SALT LAKE CITY — A few weeks ago, Democratic nominee Joe Biden sat comfortably atop the polls. When analysts spoke of President Donald Trump winning another term, they used terms like “upset.”
On the eve of the Republican National Convention, the website FiveThirtyEight gave Biden a 73 in 100 chance of winning in November; Trump, just 27 in 100.
And despite the hours of prime-time cheering, which will culminate in the president’s accepting his party’s nomination Thursday evening, The Economist predicted Wednesday that the convention will not “save” Trump. A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that Biden did not get the traditional boost from the Democrats’ convention, held last week.
But few pundits saw Trump coming in August 2016, and there are signs that Democrats — and Republicans supporting Biden — might be underestimating Trump again.
These signs include the unusual fervor among Trump’s base, which some analysts say becomes stronger when the president is attacked by his opponents. The vitriol that the president inspires, which has been dubbed “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” in short, may be working to his advantage.
Here are five other reasons that it might be a bit too early to plan the Biden victory party.
While much has been said of a “silent majority” that Trump believes inhabits his base, you can see many of his other supporters a football field away, with their vehicles flying large Trump flags, often accompanied by the American flag.
The president’s son Eric Trump mentioned the flags when he spoke Tuesday at the convention, saying that in 2016, the media were oblivious to the flags and other tangible signs of Trump support.
“They ignored the Trump flags. They ignored the millions of MAGA banners and barns painted in red, white and blue,” Eric Trump said.
There’s no way to count how many Trump flags fly on trucks across across the U.S., but the website Trump2020swag.com, which sells 16-by-10-foot flags for $169.95, says there’s a backlog and it will take two weeks for an order to ship. Some supporters have gotten in trouble for flying the flag, such as a 17-year-old in Florida who had to cover his truck’s flag with a garbage bag after people complained to his boss.
Writing in the Holland (Michigan) Sentinel, Richard Brouwer observed, “Locally it appears Trump supporters are way ahead in terms of enthusiasm, camaraderie and visibility. I see red flags everywhere and they look impressive.”
Brouwer wrote that a friend had found a “10-1 enthusiasm discrepancy” between Trump and Biden when comparing the number of internet searches for flags and banners for each candidate.
The tattoos and portraits
True, Bernie Sanders tattoos were a thing; some tattoo shops in Vermont were even offering them for free in 2016. But they were simple illustrations of the former Democrat presidential candidate’s hair and glasses, not like the elaborate portraits of Donald Trump that some people have had etched on their forearms and backs.
“This is a really a small group of people you’re talking about — I hope — putting the face of Trump on their skin, because I wouldn’t want the face of any politician on my skin,” said Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy.
Obviously not everyone agrees, including Trump associate and felon Roger Stone, whose sentence was recently commuted by the president and who famously has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.
And while Trump haters mock his hair and perpetual tan, supporters seem to love the president’s look. They not only buy posters featuring his image, but also framed art, like posters depicting the president holding the flag, or being prayed for in the Oval Office by Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and George Washington, among other historical giants.
Jon McNaughton, the Utah artist who painted “Respect the Flag” and other images of Trump, wrote of the flag painting: “I painted President Trump picking up a shredded and trampled flag off the football field. He holds a wet cloth in his right hand, as he attempts to clean it. I respect America. I respect the flag, the anthem, and the president; because he doesn’t back down to those who do not.”
When the election was still more than a year away, the Deseret News spotted a trend: pop-up shops were emerging across the country to sell Trump merchandise on the side of the road.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of this happening,” Bruce Newman, a political marketing specialist and professor at Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in Chicago, said of the shops, which were appearing in states as diverse as Massachusetts, Louisiana and South Dakota.
One New England entrepreneur has even opened retail stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Providence Journal reported.
Online merchandise, of course, is available too, including clothes, hats, playing cards, wooden train sets, plastic straws and coloring books. For those whose faith in another Trump win is strong, there’s even Trump-Pence Christmas wrapping paper.
The boat parades
Does the absence of Joe Biden boat parades mean that the Democrat won’t win in November? No, but the “Trumptillas” that have taken place on waterways across the U.S. this year, including one that might have set a record, show what seems to be an unusual level of devotion for a political candidate.
“No boat parades: Enthusiasm for Joe Biden is sinking,” the campaign proclaimed in a July 17 statement. The statement said that boat parades are proof that Trump supporters are more enthusiastic than Biden supporters, adding that the president’s fans “will run through a brick wall to vote for him.”
One supporter ran through a figurative brick wall when neighbors in Jupiter, Florida, complained about the Trump flag he was flying. (Political flags were against the neighborhood’s rules, Michael C. Bender of the Wall Street Journal reported.)
The man took the flag down, but then spent nearly $7,000 to “wrap” the side of the boat with patriotic art and the name “Trump” surrounded by stars. He then organized a boat parade.
According to the president, the displays are organic. “We did nothing to do this. ... It just happened,” he said in remarks to a group of police officers Aug. 16.
There’s a theory that polls showing Biden ahead are actually a form of trolling by Trump supporters determined to get revenge for the low turnout at the president’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The campaign had prepared for an overflow crowd, based on requests for tickets, but afterward, TikTok users and K-pop fans said they’d requested tickets they didn’t use in order to embarrass the president.
Is it possible that Trump supporters are similarly hoping to embarrass Biden by telling pollsters they are voting for the Democrat? If Biden were comfortably ahead in the polls, as the theory goes, some voters might not turn out, ensuring a Trump win.
This theory, which has been percolating on social media, has been tied to a recent finding from the Cato Institute that 62% of Americans say “the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive.”
The number is even higher among conservatives: 77%.
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg is skeptical of what he calls SMAGA (Secret Make America Great Again) voters and their alleged skewing of polls. Meanwhile, the president’s polls have risen recently. The latest from Gallup puts his approval at 42%, up four points from a survey in June. And among Republicans, it’s at 90%, even higher than before the pandemic was declared.
That support among the base may get a boost from the president’s critics, said Emily Ekins, director of polling for the Cato Institute, who has researched the five groups of people who comprise Trump supporters.
“When people have a very adverse reaction to things that President Trump says, especially members of the media, some rank-and-file Republicans might not even be paying attention to what he said that caused the offense, but they observe the reaction, and this causes a backlash effect, where they become more entrenched and want to support Trump.”
While some polls show that support for the president has softened, Ekins noted, “I’m basing that off survey data that is constantly in flux. 2020 is a year of constant, game-changing events, such as impeachment, which people forget happened this year. So it’s hard to say. Something could happen two weeks before the election that’s also a game changer.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said that Sen. Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. He is an independent who ran for president as a Democrat.