Many foreign leaders, both U.S. allies and rivals, likely expect to be dealing with a new U.S. President after next year’s election. Donald Trump’s domestic troubles are mounting, and his poll numbers have been consistently low by historical standards. His favorability rating has never topped 50% in any poll published by Gallup.
But regular political math doesn’t apply to this President. In fact, at this early stage, Trump’s odds of re-election are close to a coin flip. Low poll numbers didn’t keep him from winning the presidency in 2016. He defeated Hillary Clinton with just 46.1% of the popular vote and a mere 26.8% of all eligible voters.
He could repeat the same feat. According to Republican Party pollster Frank Luntz, Trump “has a greater degree of support within his party than any Republican President has ever had since they started polling.” If enough Democrats aren’t happy with the party’s nominee, overwhelming GOP support might be enough for Trump to win.
Another reason so many are underestimating Trump’s chances has to do with a shrewd bit of campaign strategy. “Nationalist populism,” a phenomenon that’s lifted many a lesser-known politician to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic, takes a slightly different form in the U.S. from that of Europe. In countries like France, Italy and Germany, it is national identity that tends to separate “us vs. them.” Race and ethnicity play a big role in U.S. politics as well, of course, but there’s also a large ideological element that determines who gets defined as alien.
In 2016, Trump cast undocumented immigrants as the key threat to national security and harmony. Next year, he will do the same to Democrats themselves. He has calculated that by labeling the Democratic Party and their presidential nominee as “socialist,” he can boost his chances of lifting Republican turnout and drawing centrist voters toward the GOP.
He might be right. Voters aren’t turned off by the progressive ideas the Democrats seem poised to campaign on. Recent polls find that around 70% of Americans support higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy and 92% want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. A recent Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans say money and wealth “should be more evenly distributed” in the U.S. Yet the word socialist turns off huge numbers of voters. Only 25% say they would back one for President.
Trump knows his audience. As the world watches his bombastic performances to tally up the mistruths and ugly rhetorical flourishes, Trump’s eyes are squarely on the crowd at his rallies and the ecstatic receptions he receives. He has tested this line of attack against Democrats and has good reason to believe it can work. Bernie Sanders, one of the early Democratic presidential front runners, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fast-rising political star newly elected to Congress, have each embraced the label “democratic socialist.”
To amplify this message, Trump will again demonstrate his proficiency at social media, weaponry well suited to blunt-force messaging dominated by ideological labels rather than incisive explanation of policy detail. Other surprise winners in recent international elections have learned from Trump’s mastery of these tools; in Brazil, for example, Jair Bolsonaro’s victory was powered by a “Brazil First” campaign on Facebook.
The polls may still be against another Trump win, but a resilient U.S. economy, a clever political message and ongoing changes to the ways Americans get their news suggest a fight to the finish.
This appears in the March 25, 2019 issue of TIME.