lost both chambers of Congress in the devastating midterm election of 1994. His successor, the second President Bush, saw his approval ratings tumble as the nation soured on his occupation of Iraq in 2004. And Obama, weakened by deep midterm losses of his own in 2010, was still struggling to sell the Affordable Care Act when he faced voters again in 2012.
Yet all three of those incumbents survived, at least in part because many swing voters found the incumbents’ major-party opponents less than inspiring. So Mitt Romney fell short with 47% of the vote against Obama in 2012, John Kerry mustered 48% against Bush in 2004 and Bob Dole just 41% in a three-way race with incumbent Clinton and Reform Party nominee Ross Perot in 1996.
One distinction Trump does not want is to be the first president ever defeated by a former vice president. Nor does he wish to join the small and unhappy club of presidents who were turned out of office by the voters. That collection includes Jimmy Carter, who lost decisively to Reagan in 1980. Carter is still alive at 96 and has made no secret of his eagerness to welcome Trump to this particular club.
Other members include the late George H.W. Bush (defeated by Clinton in 1992) and Herbert Hoover, who lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 at the depths of the Great Depression. Democrats have lately been delighted to note that a defeated Trump would be the first president since Hoover to leave office with fewer jobs in the economy than when he arrived.
Biden stands to set several records of his own if he manages to reach a majority in the Electoral College. He would beat Trump’s record as the oldest president ever to take the oath of office — and beat it by eight years. He would be the first president from Delaware and the first to have had so long a career in the Senate (1973 to 2009).
He would be the first former vice president to defeat an incumbent president and the first Democratic vice president to come back and win the Oval Office without succeeding the president he had served. (The Republican Nixon did that in 1968, eight years after he had been vice president for Dwight Eisenhower.)
Biden might also be the first person elected after calling an incumbent “the worst president America has ever had” or “the worst possible standard-bearer for democracy.” But then his forays into insult superlatives simply emulate the master, as Trump has labeled Biden “the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics.” Trump sometimes adds that if he loses to such a loser as Biden, he himself may have to leave the country in embarrassment.
So it has been that kind of campaign. And in its closing hours, or in days or weeks of post-election wrangling, we can expect a torrent of such abuse. But when it is over, we will no doubt be assured it has been a milestone, a watershed and a turning point in history like no other. It may be the greatest comeback, or the biggest hoax, or the worst scandal in the history of politics.
And most Americans will have already decided how to react to those claims well before they are made.