Opinion | What Voters Want That Trump Seems to Have

At an even more basic level, Mr. Trump doesn’t have to promise positive change so much as the chance to stiff-arm the current leadership. Plenty of protest voters may not be looking to punish Mr. Biden for a particular action, or inaction, so much as for their inchoate disenchantment with the way things are. The economy should be better. Life should be better. The people in charge should be doing better.

Some protest voters will turn out to support anyone running against the object of their distaste. This is what plenty of people did with Mr. Trump in 2016 to express their lack of love for Hillary Clinton. Others, especially inconstant voters, may simply decide to sit out the race. If this happens disproportionately among groups who went for Mr. Biden in 2020, such as young and nonwhite voters, it works to Mr. Trump’s benefit. This is the low-turnout specter keeping Democrats up at night.

Then there is the nostalgia factor. Political nostalgia is a real and powerful thing. People are wired to romanticize the way things used to be and, by extension, the leaders at the time. Usually, voters dissatisfied with a president do not have the opening for such a direct do over. Rarely does a president who loses re-election attempt a comeback, and only one, Grover Cleveland, has ever done so successfully. But this election, rather than exchanging the incumbent for an unknown quantity, voters can choose to go back to a devil they know, who hails from a pre-Covid age of golden elevators and cheap mortgages.

Now factor in thermostatic voting, the fancy name for a kind of generic buyers’ remorse you see as voters frequently veer toward the opposite party from the one they backed in the previous election. Virginia, for instance, picks its governor the year after a presidential election, and its voters typically go with the candidate whose party did not win the White House. You also see this nationally in midterm elections, in which voters often punish the president’s team.

Mr. Trump has the added advantage of the economy having been humming before the pandemic upended his last year in office. Inflation was practically nonexistent. Unemployment was low. The nation wasn’t neck deep in scary, sticky wars. Sure, he was a supertoxic aspiring autocrat who tried to subvert democracy by overturning a free and fair election and who is now facing dozens of criminal charges, not to mention a civil suit for fraud. But if, come fall of 2024, he asks voters that most basic of political questions, “Weren’t you better off when I was president?” an awful lot may answer, “Hell, yeah.”

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