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.

Why the Gun Issue Has Shifted (It’s Not What You Think)

The gun debate has shifted dramatically. Suddenly, it looks as if the issue will benefit Democrats in November, not Republicans.

The reason for the shift doesn’t rest primarily on the intelligence and commitment of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, although many of them have been articulate and persuasive.

Nor does the shift naturally follow from the decisions of large American corporations to stop selling assault weapons, or to end partnerships with the National Rifle Association, although those steps are a significant development.

And the shift in gun control politics isn’t happening because, after mass shootings in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino and Newtown, the attack in Parkland finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

No, the reason why the gun control issue was a big advantage for the GOP for decades but now favors the Democrats can be traced to the shift in the electoral coalitions of the two parties.

A red shift

For years, the gun control debate benefited Republicans because their party was able to attract gun rights voters who were — or had been — reliably Democratic. Those voters initially aligned with the Democrats because of the party’s commitment to organized labor and its working-class agenda, and they constituted an important part of the party’s base vote in places like northeastern and western Pennsylvania, Minnesota’s Iron Range, upstate New York and working-class areas of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But as “cultural issues” — including abortion, school prayer, civil rights, gun control and ultimately gay rights and same-sex marriage — became increasingly salient from the late 1960s into the 1990s, a new fracture in American politics emerged.

Many cultural conservatives found themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and they started flirting with, and then shifting to, the GOP. Opponents of gun control — or advocates of gun owner rights, if you prefer — were among the most vocal party switchers.

By attracting former Democrats and swing voters who cared primarily about gun owner rights, the GOP was both adding to its numbers and subtracting supporters from the Democrats.

The gun issued changed the political arithmetic so completely in the Republicans’ favor that Democrats, increasingly located in the suburbs and in America’s cities, gave up on culturally conservative voters and decided the party should avoid talking about gun control if it hoped to woo any working-class whites.

A costly shift

But the shift of culturally conservative voters to the GOP has not been without its downside.

These voters, too often, helped make the party appear intolerant, mean-spirited and extreme, including on issues such as gun control. This eventually produced a new fracture in the electorate — and the emergence of a new crucial voting group, suburban voters.

The suburbs were, of course, once reliably Republican, whether they were in southeast Pennsylvania, in upscale counties outside New York City or in areas outside Washington, D.C.

The increasing cultural conservatism of the Republican Party made many suburban voters uncomfortable, but as long as the focus was on the liberalism of the Democrats (or the failures of Democratic incumbents), suburban voters usually stuck with the GOP.

But as Republicans moved right on cultural issues, many suburbs started to slide a bit more left.

Upscale Republican bastions, such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Nassau and Westchester counties in New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, suddenly found themselves voting Democratic.

Now, suburban voters increasingly find that on guns they have more in common with their urban friends than with their rural ones. Some restrictions on guns, in particular, seem increasingly reasonable to swing voters after numerous mass shootings. As the issue has become more salient politically, it has also become potentially more effective for Democrats.

A winning shift

Of course, conservatives will point out that there are many pro-NRA voters, and “pro-gun” voters have tended to vote on one issue, guns, while supporters of gun control vote on a much broader range of issues.

The problem with that argument is that the party coalitions have changed.

Opponents of new gun controls are now so thoroughly integrated into the GOP that they are part of that party’s political base. Because they are no longer swing voters, they no longer have the electoral clout they once did.

Some Democrats from conservative, largely rural states or congressional districts will need pro-gun voters to win elections, and they will try to walk a fine line on the issue, as Conor Lamb is trying to do now in a western Pennsylvania House special election.

But in many states and districts, swing suburbanites — and particularly suburban women — are a much more important constituency than are NRA members because those suburban voters can decide which party wins — just the way anti-gun control voters once could.

This increased attention from suburbanites has changed the electoral equation for 2018, and that is why Democrats now should benefit from any focus on gun control issues.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2018.

The Democrats’ Savior

One year ago, as Donald Trump was preparing to take the oath of office, Democrats were in disarray. Supporters of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were pointing fingers at each other, the Democratic National Committee was in disgrace, and Democratic voters were demoralized.

Now, Trump has succeeded in doing something extraordinary, something neither Clinton nor House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could do — he has united and energized Democrats.

This has occurred in spite of a growing economy, a booming stock market, a shrinking unemployment rate and tax cuts intended to stimulate even more growth.

Trump’s appeal

While economic dislocations and low wage growth certainly played a role in boosting Trump’s presidential run, it was his view of America that mobilized key voters behind his anti-establishment candidacy.

Trump voters were angry about how the country has changed. They saw liberals encouraging diversity (through same-sex marriage, transgender rights and immigration) at the expense of traditional values, roles and institutions (e.g., traditional religious beliefs and organizations).

Even worse, Republicans were unable to roll back or stop the tide of change. Trump’s cultural populism was an important part of his campaign message, and it continues to underlie his appeal to older, less educated, white voters, particularly those in rural areas.

His anti-elitist message resonated with Americans who regarded diversity and political correctness as threats to their traditions and way of life.

His promise to replace “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” may seem trivial, but it encapsulated an important part of his message and allure, which essentially involved his promise to turn back the clock.

Trump’s threat

But while those themes certainly struck a chord with conservatives and older voters in 2016, they have also — for a very different reason — now energized the young, people of color and more liberal voters, who see Trump’s America as a threat rather than an ideal.

Like Trump, President Barack Obama’s great appeal was not his issue positions — though, of course, liberal Democrats agreed with him about health care, government spending and foreign policy.

Instead, it was Obama’s vision for the country — diversity, equality, fairness and bipartisan cooperation — that made him so attractive, even to nonideological voters.

While many Americans remain outraged by Trump’s judicial appointments, efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law, support for corporate tax cuts and decision to open up drilling off the nation’s coasts, his critics have been most offended by his vision for America.

Trump’s inauguration address, comments after the violence in Charlottesville,  Virginia, and insensitivity toward gays and blacks galvanized liberals, immigrants and the young, many of whom were lukewarm about Clinton’s candidacy and failed to vote during the Obama midterms in 2010 and 2014.

This new energy produced an electorate in Virginia in 2017 that looked significantly more like the national electorates of 2008 and 2012 than those of 2010 or 2016.

That is politically dangerous for the GOP, as it was in 2006, when a Democratic electoral wave swept the country.

Trump’s troubles

Trump and congressional Republicans began this election cycle with little room for error heading into the midterms. After all, Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 points in 2016 even though key Democratic demographic groups underperformed.

But since his election, Trump has made little effort, either substantively or symbolically, to reach out to voters outside his political base.

Yes, his base is loyal, but it remains dangerously small.

The trouble for Trump and his party is that last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election saw strong turnout among younger voters (ages 18-29 and 30-44) and nonwhites.

The surge was particularly strong in suburban areas, where white women with a college degree helped Democrat Ralph Northam sweep to an unexpectedly strong victory.

Trump’s voters went to the polls and supported Republican Ed Gillespie, but he was crushed by almost 9 points by a larger-than-expected Democratic turnout.

The outcome in Virginia revealed the long-term problem for Republicans in general and Trump in particular: the America of Donald Trump isn’t one that is inclusive and welcoming.

It is an America tied to cultural values and behaviors of the 1950s, not the 21st century. That has proved appealing to older white voters, evangelicals, the less educated and those living in rural America, but not so to the rest of the country.

Other elections in 2017 and most national polls have also shown greater Democratic energy and opposition to the president, even with the nation’s good economic numbers.

The Democrats don’t have Obama at the top of the ticket, but they have someone almost as good — Donald Trump.

So, while the president can (and inevitably will) brag about some of his accomplishments, perhaps his greatest accomplishment may be his success in reviving and revitalizing the Democratic Party. And for that, Democrats should thank him.

This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 10, 2018.