Although a year is a long time in American politics, at least in conventional electoral terms, many political analysts, pollsters and pundits are already hard at work assessing Donald J. Trump’s chances in the upcoming 59th quadrennial presidential vote scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020. The polarization that characterizes current domestic American politics and the controversial behavior and brash public demeanor attributed to the 45th President of the United States are clearly raising the anticipation and anxiety of supporters and detractors alike about his future prospects in securing a second term as the occupant of the highest office in the land.
With Trump’s approval rating a year ahead of the election hovering in the low-40s, and Americans divided 49%:43.5% in favor of his impeachment, his chances for reelection appear very limited indeed. However, as The New York Times points out, “Despite low national approval ratings and the specter of impeachment, President Trump remains highly competitive in the battleground states likeliest to decide his reelection.” There are, at this point, several significant factors that seem to be working in favor of a Trump victory in 2020, although these very same factors are contested by his detractors who argue against a repeat of his November 2016 surprise victory. This report will arbitrarily focus on four of these key factors.
1. Americans will vote their pocketbooks
The American economy has traditionally played a decisive role in national elections; the 2020 presidential poll is not anticipated to be an exception to the rule. According to the Bankrate survey results released at the end of July 2019, “The nation’s financial well-being was cited as the top issue driving how people would vote in the upcoming presidential election by nearly one-third of respondents.” While other issues, according the same survey, including immigration (19 percent), healthcare (18 percent) and national security (18 percent), are likely to intrude on the next election campaign, the single most prevalent belief about electoral politics in the United States remains the fact that American voters tend to vote primarily on the basis of their pocketbooks.
In the eyes of a majority of Americans today, the economy might not be in perfect shape, but it has been relatively good and improving under the Trump Administration. According to Gallup, 56% of Americans rate their personal financial situation as ‘excellent’ or ‘good,’ while “a majority of 66% say they have enough money to live comfortably.” Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index in July 2019 reflected a rise of seven points to +29, the highest recorded point since February of this year. Americans are evidently more optimistic about the general direction of US economy as “A majority, 54%, now perceive the economy is improving, up from 49% last month.” This public perception is apt to impact voting patterns in 2020 if these perceptions prove lasting.
However, despite such favorable numbers, the president’s supporters are fully aware of the inability of Mr. Trump to transcend the stagnating 40% approval ratings since his election. Therefore, they feel compelled to publicize the president’s record on the economy as his “greatest achievement.” For example, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote recently that “The growing and strengthening economy is having a gravitational pull on every American except the anti-Trump hard left.” Gingrich and his fellow Republicans might be eager to specifically highlight the recent rise in manufacturing jobs and the lowering of unemployment particularly among African Americans, Latinos and Asians as game changers in the next election.
Again, while Mr. Trump and his diehard supporters have a clear tendency to exaggerate his economic achievements, the president’s critics are quick to remind us that “while 56% of Americans rate their personal financial situation as ‘excellent’ or ‘good,’ 44% say it is ‘only fair’ or ‘poor.’ And while a majority of 66% say they have enough money to live comfortably, 33% say they do not.” Nonetheless, some economic forecasters maintain that Trump is quite likely to win reelection in 2020 despite the whole array of domestic and foreign policy challenges he faces, including the escalating impeachment inquiry currently spearheaded by Democrats in the House of Representatives. Moody’s Analytics, for example, “project the president will win handily next year if the economy doesn’t badly stumble.” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, insists “If the economy a year from now is the same as today, or roughly so, then the power of incumbency is strong and Trump’s election odds are very good, particularly if Democrats aren’t enthusiastic and don’t get out to vote.”
2. Americans tend to elect incumbents
The role of incumbency in American electoral politics is not new, its impact, however, has visibly increased in the last five decades, particularly, in Congressional politics where according to the Center for Responsive Politics, “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the US House of Representatives winning reelection.” Incumbent reelection rates in Congress currently stand at 91% in the House and 84% on the Senate side, respectively. Whether in congressional or presidential elections, incumbency has been an undeniable source of strength in political campaigns and continues to intensify as party affiliation recedes.
Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, DC, lists the following advantages that incumbents enjoy in their campaigns for office: “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.”
In his efforts to hold on to the presidency in 2020, Donald J. Trump will most definitely exploit these advantages of incumbency over his challengers, in addition to deploying his proven ability at manipulating his daily accessibility to the media and unmatched communication skills with his loyal constituency. And despite the uncertainty of American electoral politics, indeed all politics anywhere, “the one thing we really know,” according to Matthew Yglesias, “the home team usually wins the game and the incumbent politician usually gets reelected.”
The operative word here is “usually,” because there are several American presidents who tried but failed to win reelection. Among them are Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), and George H. W. Bush (1992). On the other hand, twenty-one incumbent presidents did win reelection, including recent presidents like Ronald Reagan (1985-1989), Bill Clinton (1997-2001), George W. Bush (2005-2009) and Barack Obama (2013-2017). While Trump’s supporters insist that he will absolutely follow in the footsteps of the twenty-one reelected presidents; his detractors, on the other hand, accuse them of underestimating the negative impact of his dismal approval ratings, legacy of divisiveness, dysfunctional leadership style and unstable administration. Factors that are likely to diminish his reelection prospects.
3. Trump enjoys a stubbornly loyal constituency
Donald J. Trump is not a conventional American politician by any definition. Neither are his constituents, who remain a political enigma, in some respects. Although he does not possess traditional Republican credentials, he has nonetheless managed in few short years to capture the GOP and remold it in his own image. The party apparatus today seems tightly dominated by his publicly confrontational management style and the specter of his personal disapproval that render an overwhelming majority of Republicans hesitant, if not petrified, to challenge him whether on matters of governance, policy or party discipline that could be detrimental to the future of the party in the post-Trump era. Candidate Trump knew that very well since the inception of his presidential campaign in 2016, and boasted about it in his famously overconfident statement: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Indeed, it has been quite puzzling even for seasoned analysts to credibly explain the stubborn loyalty of Trump’s political base over time. As Andrew Malcolm wrote in The Miami Herald, “One of the most puzzling, enduring and intriguing questions about the Trump presidential phenomenon is how he maintains such a stubbornly loyal political base despite what a majority of Americans regard as overwhelming evidence of his inconsistencies and incompetence.” To Trump’s satisfaction, the enduring political backing of his loyal supporters continues unabated as 62% of them, according to a November 5 poll by Monmouth University, insist that nothing he could do would change their opinion of him.
Despite their steadfast loyalty, however, Trump supporters on the right do not have the votes to elect him on their own in 2020. Party affiliation in the United States, according to recent polls show those identifying as Republicans at 28% of the population, Democrats at 31% and independents at 39%. Clearly, both Republicans and Democrats would need to sway as many independent voters in their favor as possible to win the next presidential election. Republican pollster Ed Goeas predicted back in 2018 that “focus will shift to independent voters ahead of 2020,” as the country gets increasingly polarized. Most election experts today agree with Goeas’s prediction that the Trump campaign would have to maintain or even increase the support it received from independent voters in 2016.
While factoring in the uncertainty with regard to the specific identity of the Democratic Party presidential candidate, current polling trends are not quite reassuring for the Trump camp which lost the popular vote to the Hillary Clinton 46.1%:48.2% in 2016. First, according to an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll, only three-quarters of Trump supporters in 2016 plan to vote for him again in 2020. In terms of the public at large, only 30% of respondents said they definitely planned to while 57% said they definitely would not do so. Second, the independents, 46% of whom voted for Trump in 2016, seem to be drifting away from him this time. According to the same NPR-PBS poll, 62% of independents already admit their unwillingness to vote for him. Although this is significant enough to derail a Trump victory in 2020, its impact might be limited to the public vote more than the archaic Electoral College.
Indeed, based on the voting patterns observed in 2016, similar results might emerge in 2020. It is within the realm of possibility that Trump might once again lose the public vote but win the electoral college. As a matter of fact, as The New York Times pointed out on November 8, there are “Signs that the president’s advantage in the Electoral College has persisted or even increased since 2016.”
4. Trump has no serious challengers
Technically, Donald Trump is running practically unchallenged on the Republican side. It is not anticipated at this time, that as the incumbent president, he is likely to face serious political challenge within the GOP during the primary season. Potential Republican challengers have emerged in 2019, including former governor of Massachusetts William F. Weld; former governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford; and former Tea Party Congressman Joe Walsh. All three are fairly recognized political figures but lack solid support within Republican or rightwing circles to constitute an existential threat to the Trump campaign. Indeed, according to The New York Times, the three challengers are derisively dismissed by the Republican establishment as the “Three Musketeers” or “Three Stooges.” Furthermore, Governor Sanford has recently dropped out of the race two months into his campaign admitting, “You’ve got to be a realist.”.
On the Democratic side, however, there is no shortage of candidates pursuing their party’s nomination to challenge Mr. Trump in 2020. Political campaigns began in 2018 with twenty-six candidates adding their names to the race for president on behalf of the Democratic Party. As of this writing, eighteen candidates are still running, with the possibility of two additional candidates joining the fray at this late stage. Essentially, the list is dominated by the top four contestants garnering the highest polling averages within the group: Joe Biden (25%), Elizabeth Warren (19%), Bernie Sanders (17%) and Pete Buttigieg (8%). The two potential newcomers are former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who apparently are doubtful about the electability of their Democratic colleagues and their prospects to unseat President Trump next year. These anxieties are not limited to potential challengers like Bloomberg and Patrick. According to Annie Linskey and Matt Viser of the Washington Post, “Party leaders and activists are citing weakness in all of the leading contenders, including former vice president Joe Biden, who has been forced on the defensive about his family’s ethics, performed haltingly in debates and set off alarms with his poor fundraising. They also fret that the two other top-ranking candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), are too liberal to win a general election.”
Admittedly, at this early stage in the electoral process, most of the key Democratic candidates rate quite well in comparison to Trump. On average, according to realclearpolitics.com, Joe Biden leads Trump by 10.2 points (52.1%:41.9%); Elizabeth Warren leads by 7.3 points (50.4%:43.1%); Bernie Sanders is ahead by 7.9 points (51%:43.1%); and Pete Buttigieg leads by 4.5 points (46.8%:42.3%). These results, however, are clearly premature and might evolve significantly over the next twelve months.
In conclusion, Republican analysts are not impressed by these early forecasts and are betting on Trump’s past performance in connecting with the American voters and identifying with their aspirations as he did in 2016. They feel quite confident, as expressed by Loren Thompson, that incumbency, the strong economy, Trump’s successful foreign policy and the absence of overseas military adventures, the incoherent leftist agenda espoused by Democratic candidates, and public familiarity with Trump’s style and policies will most probably “give Trump a solid edge over any Democratic candidate in 2020.”
Democrats, on the other hand, are betting on the fragile nature of the economy under Trump which, from their perspective, might retract significantly in 2020 to cost Trump the election as it did Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush in 1980 and 1992, respectively. Similarly, Democratic candidates have criticized, and will continue to condemn Trump’s unstable foreign policy including his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, the Paris climate agreement, the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and trade disagreements with allies and foes alike. Furthermore, by highlighting the current impeachment hearings in the US House of Representatives, Democrats are betting on deepening the alienation of American voters from Trump’s careless mismanagement of his presidential authority to seriously damage his prospects at winning the 2020 election. This Democratic objective is rationalized by the higher approval ratings Trump gets for his policies compared to public approval as a person. This discrepancy is evident in his approval ratings among Republicans, independents, whites, church goers and others.