I often hear people predicting President Donald Trump’s reelection. Some are conservatives and Trump supporters who echo the president’s unfailing optimism. But others are Democrats who can’t resist embracing a gloom-and-doom scenario.
I usually ask those people why they think Trump will win a second term.
They sometimes mention Russia or the makeup of the Democratic field or the economy. Often, they point out that Trump’s base remains solid and that angry white men will carry him to a second term.
I understand those views, but I was trained as a political scientist to look at the empirical evidence, not my hopes or fears.
The problem, of course, is knowing exactly which empirical evidence is predictive and which could be misleading.
In 2016, many of us looked at the wrong evidence — national public opinion polls that accurately found Hillary Clinton winning by at least a couple of points (she won by 2.1 percentage points) — but we ignored the states, figuring that a 2-point victory would automatically translate into an Electoral College win as well.
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, considering that Al Gore won the popular vote by just over 500,000 votes in 2000 but lost the Electoral College by a few hundred Florida chads.
Clinton won the popular vote by just under 3 million votes, a far more substantial popular vote victory than Gore had, yet she lost more crucial states than Gore did.
Lesson learned. The focus this cycle is much more on the Electoral College and the key states that add up to 270 electoral votes. We now have plenty of data to help us examine the president’s reelection prospects. But do the Democrats have anyone who can take advantage of Trump’s political problems?
Long way to go
As everyone knows, the Democratic field is a mess. All the hopefuls have serious blemishes or huge question marks about their appeal.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem dug in too far on the left, while former Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t show the sharpness and agility that Democrats are looking for.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a terrific speaker, but he’s young, and nobody is sure whether minority voters will ever get excited about his candidacy.
Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris haven’t gotten traction so far, and while Sen. Amy Klobuchar is well-positioned for a general election, it’s hard to see her breaking out from the pack.
There are others, of course, including Michael Bloomberg, but all have a very long way to go to win the Democratic nomination.
But Democrats who whine about the field and its uncertain fate against Trump ought to remember that most fields seeking to challenge a sitting president look unimpressive.
The contenders invariably look too old or too young. They’re mediocre speakers or political lightweights without the necessary experience. They lack charisma or carry personal or political baggage. Or they have bragged about grabbing women in their private places.
None of these hopefuls could win — but, of course, some did.
The party’s eventual nominee will answer some questions simply by winning the nomination. And the general election campaign will likely answer the rest.
In poll position
But even with the Democrats’ problems, polling doesn’t offer many reasons to believe that Trump will win a second term — or that his electoral fate is sealed.
Virtually all the reputable national polls show the president is in serious trouble, and I’m not just referring to his job approval numbers in the low-to-mid 40s.
Apart from Emerson College polls showing a virtual dead heat between Trump and Warren, most national surveys show Warren leading the president by 5 to 8 points.
Those same polls show Biden leading Trump by 10 to 12 points.
Even Sanders, who is outside the political mainstream, leads Trump by 6 to 9 points in most surveys (again excluding Emerson, which always seems to be an outlier).
There are a few polls showing trial heats of Trump-Buttigieg, but the few reputable surveys suggest anything from an even race to Buttigieg up by a half-dozen points.
Of course, we all have discounted national polls because of what happened three years ago. But if the Democratic nominee wins not by 2 points but by 6 or 8, it would be difficult for Trump to win at least 270 electoral votes.
Democratic nervousness seems to stem primarily from a handful of polls in a few crucial states, including the three key Great Lakes states that Clinton lost: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (They seem to ignore Arizona and Florida, two interesting states that offer Democrats serious opportunities next year.)
There are relatively few highly regarded polls in these and other swing states, and that undoubtedly has added to Democratic anxiety.
So has a series of New York Times/Siena College polls showing close races for various challengers to Trump.
But again, we are talking about a handful of polls in states that are not early in the nominating process.
In other words, states where swing voters have not really focused on the candidates.
The state polls show mixed results, some showing Trump ahead and others suggesting that Biden, at least, has a narrow but clear general election advantage.
For now, there is simply no empirical reason to believe that Trump will win next year.
In fact, the evidence is not compelling in either direction. A strong Democratic turnout, including votes from people who voted third party the last time or skipped the presidential race entirely, would put the president in a substantial electoral hole.
On the other hand, poor minority turnout would create a challenging environment for the eventual Democratic nominee.
For the moment, all we can safely say is that polls continue to confirm that Trump is in deep trouble, with a job approval rating that no incumbent president seeking reelection would want.
So regardless of whether you support the president or oppose him, put aside your hopes, dreams and phobias for at least another few months, when we may have a better handle on the Democratic race and the general election.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 3, 2019.