Although the midterm election is almost upon us, many pundits have already begun to look towards the 2020 election. Correspondingly, something of a cottage industry has developed around earnest warnings that Donald Trump is in a good position to get reelected in 2020. These warnings are better understood as conservative talking points, or pundits enjoying sparking debate, rather than rigorous political analysis. While it is extremely unlikely that 2020 will be a Democratic landslide, the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, will likely be in a much stronger position that these warnings indicate.
The primary reason for this is that Donald Trump has always been a deeply unpopular President. The most recent Gallup Poll shows 42% of the electorate approving of the President, while 53% disapproves of him, that gap of 11%, in the wrong direction for Trump, is about average for his Presidency. More strikingly, during the entire time he has been in office, according to Gallup the percentage of Americans who disapprove of how Trump is handling his job has always outnumbered those who approve. When he first took office, the margin of difference was only two percent, but it has not been that narrow in the almost two years since then. There is no real reason to think this trend is likely to reverse itself in the next two years. Presidents who consistently have higher disapproval than approval ratings rarely get reelected. Trump could be the first to do this, but there is little reason to see why that would happen.
One way to understand this is that George W. Bush whose reelection in 2004 was by an extremely narrow margin had approval ratings in the high 40s and low 50s throughout the late summer and fall of 2004, and Barack Obama’s approval ratings were in the 45%-52% range for a similar period in 2012. Since his first week in office, Trump has never broken the 45% approval mark. One of the defining characteristics of the Trump presidency is how singularly unpopular he has been. Many may wonder how even 40% of the people approve of how President Trump is handling his job, but that should not overshadow the reality that a consistent research finding is that most Americans think Trump is not doing a good job.
Trump supporters always raise the strong economy as a reason why he will get reelected. Some on the left continue to question the real strength of the economy under Trump, but it is true that the Obama recovery is continuing and that the American economy is doing pretty well and has been for much of the time Trump has been in office. Typically, when a new President either leads an economic turnaround or, as has been the case with Trump, sees continued economic growth that began in the previous administration, that President benefits. This has not been the case with regards to Trump. Positive economic indicators have not brought him increased support. It is possible that the good economic numbers have stopped Trump’s poll numbers from cratering even more, but the bottom line is that Trump’s economic message is not moving enough voters.
This is undoubtedly frustrating, perhaps even puzzling, for those around the President, but it is not all that difficult what is behind this. The strong case that the Trump recovery began under Obama seems to limit the credit people are willing to give the current President for the strong economy, but that is only part of the picture. The other issue that is limiting Trump’s ability to leverage the strong economy for more support is Trump’s presidency itself. The American voters seem to view the economy as only one piece of a larger Trump presidency that is characterized by unanswered questions about Russia’s role in the 2016 election, a President who strikes many Americans as ignorant and crass, far right policies on issues ranging from the environment to healthcare to women’s rights and a general sense that the President is overmatched by the job and making America a more angry, hateful and divided country.
That is hardly the stuff that gets presidents reelected, but it could get worse for Donald Trump. Not only do all the negatives around him seem to not be going away anytime soon, but there is no guarantee that the strong economy will continue. An economic downturn would not good for the country, but if it happens, Trump’s numbers could easily drop from the low 40s to the mid-30s where they have been for parts of his presidency. If that happens, Trump will have no chance of being reelected.
Another variable that may work against Trump is that while we don’t know who the Democratic nominee will be, we should entertain the possibility that the Democratic ticket will be more appealing and dynamic than it was in 2016. The trope about the Democrats having a week bench has faded away as leaders like Senator Kamala Harris, Governor John Hickenlooper, Senator Cory Booker have risen to national prominence. These candidates would bring the excitement and dynamism to the Democratic ticket that never quite came together in 2016.
Trump could turn things around and get reelected, but right now the odds don’t look good. This means that his attention, and that of the Republican Party, will likely turn to finding more ways to suppress voters and to seed questions about the legitimacy of the outcome. Democrats and progressives should be focusing on those threats rather than buying into conservative talking points about how Trump is a favorite to be reelected
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar, consultant and writer based in New York and San Francisco.
Follow me on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/LincolnMitchell