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.

How Can the GOP Turn Out Trump Voters?

In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.

Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.

Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?

One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”

That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.

He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.

Firing up the base

Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.

Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.

Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.

Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?

“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.

Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”

These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.

There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.

Making lemonade

Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.

Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.

“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.

Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”

But things aren’t quite that clear.

Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.

Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.