This week, we’ll be 18 months away from the 2020 general election. The Democratic field is probably almost complete (Montana governor Steve Bullock could jump in after the adjournment of his state’s legislature this week, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams hasn’t ruled out an even-later announcement of candidacy). Yes, a lot of strange and powerful things could happen in a year and a half, but it’s not too early to get straight a number of fundamental factors affecting Donald Trump’s reelection prospects, which in turn could have a major impact on how Democrats perceive their own decision on selecting an opponent for the 45th president.
As you can imagine, there’s no ironclad formula for determining these things (despite the occasional glib and inaccurate assertions that incumbents always win or that “it’s the economy, stupid”), particularly with respect to an outlandish president like Trump. But there are factors that will definitely have a bearing on the odds that he’ll have a second inaugural and can again radically exaggerate attendance.
1. The sheer power of incumbency
A statistic we’ll hear often between now and November 2020 is that four of the five presidents running for reelection after 1980 won — or alternatively, that eight of the 11 running since the end of World War II won. Some gabbers may even stack the deck a bit more by excluding Gerald Ford from the calculation, since he was never elected president or vice-president before his narrow 1976 loss. And there are those who would distinguish Ford and Jimmy Carter from any meaningful precedents because they had to overcome powerful intraparty primary challenges unlike anything Donald Trump is likely to face in 2020.
And there’s still another argument for excluding Carter, as noted by Musa al-Gharbi in predicting a Trump win in 2020:
Had Ford won in 1976, it would have marked three consecutive terms for the GOP. If George H.W. Bush had won in 1992, it would have meant four consecutive Republican terms.
Since 1932, only once has a party held the White House for less than eight years: the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980.
In any event there are real advantages any incumbent president undoubtedly possesses:
“Incumbents have the following advantages,” says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. “Name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters’ inertia and risk-aversion.”
Name recognition and the ability to command attention are assets that don’t matter quite so much at the end of a high-profile presidential general election, and it’s hard to envision Trump ever being the natural choice of the risk-averse. But “control over the instruments of government” does involve the ability to throw a surprise or two into the mix (e.g., Barack Obama’s DACA directive in June 2012, which was not only quite popular but preempted a Romney move in the same direction that might have mitigated his harsh anti-immigrant image).
So Trump probably should be credited with a modest thumb on the scales simply for being in the White House already.
2. Good times for the economy
While most political scientists reject the idea that economic conditions are the only thing that matters in presidential elections involving an incumbent, virtually all predictive models do take the economy into account. And if there’s been a recent revision of expectations in Trump’s favor in recent weeks in the chattering classes generally, it’s because earlier signs of a possible near-term economic slowdown now appear to be hiccups. Initial estimates that first-quarter 2019 GDP growth came in at 3.2 percent (significantly higher than most economists’ expectations) struck fear into the hearts of many Democrats.
But economic indicators in the year before a presidential election aren’t usually a very reliable guide to how voters will feel when they head to the polls. One well-reputed model, developed by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz, uses second-quarter GDP growth in the election year as the primary economic variable. Even economists who weren’t surprised by the early-2019 numbers (usually attributed to the effects of the 2017 tax legislation) aren’t predicting they’ll continue all the way into 2020. So what may matter more than any particular numbers right now is a general climate in which steady growth, low inflation, and perhaps a touch of partisan politics convince the Federal Reserve Board to continue expansionary monetary policies, keeping the economy in the pink as the 2020 election grows nigh (it’s frequently assumed that short of a catastrophe, very late economic developments don’t matter anymore than very early ones — hence Abramowitz’s second-quarter focus).
As a separate matter, however, strong economic indicators in 2019 could complicate Democratic messaging in the early phases of the presidential election cycle. Democrats and their presidential candidates may, accordingly, focus less on macroeconomic conditions than on arguments about growing wealth being poorly distributed, which is what a majority of Americans appear to believe even as they perceive economic conditions as relatively rosy.
3. Presidential approval ratings
It’s generally agreed that presidential job-approval ratings are the single most reliable indicator of any POTUS’s reelection prospects, if only because it reflects so many other factors, such as economic conditions, international developments, and the net effect of partisan pressures. Trump’s approval ratings 18 months out are not that different from those of a number of predecessors. The most recent monthly Gallup rating (from early April) has Trump at 45 percent, identical to Ronald Reagan’s number at this juncture in 1983; one point above Barack Obama’s 44 percent in 2011; and one point below Gerald Ford’s 46 percent in 1975. Reagan eventually won 49 states in 1984, Obama won by just under four points in 2012, and Ford lost very narrowly in 1976.
What separates Trump from all of these presidents, and indeed from all presidents, is the remarkable stability of his job-approval numbers; he’s had the least variation of any post–World War II president. His current Gallup rating is at his absolute peak, which he briefly achieved two other times in his presidency but could never sustain. Reagan’s Gallup approval rating rose from 45 percent 18 months out to 53 percent six months later, then 55 percent eight months later. Obama’s rose from 44 percent 18 months out to 52 percent on Election Eve. While anything’s possible, there’s no particular reason to think Trump is capable of a similar ascent. And for that matter, Gallup’s latest relatively high job-approval number for Trump could be an outlier on the high side: His average approval rating at Real Clear Politics is 43.1 percent, and at FiveThirtyEight, 41.3 percent. The GOP’s hope that the “exoneration” of Trump they falsely attributed to the Mueller report would finally get POTUS over the hump into something like positive job-approval territory did not turn out to be realistic at all.
Whether it’s a product of Trump’s singular personality or partisan polarization, his inflexible approval ratings do not bode well for an election-year surge, barring some very large external event or a very poor decision by Democrats in nominating an opponent.
4. Comparative popularity with opponents
Midterm elections are for the most part referenda on the party controlling the White House. Presidential elections involving an incumbent are partially that as well, but there is a significant comparative element, too, that is not as important in midterms.
The possibility that Trump could be reelected despite bad job-approval ratings is best illustrated by the still-shocking fact that he won in 2016 despite a horrendous Election Eve Gallup favorability ratio of 36/61. His opponent’s ratio of 47/52 was bad enough to enable him to win with an inside straight in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by more than two points. Since his entire 2020 strategy is again to drive down his opponent’s popularity with savagely negative attacks while solidifying his own base, Trump’s own popularity could again be less crucial than might otherwise be the case.
Despite an ever-increasing Democratic preoccupation with the “electability” of their 2020 prospects, it’s very difficult at this juncture to predict whether 2016 could repeat itself. Early trial heats show Trump mostly trailing the best-known Democrats, Biden and Sanders, and mostly leading the lesser-known aspirants. But early presidential trial heat polls do not have a very good record of predictive value. After a Democratic nominee is chosen such polls really will begin to be worth following; despite all the postelection caterwauling about inaccurate polls, they weren’t at all far off in 2016, as Nate Silver observed in a postmortem:
[The] myth is that Trump’s victory represented some sort of catastrophic failure for the polls. Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.
After what happened in 2016, however, it’s a good guess that more extensive polling will be conducted in states that are competitive but not assumed to be battlegrounds, like the Rust Belt states that fell to Trump with very little warning.
A big imponderable is the question of whether the various Democratic candidates truly vary in electability, or if instead partisanship will drive the election — i.e., in the end, any Democrat will be a “generic” Democrat. Surely the specific identity of the nominee, and for that matter campaign developments like debates, will matter at least at the margins, where close elections are often won and lost. And it may also matter whether the nominee is or isn’t especially vulnerable to GOP campaign attack lines aimed at painting the Democrat as an “extremist,” or to put it another way, as risky a proposition as a second term for Trump.
5. Other factors
Reporters will pay a lot of attention to fundraising numbers heading toward 2020. But while these may matter in primaries, barring massive advantages by one side or the other, money isn’t usually a decisive factor in presidential general elections, in part because name identification isn’t an issue and in part because there’s so much unpaid media available. How the money is spent could be important, but it’s a bit too early to make comparative conclusions about any of that.
Comparative turnout will matter a lot, and both parties are expected to focus more than ever on driving base voters to the polls, both via mechanical outreach efforts and inflammatory rhetoric. Generally speaking, presidential elections bring out pro-Democratic elements of the electorate more than midterms, though high 2018 turnout from those very elements could mean Democrats shouldn’t count on that much of a boost in 2020. Long-term demographic trends universally assumed to favor Democrats will have marginally affected the shape of the electorate since 2016, which is one of those things that could make a difference in another razor-close Electoral College contest.
There is one factor that is difficult to measure but undoubtedly real that could help get Democrats across the line in 2020: Trump will not ambush them again. It’s unclear how many should-have-been Clinton voters in 2016 didn’t bother to vote, went third-party, or even cast a protest vote for Trump on the assumption that HRC was certain to win. But anecdotally at least, they existed, and that very likely won’t happen again. Similarly, the 2020 Democratic candidate, whoever it is, will almost certainly avoid the underinvestment in what turned out to be crucial battlegrounds that the Clinton campaign mistakenly made.
Last but not least, there’s the little matter of some election-altering set of external events. There’s no way to know if some sudden international development involving military conflict, or some domestic terrorist incident, will happen between now and November 2020 and, in that event, whether Trump will handle it in a way that helps or hurts him politically. Right now, Democrats and neutral observers alike are engaged in an intense argument about whether moving toward impeachment of Trump would help crystallize public understanding of his corrupt and even criminal character, or would distract voters from more compelling anti-Trump arguments. How that argument is resolved could be one of the greatest wild cards for 2020.
So adding all this up, how do Trump’s reelection prospects look? I still think he’s an underdog — albeit a menacing, loudly growling underdog — for reelection given his perpetually poor approval ratings; the likelihood that Democrats’ larger base will be exceptionally motivated to turn him out of office lest the existential threat of a second Trump term materialize; and his inability to control some of his worst impulses, even when it’s politically imperative.
But a Trump defeat won’t happen automatically, and we already know that precedent-shattering bad behavior by the incumbent is so fundamental to his identity that it probably won’t matter at all, unless a critical mass of voters just get weary of the whole circus — in which case, he’s toast.