Can a senator be nominated and win the White House?

The abundance of sitting senators running for president seems to confirm the old joke that a senator looking into a mirror sees a future president. But it doesn’t say much about whether the Senate is a good springboard to the White House. Historically, it has not been.

Sitting senators have underperformed in contests for presidential nominations, with only three of them moving directly to the White House — Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden wrote in a 2002 Political Science Quarterly article titled “United States Senators as Presidential Candidates,” the Senate “has seldom been the presidential incubator or nursery it ought to be given the ambition, visibility, resources, and records of both current and former members of the institution.”

But that has not stopped a horde of senators from jumping into the 2020 Democratic race for president.

Sizing up the field

So far, six of them are pursuing White House bids: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sandersof Vermont.

In addition, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown could well join the field, and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley has been considering the race. (Note: Both Brown and Merkley took a pass on the race.)

Once again this year, senators are getting the lion’s share of the attention.

Part of this has to do with the national media’s familiarity with them, but, as Burden points out, senators have many assets, including campaign experience, the ability to raise large amounts of money, and name ID. And yet, he writes, “statistical evidence shows that poor performance of senators [in getting nominated for president] is more than coincidence.”

Of course, this year could be different, just as 2008 was, when two senators, Obama and John McCain, faced off in the general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime senator, is considering a bid this time, and he would automatically jump into the top tier of contenders if he runs.

But the rest of the current field, apart from the senators, look underwhelming.

It includes a mayor, a former congressman, a sitting congresswoman and a former Cabinet official. A handful of current and former governors are also expected to join the field at some point. And governors and former governors have a way of surprising.

Early in the 1976 cycle, few people gave Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter much of a chance, certainly not any of the five senators running — Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen and Robert C. Byrd.

And in 1988, while Massachusetts governor and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis was taken seriously, former Sen. Gary Hart and sitting Sens. Biden, Al Gore and Paul Simon got plenty of early attention.

This year’s potential crop of sitting and former governors who are considering the contest — Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — seem likely to stress their pragmatism and electability, as well as their executive experience.

That message may not resonate with Democratic activists and voters, who appear more ideological and confrontational.

Past is prologue?

So, how should we evaluate the past performance of senators in presidential contests as we predict their potential for 2020? I looked at the last 15 presidential elections — meaning the last 30 nominees by the two major parties, going back to 1960 — and found nine nominees were incumbent presidentssix were current or former vice presidents, six were sitting or former governors, eight were sitting or former senators, and one was a businessman who had held no previous office.

It’s not surprising that sitting presidents and incumbent or former vice presidents would be successful winning party nominations.

Party activists and donors knew them, and their connection to a presidential ticket gave them a certain stature and experience that other hopefuls lacked.

That hardly suggests senators can’t be nominated or even that they face a substantial disadvantage. But can senators win if they are nominated?

Of the last 15 presidential election winners, six were incumbent presidents and two were sitting or former vice presidents.

That accounts for more than half of all presidential winners since 1960.

Of the remaining seven, four were sitting or former governors, two were senators and one had no previous political experience.

Of the 15 nominees who lost, three were incumbent presidents, four were sitting or former vice presidents, two were sitting or former governors and six were sitting or former senators.

That may reflect the challenge senators face explaining their records or doing their jobs while simultaneously running for the White House, but it hardly leads to the conclusion that senators can’t be elected president.

(For the purpose of those breakdowns, I used the most recent position held. So for instance, Richard Nixon, when he ran in 1960, was counted as a sitting vice president, even though he was a former senator. When Nixon ran in 1968, he was counted as a former vice president. And when he ran in 1972, he was counted as an incumbent president.)

Changing times

Given the onetime conventional wisdom that senators have a hard time getting elected president, I wondered whether that conventional wisdom still holds.

Sandy Maisel, a Colby College government professor and longtime student of American politics, doesn’t think so.

He told me American politics has changed in many ways, from fundraising to weaker parties and more media coverage, and those developments have changed the nominating process.

“The office you hold is no longer important,” Maisel says. “Can you excite people? Can you raise a lot of money? And, in a cycle like this one, can you find a niche that distinguishes you from the large field? That’s more important, not the office.”

Sounds about right to me.

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2019.

Democrats are right to be wary of Howard Schultz

The frenzy over businessman Howard Schultz’s announcement that he is considering an independent run for president is understandable.

Democrats think President Donald Trump is headed for defeat in a one-on-one general election contest, and anything that changes that trajectory improves his re-election prospects.

Unfortunately, few of the people who panicked about Schultz — or praised him — seemed to look at the numbers. So, let’s do just that.

First, let’s stipulate that if he runs, Schultz will position himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive. He’ll stress his business credentials, pragmatic approach, centrist views, commitment to tolerance and diversity, and frustration with the two parties.

Let’s also note that Schultz has very deep pockets and would be the ultimate outsider and disruptor, giving him appeal to many voters, especially if the Democrats nominate an extreme liberal.

Let’s also acknowledge that American politics has become something less than predictable.

The impossible has already happened, so something else impossible could happen again.

But while more than four in ten Americans identify as independents, let’s not get carried away about Schultz’s chances.

Many independents are closet partisans, just as many “weak” partisans actually vote as if they are strong Republicans or strong Democrats. That’s just how people behave.

They like to think of themselves as more independent than they really are.

With Schultz positioning himself as a moderate and independent, he’s unlikely to find support among partisans and the most ideological.

Those voters are strongly attached to one of the two parties, and his moderate message won’t resonate with them.

Mapping it up

O.K., let’s turn to the numbers — that is, to the states.

The national election actually is a collection of state contests, with the winner needing 270 electoral votes.

For years, Gallup has ranked states on the basis of a number of measures, including Trump’s job approval/disapproval, self-identification as Republican/Democrat or independent-leaning Republican/Democrat, self-identification as conservative/liberal, and religiosity.

I’ve gone through the lists and identified nine states plus the District of Columbia, with 139 electoral votes, that are among both the most liberal and the most Democratic: California, Connecticut, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Voters in these states would be less likely to find Schultz’s positioning appealing. (The list does not include five states that made one list but not both: Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico.)

I found 16 states, with 96 electoral votes, that are among the most conservative and the most Republican: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

These states would be even less likely to vote for Schultz than would the liberal/Democratic states because of Schultz’s very limited appeal in rural, socially conservative areas. (Again, this list does not include three states that made one list but not both: Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia.)

The two lists of the most partisan and ideological states account for 235 electoral votes, leaving Schultz and the two major party nominees to compete for 303 electoral votes, 30 more than needed for a victory.

Schultz would need to win 270 of the remaining 303 available.

In other words, he’d need to virtually sweep the “competitive” states.

But remember, the so-called competitive list includes Alaska (3 electoral votes), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Louisiana (10), Maine (4), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5) and West Virginia (5), which make either the most partisan or the most ideological list, but not both.

Many or all of these states would be difficult — or impossible, in the case of West Virginia — for Schultz. (For convenience sake, I have assumed Nebraska’s and Maine’s electoral votes are not split.)

Some “competitive” states that didn’t make either list for partisanship or ideology also seem like a stretch for Schultz, including Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas.

Culturally, Schultz seems most out of touch with the Trump states, which limits his options about where to compete. Does anyone really think that he is going to carry the Deep South, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Idaho?

His only hope of getting 270 electoral votes is to swipe states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut from the Democratic nominee, and to win swing, suburban states that are clearly trending Democratic, including Colorado and Virginia.

House always wins

To the extent that he can do that, he all but destroys the Democratic nominee’s chances. But what if Schultz fails to reach 270 electoral votes but does well enough to deny an electoral vote majority to either of the major party nominees? In that case, the House would select the next president (with each state getting one vote), and that would be Donald Trump.

Republicans currently hold a majority of 26 House delegations, to 22 for the Democrats. Two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania) have equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members, so they would not vote. But might not GOP House members faced with four more years of Trump look for another option, like Schultz?

No. That wouldn’t happen. Partisans behave like partisans, and House Republicans are not an independent, centrist bunch.

It’s certainly possible that voters will take a look at Schultz and decide that they don’t like him, don’t want him as president or regard him as little more than a spoiler.

A year from now, everyone may be wondering why anyone got excited about a Howard Schultz candidacy.

But it is more likely that, if he runs, Schultz becomes a factor in the 2020 presidential contest, if only because of his resources and the extreme positioning of the two parties.

A detailed look at state politics suggests that Schultz’s chances of winning the presidency outright are small, probably microscopic.

If he has any impact, it will be among suburban voters, a group that was significantly more Democratic in 2018 than in 2016.

Schultz isn’t likely to have much appeal among Trump’s rural, culturally conservative, white evangelical base. And that means he would be likely to do much greater damage to the Democratic nominee’s vote than to Trump’s. And that’s why Democrats have reason to be worried about Schultz’s candidacy.

(Note to readers: If this column seems vaguely familiar, it may be because you may recall a similar analysis in my Feb. 16, 2016 column about Michael Bloomberg.)

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2019.

Presidential Questions for the Democrats, Part II

In my last column, I raised three questions Democrats need to answer about the kind of nominee they want in 2020. Do they want an insurgent outsider, do they need someone with experience and must they have a woman and/or African-American on the ticket? In this column, I look at three other questions Democrats need to address.

Does likability matter?

One person’s idea of “likable” undoubtedly is very different from another’s, so it’s wise to be cautious when trying to generalize about likability in politics.

I have a problem with people who are arrogant and smug, while I tend to prefer those who are personable, down to earth, funny and even-keeled.

Personally, I’ve found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be intense and angry, two traits I don’t associate with likability. (Yes, I know. He’s passionate because he wants to save the country.)

The same goes for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Both men strike me as gruff, in part because they don’t smile much.

Of course, they may come across much differently when they are with friends and family and not discussing politics.

In my view, Elizabeth Warren comes across like a schoolmarm. Again, not someone I’d want to have a beer with — in spite of her “Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer” comment.

I haven’t seen that much of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, but he seems more intense, less likable.

On the other hand, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York seem likable to me — easy to talk to, down to earth, personable and relaxed.

I’d put former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Sen. Kamala Harris into the same category.

But those are just my views.

Each reader will have his or her own opinions. And many Democrats will focus on ideology, not likability.

Many will find candidates they agree with as being likable, and those they don’t agree with as unlikable.

Still, it’s hard to deny that politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan benefited from their personable style and appeal.

Does the Democratic nominee need to out-Trump Trump?

President Donald Trump is going to run a brutal re-election campaign. He’ll attack again and again, belittling and besmirching his opponent.

Not everyone will be able to stand up to Trump’s attacks, or peel off some Trump voters, thereby changing the election’s equation.

If Democrats want someone who can bring back swing voters and white working-class voters, they’ll have options.

Biden certainly has shown strength in the past with blue-collar voters.

Hickenlooper, a businessman-turned-politician, might appeal to some upscale, suburban swing voters.

But if Democrats are looking to someone with a message and style that could give particular trouble to Trump, the obvious answer could be Brown.

The Ohio senator is an aggressive campaigner, to put the kindest spin on his reputation.

His position on trade and his emphasis on economic fairness has made him a favorite of organized labor and working-class voters who distrust corporate America.

His economic populism would undoubtedly appeal to some Trump voters, and he’d certainly have a chance of carrying Ohio in the general election.

Trump won 52.1 percent of the vote in the Buckeye State in 2016, with a victory margin of 8.6 points. Brown received 53.4 percent of the vote last year, winning re-election by 6.8 points.

But Brown has his liabilities, of course. Would women and non-whites get excited about him? And would suburbanites find his populism and style appealing?

Turn to the left or to the center?

For many Democrats and those in the media, the question of electability invariably leads to another: Does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters, moderates and suburbanites, or does the party need to energize core party constituencies, thereby getting enthusiastic support from progressives, blacks, Hispanics and younger voters?

Each time I’ve been asked this question over the years, I’ve given the same answer: “Yes.”

Both parties need party loyalists and swing voters, ideologues and pragmatists.

Even against a polarizing incumbent Republican president with limited appeal, the 2020 Democratic nominee may need to outperform Hillary Clinton among progressives, minority voters and white suburban swing voters to win the White House.

Of course, appealing to very disparate elements of one party isn’t easy to do.

Nominate someone too far to the left in order to energize progressives, and that candidate risks losing those suburban voters who were so important to the party in 2018.

Pick a nominee regarded as measured and moderate, a true pragmatist, and that person could perform well in the suburbs but lose enthusiasm among progressive and younger voters, who are demanding change and a new agenda.

There is a way to bridge this gap, of course.

Bill Clinton already did it.

But it requires a skilled politician who can show empathy, pragmatism, a commitment to progressive principles and an openness to new ideas and solutions, all at the same time.

Can Harris do that? Klobuchar? Biden? Others?

As Democratic activists and voters select their favorites, they will be looking at all these and other questions.

But not all their answers will be of equal value.

Some Democrats may prefer a fresh face but will end up supporting Biden, making their decision on other considerations.

Or, they may prefer a progressive who plays to the base, yet opt to vote for Klobuchar or Harris, again for other reasons.

So the key question is not necessarily who Democratic voters like now, but what characteristics and qualities they will be looking for in February and March of 2020 — and how they prioritize their many preferences.

For some, the most important question may be a very simple one: Who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump?

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 31, 2019.

What Do Democrats Want in a President? Part I

Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?

Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?

I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.

Here are a few:

Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.

But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.

Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?

Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?

Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.

Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.

Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.

But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.

We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.

Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.

I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.

I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.

Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.

Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.

Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.

The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”

A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.

This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.

Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.

And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.

Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.

Is experience an asset or a liability?

Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.

Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.

Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?

Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?

Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.

Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?

If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.

But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.

These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”

In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.

Has the shutdown changed Trump’s political standing?

Even Donald Trump knows he is in a disturbingly deep political hole.

That’s why he went on television Saturday to offer his version of a “compromise” to Democrats. He is trying to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party for the partial government shutdown and to paint them as intransigent and extreme.

But after decades in the public spotlight — and two years in the White House — the president has his own well-earned reputation. Americans either love him or hate him.

His job approval has been poor for months, usually sitting somewhere between the upper 30s and the mid-40s.

Still, has the Trump-Pelosi standoff damaged the president badly? Count me as skeptical, even though polling consistently shows most Americans are not clamoring for a wall and hold the president responsible for the shutdown.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd, who is also NBC News’ political director, asserted that the president is suffering politically. “The government shutdown is now in its 30th day. And the spread between Mr. Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings has grown noticeably since the start of this shutdown. He went from 10 points underwater to 15, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s polling average,” Todd said.

In fact, looking at the change in the margin between Trump’s job approval and his disapproval exaggerates any alleged “change” in public opinion.

That 5-point change probably reflects a drop of 2.5 points in Trump’s favorable rating and an increase of 2.5 points in his disapproval.

Given the usual difficulties of polling these days and polls’ statistical margin of error, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s standing has eroded dramatically.

A small dip? Possibly. A significant downturn? Not yet.

As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup wrote a week ago following a Jan. 2-10 Gallup poll, “Trump’s rating has been little affected by the shutdown.”

Gallup showed Trump’s job approval at 37 percent, down 2 points from his approval before Christmas.

Gallup found what you would expect — virtually no change in Trump’s job ratings among Republicans and Democrats, but a measurable drop among independents.

Traditionally, independents are less engaged in politics, so their opinions tend to move around much more than partisans.

Economist/YouGov polling from late November 2018 to mid-January 2019 also showed little or no movement in the president’s job ratings, ranging from 43-46 percent approval over that period of time.

Of course, this is but a single poll, and other surveys, including for CNN and NPR/PBS/Marist, suggest at least some movement.

So, this is one of those cases where you can find data to support whatever view you hold. But given the country’s polarization, it’s difficult to believe the shutdown is having a substantial impact on the president’s job approval numbers.

The wall and Trump have become one, both for supporters of the president and for opponents.

As Gallup’s Frank Newport wrote recently, “[Trump] is very unlikely to lose support for the wall among his base, regardless of what he does. It also follows that Trump is unlikely to gain support for his wall among those not in his base.”

But while the shutdown has not yet redrawn the political battle lines or remade party coalitions, it is not without risk for Trump.

The standoff could further erode the president’s already poor standing among independents, and while that’s not likely to move the needle much, Trump can’t afford to lose any support given his very narrow victory in 2016 and the disastrous Republican midterm House losses.

The deadlock over the wall and the shutdown also make it impossible for Trump to talk about other issues, like the economy, where he has obvious accomplishments and should have an advantage.

Even more dangerous for Republicans, the standoff could eventually damage the economy.

As the New York Times reported last week, “The revised estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers show that the shutdown, now in its fourth week, is beginning to have real economic consequences. The analysis, and other projections from outside the White House, suggests that the shutdown has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the United States economy into a contraction.”

Slower growth, whether because of eroding consumer confidence or increased nervousness in the business community, could have a much greater impact on Trump’s ratings than the shutdown.

The same goes for the results of the special counsel investigation of Robert S. Mueller III, of course.

The president’s “base” strategy of whipping up support among his acolytes and relying entirely on the Republican Congress has caused him to paint himself into a corner.

Now, unable to crush Pelosi through sheer force of will, the president may feel he must do something dramatic to reset his presidency. The question is whether that step would stiffen the resolve of opponents, rattle his core supporters or fundamentally improve his positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2019.

An Initial Rating of the 2020 Presidential Race

I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win in 2016, and after his election I wrote an entire column in The Washington Post examining my analysis and mistakes. Now older, hopefully a little wiser, and definitely more cautious, I turn to the 2020 presidential contest, which has already started.

My initial rating is based on a combination of Trump’s current standing, his electoral performance in 2016, his party’s performance in 2018, questions about the Democratic Party’s ability to unite behind a broadly appealing nominee next year, and assumptions about the economy and state of the nation a year and a half from now.

Obviously, some of those factors will change over the next 22 months, altering the two parties’ prospects at least a few times between now and Nov. 3, 2020. But you have to start somewhere.

The fundamentals

Trump lost the popular vote by about 2.9 million votes (just over 2 percentage points), but won the White House by carrying states and districts that accounted for 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232.

Narrow wins in three key Great Lakes states that often go Democratic in presidential contests — Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10) and Michigan (16) — were crucial for him, as were Florida (29), Arizona (11) and North Carolina (15), which he also won narrowly. Clinton fell 38 electoral votes short of winning the election.

Democrats showed renewed strength last year in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan (including winning races for governor in all three), which complicates Trump’s re-election effort.

Of course, Trump narrowly lost four states he could conceivably carry in 2020 — New Hampshire (4), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6) and Maine (4), giving him at least a couple of paths to 270 electoral votes next year. (He did receive one of Maine’s four votes in 2016 when he carried the state’s 2nd District.)

Most other states don’t start off being in play in 2020, although a handful (e.g., Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and even Georgia) could be worth watching, if only to understand the dynamics of the larger fight.

In terms of his coalition, the good news for Trump is that he has suffered relatively few defections since his election. He remains strong in rural America, among evangelicals, with non-college-educated white men and with conservatives.

But the president has made no effort to broaden his appeal, a reality very much in evidence in 2018 survey data and in the midterm results.

How little has Trump’s coalition changed? He won 46.1 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential contest. Two years later, his job approval in the exit poll stood at 45 percent, and Republican House nominees drew 44.8 percent of the vote in midterm balloting, according to data gathered by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

Given the results of 2016 and 2018 (when Democratic House candidates drew almost 10 million votes more than GOP nominees), Trump again looks unlikely to win the popular vote next year.

In that case, the president’s re-election map probably will need to resemble 2016’s if he is going to win a second term.

The midterms showed that core Democratic constituencies that didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, including younger voters, minorities and progressives, were back onboard against Trump.

In addition, white college-educated women (particularly in the suburbs) moved toward the Democrats last year.

If both of those developments occur again, the president will have huge problems, which is why Trump’s single-minded focus on his base over the past two years looks like a strategic error.

The polls

While initial 2020 polls should be taken with a pound of salt, they illuminate the president’s vulnerabilities. The Dec. 9-12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump trailing a “generic Democrat” by 14 points, 52 percent to 38 percent.

Of course, without a specific Democrat named in the hypothetical ballot test, the matchup is more of a referendum on Trump than the choice of nominees that 2020 will be.

The “generic ballot” test therefore may well exaggerate the president’s weakness, since the eventual Democratic nominee is likely to have liabilities that don’t show up in any generic ballot.

In addition, Democrats will have a potentially nasty primary fight in 2020, which could easily produce a flawed nominee who, like Clinton, cannot unite anti-Trump voters.

And the eventual Democratic nominee may have to tack so far left to win the nomination that swing voters will not be comfortable supporting a progressive who calls for higher taxes and Medicare for all (single-payer health care).

It’s wise to be cautious about early polls, since the president’s numbers surely will bounce around over the next year and a half.

But his mediocre job approval ratings and weak early standing in ballot tests are troubling for GOP strategists.

Events

There is no way of knowing what events will draw America’s attention 18 or 20 months from now, but Republicans have reasons for concern.

Trump clearly likes to keep himself in the middle of things, and that inevitably leads to disruption and chaos. That’s not a problem for most of his base, of course, but it could make the Democratic nominee more appealing to some voters who supported Trump in 2016 but have tired of the circus.

The economy, which has been strong during the first two years of the Trump presidency, looks increasingly vulnerable to higher interest rates, slower international growth and the normal ups and downs of the business cycle.

Most economists expect slowing growth in the U.S. economy by later this year and in early 2020, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean a recession, even slower growth could cause additional headaches for the president’s campaign.

Administration turnover, Trump’s leadership style, and questions involving trade/tariffs, China, Russia, NATO, the Middle East, the budget deficit, health care, immigration, gun control and defense could all be issues over the next couple of years, keeping the president on the defensive.

And that doesn’t even include additional Trump problems stemming from the special counsel investigation by Robert S. Mueller III and House investigations into his business dealings and administration’s performance.

Of course, House Democrats could overplay their hand, giving Trump more and better options than he has now and making themselves an issue rather than keeping the focus on the president and his administration.

But so far, the Democratic leadership seems to understand the risks to impeachment.

The bottom line

Both parties face significant challenges. The president has alienated too many voters for his own good, limiting his appeal and forcing him to negotiate a narrow path toward a re-election that looks more difficult after Democratic victories in the midterms.

Democrats, on the other hand, face turnout and persuasion challenges as they seek a nominee who can both rally the party’s base and appeal to swing voters, some of whom find the party’s progressive agenda no more palatable than Trump’s performance in office.

The president is not the political basket case that some portray him.

Barack Obama won a second term even after a disastrous first midterm election, and Trump’s base remains largely intact.

Moreover, the electoral college narrowly favors the GOP.

Given all of these considerations, 2020 starts off as a competitive contest, though not a pure toss-up.

There are too many questions surrounding the president’s re-election prospects to call the race even, and there are too many opportunities for the Democrats to blunder toward a weak general election nominee to rate the race Leans Democratic.

So, given the upset in 2016 and the uncertainties of the next year and a half, I would start rating the 2020 contest broadly as a toss-up/tilting Democratic. And, once again, fewer than a dozen states likely will pick the next president.

Note: This article initially appeared in the January 3, 2019 edition of Roll Call.