Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart and Ed Kilgore discuss the president’s political standing and reelection outlook right now.
Ben: You wrote the other day that after ticking upward ever so slightly — at least according to certain polls — President Trump’s approval ratings are back around where they have tended to revert throughout his presidency: the low 40s. It’s a year and a half until he has to face reelection, but what does his level of popularity right now say about his chances of pulling off another win?
Ed: He’s still slightly more popular than he was in 2016 when he lost the popular vote and pulled off an inside straight in the Electoral College, but not much more popular. The odds of that changing are low. He needs an opponent as unpopular as Hillary Clinton, a Democratic base as unenthused and complacent as it was in 2016, and again, a lot of luck.
Ben: We’ve also seen the inverse effect of what you described; that is, we’ve seen his popularity dip a few points into the mid to upper 30s, then bounce back. What would it take, if this is even possible, for a more permanent downshift in popularity? A recession? A war? Would either of those even shift the current dynamic, do you think?
Ed: Probably not as much as it would for a normal president in less polarized times. His only really serious extended dip was in the fall of 2017 when he was trying to kill Obamacare.
But sure, a recession would probably cook his goose. A war is another matter. Wars can be tricky.
Ben: Beyond the topline numbers, we’ve seen some other grim numbers for the president. His state-by-state ratings are poor, he’s underwater in many places he would need to win, and several recent polls report that more than half of voters will not vote for him next year. Is this kind of data a better measure of where he stands than simple approval ratings?
Ed: As we get closer to the election, the kind of data is probably less important than who is being polled. Some approval-rating polls don’t screen for voter registration (though fewer now than a year ago). Some horse-race or reelect numbers could miss the right profile of the electorate. Turnout’s probably going to be crazy high in November 2020. Also keep in mind, as we learned in 2016, state polling can be unreliable.
Ben: We sure did learn that. Thanks, Pennsylvania.
Ed: What’s really hard to anticipate is whether Trump and his minions will be able to drag the Democratic nominee right down to the pit of hell alongside him, making this a comparative turnout election.We know that’s their strategy, but whether it will work twice is another matter.
Ben: Most people think of crazy high turnout as benefiting Democrats. But could it redound to Trump’s benefit? Might there be yet another large swath of unactivated conservative voters out there who didn’t bother in 2016?
Ed: If they exist, I’m sure Salena Zito will find them for us in those places “the elites” never visit.
You know, the bowling alleys of southwest Pennsylvania.
Ben: Do you think that, because everyone has such a strong and unvarying opinion of Trump, the benefits of incumbency are more diminished for him than for past presidents?
Ed: Yes. I’ve found it interesting the extent to which the two main arguments for Trump’s electability are in direct conflict. One holds that he’s a political unicorn for whom the usual rules just don’t apply. The other holds that traditional election models that focus on macroeconomic indicators and incumbency show him doing well. If he’s a unicorn, which I think he is to some extent, then things like incumbency won’t matter, except perhaps to reduce his attractiveness to the “I hate everything” voters who just want change.
Ben: So the unicorn theory might also hold that if the economy tanks, he wouldn’t suffer as much as a normal president?
Ed: Right. If you love the man because he “owns the libs” and stands up to the godless foreigners, monthly jobs numbers are probably an afterthought. Conservative Evangelicals who want him to end legalized abortion and same-sex marriage aren’t focused on GDP growth rates much at all.
Ben: Given his persistent unpopularity, are Democrats overthinking the fabled “electability” argument in their calculations of who to nominate? With the caveat that it’s still very early in the primary.
Ed: I’m conflicted about that. On the one hand, electability isn’t really that easy to measure and tends to change as the general election grows nigh. On the other hand, from a Democratic point of view, giving Trump a second term would be an existential calamity.
Ben: Yeah, I think we’re all struggling with that to some extent.
Ed: Normally primary voters think their candidate, whoever it is, is the most electable. But I think Biden is being sustained by those for whom electability has become an independent and decisive factor.
Ben: A common line of thinking among voters seems to be that OTHER people will find him electable.
Ed: I often compare him to (look out! Old Guy reference incoming!) Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, who ran a pure 100 percent electability campaign against Richard Nixon. On the eve of the convention, when Rocky was putting together a coalition with Reagan to stop Nixon on the first ballot, a Gallup poll came out showing Nixon running better against Humphrey than Rocky. Biden is very vulnerable to that kind of development.
Ben: I was too busy getting knocked around by the Chicago PD to be paying attention to polls.
Ed: Haha. Right.
Ben: But yes, I think that’s right. One thing Democrats won’t be this time around, at least, is overconfident. Mostly they’ll just be petrified.
Ed: Yes, I’ve said for some time that this could be the X factor for Democrats. Even if their nominee is up by 30 points in the polls, nobody’s going to relax. They’ll be like: “Hand me a wooden stake.”