One Year Until the Most Important Election in American History

While it feels as if we’ve all been watching the 2020 race for years, it’s still 12 months until voters decide whether or not to give President Donald Trump a second term.

Given the president’s performance during his first term and his opportunities to cement and then expand those changes in another four years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 2020 election is the most important one in our nation’s history. No wonder there is so much early attention on Trump’s reelection prospects.

Our friends at Moody’s Analytics have once again produced a presidential election model to tell us who is going to win the White House next year. Like virtually all nonpartisan professional handicappers (including myself), Moody’s predicted days before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably.

Moody’s economists have tinkered with their methodology and produced a mixed bag of changes. Some of the changes are welcome, including multiple turnout models that reflect the importance of who actually votes and the difficulty pollsters have in gauging turnout.

Moody’s also now offers three different presidential election models, which presumably increases their chances of being right. Unfortunately, all three treat presidential elections as contests between two generic nominees, completely discounting noneconomic factors, to say nothing of the candidates’ personalities. That may have been a reasonable way to proceed in the days before Trump entered the White House, but, as the 2018 midterms demonstrated, it’s not always “the economy, stupid.”

The politics components in the models (as opposed to the economic components) strike me as strange.

Yes, past state electoral results are crucially important in predicting future state electoral behavior. But the models reward Trump because they assume “Democrats and Democrat-leaning independent voters are more likely to switch sides and vote for a Republican candidate than vice versa.” In other words, more Clinton voters are going to vote for Trump in 2020 than will Trump voters for the Democratic nominee. I see no reason to expect that to be the case next year.

In addition, instead of factoring presidential job approval into their analysis, the folks at Moody’s Analytics are concerned only with how much Trump’s job approval has fluctuated. As they write, “Trump’s approval rating has, at most, oscillated not much more than 10 percentage points. As a result, our approval rating variable does not penalize the president as much as it has previous candidates.” So, Trump’s job approval ratings — which have largely ranged from the mid-30s to the lower 40s — matter less than how much they change?

The fundamental problem with the analysis, which seems to have been directed by chief economist Mark Zandi, who always sounds thoughtful when I hear him talking about economics and business, is that it fails to acknowledge how our politics has changed since Trump started running for president.

Economics mattered less than usual in the 2018 midterms because Trump’s style, language and agenda have been so controversial. His policies and personal behavior turned off some voters who supported him in 2016, which is why the GOP suffered a stunning net loss of 40 seats during improving economic times. Swing voters cared less about the unemployment rate and stock market than about health care, gun control, global warming and Trump’s divisiveness, meanness, crudeness and mendaciousness.

Economic variables have been important predictors of presidential elections in the past (and will remain so in the future), but we have never had a president like Trump. Acting as though he won’t be a factor in 2020 is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Oddly, the president has never sought to expand his electoral coalition. Instead, he plays solely to his political base in rural America, among white evangelicals, with self-identified conservatives, and with working-class whites without a college degree.

That coalition got him 46 percent of the vote in 2016, which was enough to win only because of demographic patterns in three Great Lakes states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allowed him to squeak to an Electoral College victory.

Trump is once again limited to the states he won in 2016 (plus possibly Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota) to put together another winning coalition while losing the national popular vote. Meanwhile, he will be on the defensive in the three Great Lakes states he won narrowly, plus in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, and possibly even Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 5, 2019.

The 2020 Race: Still Tilting Democratic

There has been plenty of attention recently on economic models that show President Donald Trump holding a huge advantage in the 2020 presidential contest. But it’s not that simple.

Like alchemists hunting for the secret recipe that transmutes lead into gold, media personalities, political junkies and veteran analysts seem bewitched by the idea that they can divine the political future. I’m always skeptical of such claims.

I still remember the silliness of an Indiana University sociologist, who knew nothing about politics, arguing in The Washington Post and on television that Twitter could predict elections.

The latest version of this search for prophesy is Steven Rattner’s May 27 New York Times column about “models” that give the president a “formidable 2020 tailwind.”

An earlier Politico piece by Ben White and Steve Shepard teased, “How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide.”

No matter how many economists, political scientists or investment bankers are involved, predictive models based solely on economic data miss the point because they look at only one aspect of a presidency and only one facet of a presidential election. My column from Sept. 18 last year, “Why it’s NOT the Economy, Stupid,” sought to explain why the economy would not be decisive in the midterms and why it might well be less important than usual next year.

Models predicting a Trump wave strike me as more about clicks and being contrarian than about taking a dispassionate look at the 2020 election.

A second look

In my Jan. 3 column this year, I considered a number of factors — including the impact of the nominees, the economy, recent election results, issue salience, key voting groups and Trump’s performance in office — before calling the race a Toss-up that tilts toward the Democrats.

Now, I thought I’d take another look at where the 2020 race stands, acknowledging again that it’s still very early and the trajectory of the race is likely to change more than once before the Iowa caucuses, let alone Election Day.

In spite of all the Sturm und Drang about the Democratic contest and the media’s suffocating coverage of the 2020 race, not a lot has changed since the start of the year.

Democrats have a number of additions to their field, including the early front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, but the basic shape of their race is holding firm.

Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, and, surprisingly, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem to constitute the top tier, with many others hoping to break out during the first debates at the end of this month.

Trump, of course, remains unchanged. He is the same person he has been, and there is no reason to believe that he will change.

Key groups

Party coalition groups (on both sides) are essentially holding, and the recent controversy over abortion, which is almost certain to remain a significant national issue from now to next November, makes it difficult for Trump to expand his support or win back college-educated white women, the election’s crucial swing group.

Not all women favor abortion rights, but the legislative actions taken to restrict abortion in Missouri and Alabama surely elevate the issue and create greater risk for Republican candidates in many suburban areas.

The movement to the GOP of white men without a college degree and the realignment of college-educated voters to the Democrats remain significant stories for the next presidential contest.

Trump’s tough talk on tariffs and immigration resonates well with many of his most loyal supporters, but it clearly has caused some heartburn in rural America, where trade is so important.

Whether tariffs and trade cost Trump a state or two in next year’s elections is now unclear, but the risk surely is greater for the GOP than for Democrats.

From time to time, Trump talks about unemployment in the minority community or the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but his overall nationalist, populist message — and decisions taken by various government officials — invariably make it easy for Democrats to paint the administration as insensitive to the less fortunate, beholden to conservative evangelicals, overly protective of the wealthy, and generally uninterested in diversity and tolerance.

Polls generally show Trump’s job approval between 40 percent and 46 percent. At best, that puts him about where he was in 2016, and at worst it shows him at least a few points weaker than he was.

Equally troubling for Republicans, national polls and key state surveys have initially shown Trump trailing Biden and Sanders.

Another four years?

Questions about the Democratic field — and particularly about the party’s eventual nominee — remain unanswered.

Biden’s positioning as a pragmatic liberal is ideal. But it isn’t clear whether he will be his party’s nominee or whether the party will select a more progressive (and riskier) standard-bearer next year.

A strong economy surely gives Trump good talking points and a rationale for re-election, but a clear plurality of Americans (maybe even a majority) now believe the country cannot take another four years of him, no matter how low the employment rate falls.

They are concerned about his character, judgment, intelligence, integrity, churlishness and lack of empathy, as well as the chaos and controversy that follow him.

Dozens of important questions remain unanswered, but the 2020 contest still looks to be more of a referendum on the president than anything else. And because of that, and the polarization evident in the nation, a close race is likely.

Given Trump’s inability to broaden his appeal and the likelihood that Democrats will be more united and energized than they were in 2016, the Democratic ticket deserves to be given a narrow but clear advantage.

“Tilting Democratic” still seems a reasonable rating to me at this early stage of the race.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Democrats try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Democrats are off to a fast start in their efforts to blow the 2020 presidential election.

Sure, Donald Trump’s job approval ratings from reputable polling firms still sit in the low- to mid-40s, and congressional investigations are likely to keep the president, his family and his administration on the defensive.

And yes, the 2018 midterms showed what a united Democratic Party looks like and that college-educated whites are swinging to the Democrats in reaction to Trump.

And of course, Trump trails a generic Democrat in early polling, confirming the view that a clear majority of American voters want change in 2020.

But even with all that, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Democratic Party has already succeeded in taking the heat off Trump and making the party appear so far left that moderates may not be able to support its nominee for president.

If they continue their early successes, this band of ideological purists may “save” their party from a pragmatic progressive who could actually win the White House, thereby handing Trump a second term.

The recipe for victory

The Democrats’ winning strategy for 2020 ought to include three straightforward steps:

  1. Make the 2020 presidential election about Donald Trump — about his tweeting, his language, his flagrant untruths, his lack of empathy, his efforts to belittle his adversaries, and his affection for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un.  As much as possible, make the contest a referendum on his performance, agenda, character and style.
  2. Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
  3. Select a presidential nominee who can attract the votes of swing voters, including those suburban women who helped create the Democratic House wave last year.

This recipe for victory doesn’t require a nominee with a particular ideology or agenda.

A progressive/liberal or a moderate/pragmatist could be elected, as long as he or she completes each of the three steps.

But it’s clear the more extreme the nominee ideologically, the harder it is for the party to appeal to swing voters, including college-educated whites.

The most progressive elements of the Democratic Party will pooh-pooh the notion that an uber-progressive nominee can’t win.

They’ll cite Hillary Clinton’s defeat and insist that Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016. And they’ll argue that getting the party’s base out is crucial to victory, and only hopefuls like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can do that.

But while an appealing uber-progressive might be able to win under the right circumstances, the chances shrink as the nominee moves further left.

The road to victory still usually depends on winning less ideological voters.

The present reality

So how have the Democrats done in positioning the party for next year’s election? Since the midterms, the party has done an abysmal job of making the 2020 contest about Trump.

The leaders of the Corbyn wing of the party — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have sought to make everything about themselves and their agenda.

While it’s true that the old quip “Freshmen in Congress should be seen but not heard” is no longer relevant, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib have been unusually vocal and controversial.

Whether it is a proposed “Green New Deal,” criticizing Israel and raising questions about the allegiance of American Jews, or announcing an intention to file an impeachment resolution, the freshman trio have done things to draw attention to themselves and their personal agendas.

The national media, of course, has amplified their statements and agenda, which has taken attention away from Trump.

In baseball terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey) is a hanging curveball for the GOP to mash over the fence.

Progressives haven’t worked out the details or the cost of specific steps, allowing Republicans to attack it as a radical, exorbitantly expensive, unrealistic agenda.

Similarly, Omar’s comments about Jews and Israel made her look anti-Semitic, intolerant and radical, undercutting the Democratic argument about Trump’s intolerance and meanness.

Tlaib’s initial steps toward impeachment do what party leaders have been trying to avoid for months — they make the Democrats appear partisan and petty, more interested in destroying Trump than in pursuing policies that are good for the American people.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer try to define the Democratic Party in broadly appealing terms, thereby keeping the nation’s focus on Trump, the Corbyn wing is more interested in pushing its agenda, which makes it easier for the GOP to turn the 2020 election into a choice, not a referendum.

Hidden danger

Right now, core Democratic groups appear energized, primarily because they find Trump’s agenda and behavior offensive.

They turned out in the midterms, and polling suggests they remain angry and energized.

The danger here is that if the Corbyn wing pushes impeachment, it puts congressional leaders in a difficult position and risks splitting the party.

If leadership appears to be blocking the Sanders/Warren/Ocasio-Cortez agenda, and the party nominates someone not sufficiently to the left, some progressives could become estranged, sitting out the 2020 election.

For now, Trump’s behavior and the Democrats’ agenda on health care, guns, immigration, climate change and economic inequality is keeping liberals and progressives energized.

But the party’s standing among swing voters is currently fragile. It’s not clear whether Democrats will nominate a ticket that appeals to them, but the more the party is defined by Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez et al, the more it risks pushing swing voters and moderates into Trump’s camp.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Sanders, Warren and others seeking the presidential nomination are likely to continue stirring the pot on issues now that they are in campaign mode.

And Ocasio-Cortez and her friends on the Democratic Party’s left flank are unlikely to grow quiet over the upcoming months. Indeed, they may grow increasingly bold in their willingness to challenge the party’s leadership.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2019.

GOP rebranding operation is underway – with Democratic help

I have told this story before, but it is well worth repeating.

Shortly after the Democratic sweep of 2006, I spoke to two Democratic leaders in Congress who told me the same thing. It was all well and good that their party had taken control of both chambers of Congress, they said, but what would matter for 2008 — and the next presidential contest — would be how Democrats behaved over the subsequent two years.

Those veteran Democrats insisted that the party needed to show voters it could govern, that it was made up of thoughtful, generally pragmatic people, not wild-eyed extremists who simply wanted to destroy President George W. Bush and return to their tax-and-spend ways.

Democrats face the same challenge today, but they are endangered by a double-pronged attack that makes their task more difficult than it was in 2006.

A perfect foe

Republicans have launched a campaign to redefine Democrats as a gang of radicals who want to undercut basic American institutions and beliefs.

The GOP line goes something like this: These extremists want to turn the United States into Venezuela and destroy democracy and the free market. As House Republican Conference rapid response director Chris Martin wrote recently in a widely distributed e-mail, Democrats are “obsessed with embracing socialism.”

Republicans understand the limits of President Donald Trump’s appeal, and most recognize he won’t change between now and November 2020. They are stuck with an unpopular, tweet-happy president, so the only way to win a second term for Trump is to increase the Democratic Party’s negatives, thereby making its eventual presidential nominee toxic.

I’ve been writing about congressional elections for almost 40 years, and this approach has been standard strategy for decades. When you have a weak nominee and can’t improve his reputation (favorable rating), you try to destroy his opponent (drive up his or her unfavorable rating).

That’s exactly what Trump and the GOP did in 2016, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of grabbing women by the genitals exposed him for what he is.

Republican strategists are well aware that Trump has normally fatal liabilities, so they are going to spend the next year demonizing the Democratic Party as extreme.

That way, no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump can paint his opponent with the broad brush of radicalism and socialism.

It’s a good strategy, particularly when it is the only one available. What is the alternative — talking about Trump’s empathy, tolerance, dignity and commitment to inclusiveness?

His supporters don’t need convincing. They adore him. And his critics will never be convinced he is worth supporting. So, the focus of the campaign is voters who don’t like Trump but are worried about what the Democrats might do if they controlled Washington.

Republicans can and will point to the economy to promote the president’s re-election, but 2018 already taught us that a strong economy doesn’t in itself guarantee a winning election for the GOP.

The only strategy available to Republican consultants and talking heads is to make Trump the lesser of two evils — and that means starting off by re-branding the Democratic Party as dangerous, radical, anti-democratic and, yes, evil.

Some free help

The second attack on Democratic leadership’s efforts to prove that the party is ready and able to govern comes from within the Democratic Party itself.

Progressives are angry at Trump and impatient with their own party. They want “real change,” which often means pushing the rhetorical and legislative envelope.

We all understand why progressives are tired of waiting. While Republicans saw Barack Obama as a dangerous radical who wanted to change “our way of life,” liberal Democrats thought him insufficiently aggressive in pushing many issues. Those same Democrats feel as if their agenda has been ignored for years, both by Republicans, who have controlled the White House and/or Congress, and by “establishment” Democrats.

Now, with the country’s demographic profile changing and the Democratic Party no longer dominated by old, white men, party progressives have started to flex their muscles, if only by beginning a conversation about new policy directions.

The mainstream media, fascinated by “firsts,” “isms,” conflicts and personalities, has already been giving outsize coverage to freshman legislators and new voices, as has the conservative media, for very different reasons.

Luckily for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to manage her caucus so far.

But the developing presidential race will make it more difficult for leaders to keep the party together and to encourage all voices to remember that anything they say will give ammunition to the GOP.

There is nothing wrong with the various elements of the Democratic Party discussing, and even arguing, about policy options and priorities over the next year, even though some proposals will play into Trump’s hand and the Republican strategy of defining Democrats as a gang of Nicolás Maduro-loving radicals.

But all Democrats best not forget what those two Democrats I already mentioned told me more than a dozen years ago: If Democrats don’t win the next presidential election, then winning Congress (or the House, in the current case) will turn out to have been a much shallower victory for them than it initially seemed.

Note: An almost identical version of his column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 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.