“Recall that both [Donald] Trump and Hillary Clinton were very unpopular [in 2016], and [Mr] Trump still won.”
Geoffrey Skelley, FiveThirtyEight, 12 December 2018
An electronic poll of participants at a 29 March investor conference in Kyoto at which I was speaking gave President Donald Trump a slightly better than 50% probability of winning a second term. This is somewhat higher than my own current indicative assessment of 40% (acknowledging that this is also the — above consensus — probability I put on a Trump victory on the eve of the 2016 election!). But it is not far removed from the state of the betting (often a better indicator, in my experience, than opinion polls) where the best odds available currently are 11/8 and some bookmakers have a second Trump term at evens.
Much water will, of course, flow under the bridge between now and 4 November 2020. So, any probability or odds assigned today to a Trump victory should not be taken too seriously — and the aim of this article is certainly not to make a firm prediction one way or the other. But, even at this relatively early stage, it is, in my view, worth considering some of the factors which will almost certainly affect the ultimate outcome. What follows, even taking into account possible ‘black swans’, is by no means exhaustive; but it is, I hope, usefully indicative.
The President’s Approval Ratings
At that same conference in Kyoto, I was asked if I thought the then recently submitted Mueller report (or, rather, what we know of its content from Attorney General William Barr’s 24 March letter to Congress) would boost Mr Trump’s approval ratings. My response was that I thought it might by a decimal point or two; but that even this, were it to happen, would likely be short-lived. As it turns out, Mr Barr’s letter seems to have had no significant impact whatsoever on support for the President, which has been remarkably stable for months now.
In other words, consistent with what has become the consensus, Mr Trump seems to have secured the more or less unquestioning support of around 42% of the US electorate (his current RCP Average approval rating is 43.2%) but looks to face a real challenge climbing significantly above this mark.
The corollary of this is that Mr Trump’s disapproval ratings are also pretty stable (if not quite to the same degree), averaging out at around 53%.
Taken at face value, these numbers look like the proverbial ‘slam dunk’ for the Democratic Party candidate, whoever this turns out to be. But, clearly, this is not the case. Simply recall that Mr Trump won with just 46.1% of the popular vote in 2016 (as against Hillary Clinton’s 48.2%) and it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that, at 42-43%, he is certainly within striking distance of a second term if only because of the vagaries of the electoral college.
The transcript of a debate last December among staff members at FiveThirtyEight over what Mr Trump’s strategy in 2019 for 2020 should be — under the sub-heading “Compromise is dead” — is well worth reading. The key points I take from it are as follows:
- Based on the outcome of the midterms, Mr Trump should lean more towards the centre in an effort to win over more voters in the suburbs, especially in the likes of Michigan and Pennsylvania;
- BUT, historically, the midterms have not necessarily been a good indicator for the subsequent presidential election;
- Alternatively, he “could try to win every white voter without a college degree” — or at least 85% as against the 64% he won in 2016;
- Or he could “[d]ial up the immigration policy even more and keep coming back to issues that divide people along racial and cultural lines, like the migrant caravan or kneeling by NFL players” — what one of the team refers to as “the full Stephen Miller route”;
- The team concludes that: “looking at [Mr] Trump’s approval rating isn’t perhaps as telling as we think”; that the President will try to “demonise” whomever emerges as the Democratic Party candidate (and possibly succeed); AND that “his approval rating may not need to be much above 45 percent to win a close, partisan race”.
To judge from his tactics year to date generally and recent developments over immigration in particular, “the full Stephen Miller” certainly looks to be Mr Trump’s preference, coupled with other measures which resonate strongly with at least a significant proportion of his base, eg recognising Golan as part of Israel which plays to his hugely important white evangelical support. Meanwhile, the Republican Party as a whole is testing lines to demonise the Democratic Party as a whole as ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’, the success (or otherwise) of which may hinge on who eventually wins the Party’s nomination.
Nevertheless, it would be very unwise to dismiss Mr Trump’s approach as doomed to fail.
The best form of defence…
A 22 December op-ed piece in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh (subscriber access only) comes to a very similar conclusion.
Mr Ganesh argues that the President’s biggest hope of further electoral success lies in the fact that, with effect from the start of this year:
“…the alternative to Mr Trump will gain some flesh-and-blood definition, in the form of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker-designate of the House, and in the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. The point is not that these politicians are useless. What they are, though, is human, with attackable flaws of character and policy.”
He continues that now Mr Trump has someone he can define himself against:
“Voters who do not much like him will have to decide whether they actively prefer the substitutes on offer”…
“Just as a currency can only be priced in terms of another, the popularity of a politician is meaningless except in comparison with a direct rival. To cite Mr Trump’s dismal approval rating — a standalone measure — is to reveal only so much”.
As Mr Ganesh opines before observing that the “human contrast” could yet work for him in 2020 as it clearly did in 2016, Mr Trump is a master of the “knack of reducing an opponent with a brisk but somehow definitive insult”.
Representative Ilhan Omar is, of course, an unlikely candidate for the Democratic Party’s 2020 nomination (even by the standards of some who have put their hat in the ring). But Mr Trump’s attack on her last week is typical of what we should continue to expect, especially where (as in this case) he sees an opportunity to set ‘mainstream’ Democrats against the Party’s ‘progressive’ wing. And we saw very clear during last month’s debate on anti-semitism how the Democrats can, in such circumstances, tie themselves up in internal knots rather than getting on with putting forward potentially election-winning policies. This propensity could yet prove to be their undoing.
Who will be ‘the one’?
As for which of the Democratic Party candidates will ultimately prevail in the primaries, I honestly have no idea at this stage.
In an article published just last week, The Economist reported on a recent University of Chicago survey which found that 54% of Democrats now describe themselves as ‘liberals’, compared to just 32% when the same survey first asked this question back in 1974. Furthermore, an earlier poll based out of Harvard found that even Democrats who describe themselves as ‘conservative’ tend to support policies which, in America, pass as ‘left-wing’, eg Medicare for All, a big increase in the minimum wage and EPA control of carbon emissions.
This rather suggests that a candidate from the progressive wing of the party will be nominated. But, despite the amount of publicity which the likes of Ms Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attract, this was far from the universal pattern to emerge from the midterm primaries. However, a Monmouth University survey published in early February reports that 56% of all registered Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (and 61% of Democratic women) would vote for a strong candidate whom they believed capable of beating Mr Trump rather than one with whom they were ideologically aligned. Indeed, just 33% said they would opt for a nominee with whom they were aligned even if they recognised that that individual would struggle to beat Mr Trump.
A 13 February FT op-ed, again by Janan Ganesh, summed it up thus:
“The Democrats’ leftward turn is a story that has outstripped the available evidence. Some of it is wishful Republican thinking. Some of it is the media’s enchantment with novelty. But just three months ago, the Democrats won suburban votes by the bushel with a risk-averse, even drab campaign. The lesson is not entirely lost on the party.”
I tend to lean in this direction myself, ie that the Democrats will finish up nominating a more centrist candidate better placed to beat Mr Trump than a true progressive would be. And I do think this is really important to the Party’s prospects in a race where, for sure, many will vote primarily on what they are against rather than for, but where, ultimately, the outcome could well be decided by swing voters in the centre ground. Nominate the ‘wrong’ candidate — in terms of progressiveness and/or individual personality — and the Democrats could easily fail to win sufficient of those votes (as absentions if not as votes for Mr Trump) to ensure victory.
The individual vs the economy?
“The 2020 election is already in danger of becoming another referendum on Mr Trump’s character. That is unfortunate. Last time the odds seemed to be against him. This time, who knows? The US economy’s health will provide much of the answer. But that is hard to forecast.”
Edward Luce, Financial Times, 27 March 2019
In the article cited above, Mr Luce also (rightly) notes that the more the Democrats go after Mr Trump over the Mueller report the more likely it is that those swing voters will lean towards seeing this as primarily partisan (which it clearly is for some of the progressives in particular). This would again be a vote loser.
However, the House Democrats have a duty to try to hold the President to account, risking, as Mr Luce puts it, being drawn into a game at which Mr Trump is unusually adept because “he can stoke outrage” as “he is willing to be outrageous”. So far, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (arguably the most Machiavellian of Washington’s current leaders) has managed, more or less, to keep matters under control with her mantra that Mr Trump is “not worth” impeaching. But this is only likely to get increasingly difficult as the tussle over the Mueller report continues.
Furthermore, she should not be afraid to remind her colleagues that independents are much more likely to vote on the basis of their wallets than Mr Trump’s character. To quote Mr Luce again:
“The phrase, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was pasted by James Carville, [Bill] Clinton’s 1992 election guru, on the campaign’s office walls. Their opponent was George HW Bush. He was one of the most decent figures ever to occupy the Oval Office. But he was unable to match the economic optimism of Mr Clinton. Even then — in far gentler times — the US voter chose a serial adulterer over an uxorious grandfather. The moral of the story is hard to miss.”
The moral certainly does not appear to have been missed by Mr Trump who, unable to do any more on the fiscal front, is clearer determined to sustain pressure on the Federal Reserve to keep the economy ticking over sweetly.
Not that it is all bad. Mr Trump’s need to ensure a healthy economy (and stock market) has certainly been an important factor in the ongoing negotiations with China over trade, which now look very likely to result in a deal perhaps even before the end of this month. And it may yet cause Mr Trump to stay his hand over the threat of tariffs against the EU (and possibly others) over autos as well as, in due course, large civil aircraft.
[Note: Earlier today, the EU, with France dissenting, agreed through qualified majority voting to open up negotiations with the US based on the Trump/Juncker accord from the middle of last year. However, the negotiating mandate given to the European Commission does not include farm products which the US is insisting must be on the table. So, we are by no means out of the woods on this one yet.]
Let’s us put to one side for now the issue of a possible ‘enthusiasm gap’ (about which I have written on several occasions previously) favouring the Democrats — not least because we can safely assume that Mr Trump will continue to find ways between now and the election to fire up his base. On this basis, consider the following.
- Barring a major ‘black swan’ event which is negative for the President, it is not unreasonable to assume based on what we know today that a minimum of 40% of Americans who vote on 4 November 2020 will do so for Mr Trump.
- It is equally reasonable to assume that even the most progressive of Democrats will likely go out and vote against Mr Trump and therefore for the Democratic Party candidate even if s/he is a centrist; and similarly that many, but maybe not all, centrist Democrats would vote for a progressive if only in the hope of seeing the back of Mr Trump.
- Both these scenarios may amount to a higher percentage Democrats voting than diehard Trump-ians; but that is not entirely clear especially since, historically, registered Republicans have been more likely to vote than registered Democrats.
- And even if it does turn out to be the case, as they exist today a combination of the electoral system and countrywide distribution of votes for the two parties relative to one another disadvantage the Democrats to the point where their candidate may need to best Mr Trump by at least three and possibly more percentage points in order to win the election.
This, in turn, takes me back to the fact that, historically, the impact of the economy on independent centrist voters has tended to be decisive. As things stand, I see no particularly reason why this should not be the case in 2020. And, as Mr Luce says, right now the US economy’s health come election day is “hard to forecast”.