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.

Is a Democratic Wave Building for 2020?

 Like other handicappers, I have noted that there are few signs that the national political divide, so apparent over the last three years, has started to crumble.

Trump voters are sticking with the president, while those who opposed him in 2016 generally have become even more vociferous in their opposition.

Given the closeness of the last presidential contest — and subsequent big Democratic gains in the House two years later — it’s hard to see 2020 producing a House wave for either party.

After all, only three House Republicans sit in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and most of the seats that flipped to the Democrats last year are in the suburbs, where Trump and the GOP are having serious problems.

In other words, there are few “easy” opportunities in the House for either party. But while electoral “waves” almost always refer to large changes in the House, the term can also apply to Senate and presidential outcomes where there are dramatic shifts.

In fact, the extreme partisanship we see, especially combined with the way our House districts are now drawn, limit the number of seats in the chamber that can conceivably flip, even in a partisan wave.

At some point, a competitive Senate seat becomes more likely to flip than an uncompetitive House race. We may be at that tipping point in this cycle.

How a wave begins

Electoral waves generally happen under at least one of two circumstances.

They occur when turnout in one party drops precipitously, producing an electorate that dramatically favors the other party. Or, they can occur when swing voters, who normally divide evenly between the two parties, swing dramatically to one side, thereby producing an electorate that once again disproportionately favors one party over the other.

In 2004, for example, self-identified independents in the national exit poll split evenly, 49 percent for John Kerry and 48 percent for George W. Bush.

Bush won the presidential election narrowly at the same time the GOP gained a modest three seats in the House. But two years later, in a wave election during Bush’s second midterm, the national exit poll showed self-identified independents breaking to the Democrats, 57 percent to 39 percent.

Democrats gained 31 House seats that year. Four years later, during Barack Obama’s first midterm election, which produced a GOP electoral wave, the national exit poll showed independents breaking toward Republicans, 56 percent to 39 percent.

When both partisan turnout and independent/swing voter preferences change at the same time (and in the same direction, of course), we tend to see larger electoral waves, as we did in 2010, when Republicans made large House (63 seats) and Senate (6 seats) gains.

Large gains are also possible (even likely) when the party on the defensive holds an abnormally large number of House and/or Senate seats that traditionally favor the other party.

What the polls say

While the 2020 election is still more than a year off, Republicans ought to be concerned about some early signs, both at the national and state levels.

Trump carried self-described independents in 2016, 46 percent to 42 percent, according to that year’s national exit polls, but the GOP lost them, 54 percent to 42 percent, two years later in the midterms.

Even more concerning, the Oct. 6-8 Fox News poll found the president’s approval among independents at 36 percent, with 61 percent disapproving of his performance.

In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points and where Trump’s campaign is likely to make a major effort, an Oct. 14-16 Star Tribune poll found the president losing to the three top Democrats anywhere from 9 points to 12 points in hypothetical ballot tests.

In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a point, an Oct. 13-17 Marquette Law School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading him by 6 points, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was up by 2 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led by a single point.

Fox News poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Wisconsin found Biden leading by 9 points, Sanders by 5 and Warren by 4.

In Florida, an Oct. 14-20 University of North Florida poll found Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent against four top Democratic contenders.

He trailed Biden by 5 points and Warren by 3. Trump won 49 percent of the vote in Florida in 2016, carrying the state by only 1.2 points.

In Iowa, an Oct. 13-16 Emerson College poll showed Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren in a state that he carried by 9 points, a serious problem for the president’s team if — and it is a big “if — the Emerson results reflect the actual strength of the candidates in hypothetical ballot tests.

It’s certainly possible that these national and state polls are misleading or flat-out wrong. Circumstances could change, either helping or hurting Trump, and both parties’ prospects won’t become clearer until the Democrats actually have a nominee.

But it’s equally unwise to be wedded to an assumption — e.g., we are headed for another squeaker in 2020 because the Trump and anti-Trump coalitions are largely immovable — that may ignore the possibility that modest defections from Trump combined with a significant change in the behavior of independents/swing voters (including suburban whites with a college degree) could produce substantial changes in the 2020 presidential vote and surprisingly substantial Democratic gains in the Senate.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 29, 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.

Will the Supreme Court Save the GOP from Itself on Abortion?

Social conservatives cheering the rash of state laws limiting legal abortion might want to be careful what they wish for.

That’s because Democratic prospects for 2020 are likely to improve as uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade grows. And uncertainty will grow as more and more states impose restrictions on legal abortion.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win back the House — a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one. And the party can lose a net of three Senate seats (if they keep the White House) and still maintain control of the chamber in 2021.

But magnifying the debate over abortion rights could well put the House out of reach next year for the GOP, put the Senate at much greater risk and further undermine President Donald Trump’s already iffy re-election prospects.

New motivation

Democrats’ successes in 2018 were built on two very different groups — core party supporters, including progressives, minorities and younger Americans; and swing voters, including college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women), who have often been attracted by the GOP’s stances on taxes, spending and business regulation.

Both sets of voters turned out for Democratic House candidates last fall, which is why Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the chamber.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the same two groups are likely to be motivated by the abortion issue in 2020.

Women went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 13 points in 2016, 54 percent to 41 percent, largely on the basis of her strength among non-whites. Two years later, the national House exit poll showed Democrats carrying women by an even larger 19 points, 59 percent to 40 percent.

Trump actually carried white women comfortably by 9 points in 2016, 52 percent to 43 percent. Two years later, white women split evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent, wiping out the president’s advantage.

College-educated white women went for Clinton in 2016 by a relatively narrow 7 points, 51 percent to 44 percent. But two years later, Democrats won white women with a college degree by an overwhelming 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent.

The Democratic surge among college-educated white women was unmistakable, and it did not occur by chance.

White women in general, and college-educated white women in particular, came to dislike Trump’s style and language, as well as elements of his agenda.

Now, with the economy generally strong and swing voters free to think about things other than jobs and interest rates, college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 but voted Democratic two years later will again feel free to send a message about culture and values, not taxes and government regulation.

The last word?

Obviously, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would further elevate abortion as a defining issue in 2020, giving more energy to the abortion rights movement.

Conversely, a Supreme Court decision reaffirming Roe and rejecting the constitutionality of the kind of restrictions on abortion that states are now imposing might actually breed complacency among those who support abortion rights.

But it’s unclear when or whether the nation’s highest court will deal with new state restrictions on abortion before next year’s general election. Given that, supporters of abortion rights are likely to focus on the more “extreme” proposals that seek to circumscribe Roe, just as critics of Roe — including the folks at LifeNews.com — have often portrayed abortion rights activists as supporting infanticide.

The problem for Republicans is that they are likely to go into the 2020 election dragged down by an issue on which they are too easily portrayed as extreme and insensitive to women.

Yes, they will have their arguments assembled as to why that is not the case, but the bigger the issue becomes, the more likely 2020 becomes a fight over culture and values that benefits Democrats, not the party of white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.

Historically, Republicans have benefited from abortion because of the intensity of the support from those who oppose legal abortion. Even though polls generally show more voters back abortion rights, those people don’t vote on the issue, as is illustrated by polling on abortion and Roe v. Wade by Gallup.

The increased salience of abortion as a voting cue is likely to benefit Democrats because it will energize voters who favor abortion rights but have assumed up to now that they are not under serious attack.

The greatest danger for Democrats is that a John Roberts-led Supreme Courts reaffirms Roe and looks unkindly on state restrictions intended to dramatically limit, or eliminate, legal abortion in some states.

That would be a loss on public policy for Republicans going into 2020, but it would be the better electoral outcome for the party.

Note: This column appeared initially in the May 21, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

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.