Donald Trump is not a modest guy. This is not exactly a secret. Multiple cities have buildings in which Trump’s last name is visible in letters taller than Trump himself. Trump’s adult life has been centered on drawing attention to himself: to sell stuff, to get viewers, to get votes. And he is good at it.
Yet he can still on occasion impress us with his ability to overstate his own case. As he did in a speech he gave in Florida on Wednesday.
Trump claimed that, shortly before the pandemic began, a pollster came into the Oval Office.
“He said, ‘Sir’,” Trump began — using his infamous tell for a story he’s making up — “‘if George Washington and Abraham Lincoln came alive from the dead and they formed a president-vice president team, you would beat them by 40 percent.’ That’s how good our numbers were!”
Nope. Even then, before the pandemic and before the aftermath of his election loss, Trump would have lost. Badly.
Before we get into the polling, though, it’s worth considering the question in a more abstract way: Is it possible that we could see George Washington face off against Trump in 2024? It’s actually slightly less ridiculous as a concept than you might assume.
Let’s consider three questions.
There have been times that voters have elected dead people to office. In 2000, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) died in a plane crash less than a month before the election. Missouri law stipulated that he remain on the ballot; he went on to win. (The loser, John Ashcroft, was granted the consolation prize of becoming U.S. attorney general.)
In fact, there’s a lengthy history of states having to figure out how to deal with suddenly deceased candidates, as the Congressional Research Service explored in 2002. State governments and political parties have mechanisms in place for handling pre-election deaths. Post-election deaths are a bit trickier. Consider the case of Horace Greeley, who won 44 percent of the vote in the 1872 presidential election only to die before electoral votes were cast. Some of his electors went ahead and voted for him anyway. Luckily for the system, Ulysses S. Grant’s victory was never really in question.
All of this, though, is quite different than getting an already dead person on the ballot.
The Constitution doesn’t actually prohibit dead people from being elected as president. Its only related stipulation is that, to be president, someone must have resided in the United States for 14 years. Had the term been “lived” in the United States, we’d have a problem. But “residing” doesn’t require “living,” and both Washington and Lincoln have been present in the United States (in Virginia and Illinois, respectively) for well over 14 years.
But if we’re assuming that Washington and Lincoln are seeking the Democratic nomination to face off against Trump, it’s worth noting that the party would likely screen them out. In 2020, the Democratic Party’s rules articulated that candidates for the party’s nomination had to affirm in writing that they were Democrats — tricky for Washington and Lincoln because a) they were not Democrats and b) they are dead.
To answer Question 1 in short: No.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the Democratic Party changed its rules (which it could do) and would allow nonliving, non-Democrats to run for their nomination in 2024. Could Washington and Lincoln actually do so?
Both Washington and Lincoln (who, as our theoretical vice-presidential candidate, must meet the same criteria as the president) are over 35 years of age (Washington by 235 and Lincoln by 178 years). Both were either born in the United States or, in the case of Washington, were “a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution.”
But then there’s that pesky 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951 to prevent another Franklin-Roosevelt-esque domination of the White House. It stipulates that:
Coming into this, I admit I was curious whether Lincoln’s tragically truncated second term in office would allow him to take another pass at running. But the language is clear. Both men were twice elected to the office. Ergo, they cannot serve in the future — even if, as Trump’s pollster allegedly claimed, they had come back to life.
To answer Question 2 in short: No.
At last, we come to Trump’s question. Would Washington and Lincoln beat Trump? And the answer is, almost certainly — for the same reason he lost in 2020 in the first place.
It’s important to recognize that this is why he’s telling the story, of course. Trump has always looked for a scapegoat to explain his loss, generally preferring to blame imaginary voter fraud as the cause. But sometimes he also blames the economic turmoil of the pandemic, a tangible externality that conceivably shifted perceptions of his presidency.
But this is a thought exercise more than anything. Could Trump have coasted to reelection in 2020 without the pandemic? Maybe — but that underestimates how broadly unpopular he was. Asked why they were coming out to vote that year, Republicans generally cited Trump: They wanted to see him reelected. When Democrats were asked the same question, they offered the same answer, Trump: They wanted to see him ousted. To think that Democrats had become significantly more favorable to Trump since 2018 — when his unpopularity drove an electoral backlash against Republicans — is to underestimate how unpopular he was.
Thanks to YouGov, we can actually address Trump’s theoretical more directly. In 2021 — admittedly not before the pandemic — the pollsters asked Americans how they viewed past presidents. Both Washington and Lincoln received high marks, landing in the third and first all-time favorability slots, respectively. Trump landed at 20, just under Gerald Ford.
Among all Americans, Trump trailed Washington on favorability by 31 points. Among Democrats, it was 59 points. Even among Republicans, Washington fared better.
And that’s ignoring that lots of Americans — for very understandable reasons — didn’t have an opinion on Washington or Lincoln. If we look at the favorability of each former president just within the group of people with an opinion, both Washington and Lincoln pull further away from Trump. In the GOP, Trump trails Washington by 11 points and Lincoln by 8 points.
Lincoln, as Trump liked to remind people, was himself a Republican. So Trump might think about worrying less about fending off a general election challenge from Lincoln than a primary one.
Were the contest between him and Washington, it seems pretty clear that Washington would be encumbered by his personal history. Forcing enslaved people to work on his plantation was less politically risky in 1788 than it is today. (His running mate probably wouldn’t be very excited about it, for one.) Not to mention the questions about whether and how these two dead individuals might effect decision-making once in office. Here, too, Lincoln might have some thoughts.
I think it’s easy to underrate just how weird everybody was in the past.
Like, Abraham Lincoln would literally invite a young woman to the WH to summon Aztec and Native American ghosts to give him and his wife emotional support and political advice. pic.twitter.com/C2syXgzT4U
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) October 5, 2022
Would Americans be wary of electing two ghosts to serve in the White House? Probably. Are there a lot of Americans who would rather vote for a ghost than for Trump? Probably. This is a reason Mel Carnahan won: The alternative proved less appealing.
Bear in mind, Trump’s claim wasn’t just that he’d beat Washington but that he would do so by 40 points. By a margin of victory that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the emergence of the Republican Party.
To answer Question 3 in short: Yes.
Again, I am aware that Trump was simply telling a story for effect. But this little thought exercise does prompt some useful reminders. For however popular Trump thinks he is and for however popular he wants others to think he is, he remains not-terribly-popular. If he ran against actually popular former presidents, he would lose.
At least in that case, he’d have a good reason to identify votes cast by dead people as a central cause.
Update: Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, notes that his poll asked this exact question in December 2019 — right before the pandemic.
Asked who was the better president, Washington or Trump, Americans picked Washington by a 56-point margin. Even Republicans preferred Washington.
That pretty much answers that.