Handicapping Trump's Chances in 2020

The 2020 fundamentals are starting to take shape—but Trump must find a way to expand his coalition.

President Trump at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States convention July 24 in Kansas City, Mo.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Aug. 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

When someone asks whether President Trump will be reelected in 2020, it’s hard to know where to start. So first, let's look at the historical precedents.

Since the end of World War II, eight elected presidents have sought reelection. Six were successful: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were renominated, but lost general elections to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively. One common denominator between Carter and Bush is that both faced tough renomination fights. Carter was challenged by Edward Kennedy, while Bush had Pat Buchanan. What came first, the cart or the horse? Were Carter and Bush so politically vulnerable that they could not keep out primary opposition, or did the opposition weaken them for the general election? (Nixon also drew primary opponents, Reps. Pete McCloskey and John Ashbrook, but neither presented so much as a speed bump to Nixon who went on to a 49-state win, with 61 percent of the popular vote.)

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ford were not initially elected to office, but both faced nomination challenges. Johnson dropped his reelection bid after a less-than-impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary; Ford survived a tough nomination battle with Ronald Reagan before losing the general election to Carter. The point here is that elected first-term presidents generally get reelected if they don’t have primary opposition.

Applying this to President Trump, it’s extremely difficult to imagine him receiving significant primary opposition—emphasis on the word “significant.” Given the strong emotions that Trump evokes, it isn’t hard to imagine someone, perhaps Ohio Gov. John Kasich, taking him on for the nomination, but my guess is that the outcome would more likely be a blowout than a competitive fight. Considering how he rolled to the GOP nomination in 2016, there is no reason to believe that a challenge for the nomination has any hope of success, and it's doubtful that it would even have significant general-election consequences.

Some make the case that a devastating midterm-election loss for Republicans might augur poorly for President Trump’s reelection chances. My hunch is that Trump will face a very difficult general-election fight if he chooses to run in 2020, but I would not lean on the 2018 midterm results as any kind of indicator. Clinton and Obama, for example, both had devastating midterm elections yet went on to victories two years later.

Similarly, simply having bad job-approval numbers at this point are of little predictive value. The just-released Gallup poll, conducted Aug. 6-12, had Trump with 39 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval ratings. His approval among Republicans dropped from 89 to 82 percent, with his Democratic support at 7 percent and independent backing at 34 percent. These are the lowest Gallup job-approval ratings for any elected president in August of their second year in office, but low approvals haven’t been that instructive. At this point, Carter and Clinton stood at 41 percent, Reagan at 42 percent, Obama at 44 percent, George H. W. Bush at 75 percent, and his son at 67 percent. Try to find a pattern at this stage. I can’t.

The warning light for supporters of President Trump should be his seeming inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to expand his base. It would seem to be advisable for someone who captured the office with just 46 percent of the popular vote, 2.1 percentage points and 2.9 million votes less than his opponent had. His Gallup job-approval rating of 39 percent is precisely the same as his average in all Gallup polling to date, even with a strong economy. How often do you hear people say, “I didn’t vote for Trump but I support him now?” Sure there are a few, but the numbers suggest they are fewer than onetime supporters who have jumped off the Trump train.

Politics is supposed to be an exercise in addition, not subtraction or division. My friend Mark Shields, the wise and always-thoughtful columnist, is fond of saying that he would rather be a member of a church trying to gain converts than one seeking to drive out heretics.

Trump is now fairly well-conflated with the identity of the Republican Party, particularly House Republicans. Trump is the party and the party is Trump. While quite a few Republican senators have charted mostly parallel, but separate courses, while keeping their identities and brands distinct from that of the president, House Republicans have not and his inability to expand that base beyond those who backed him last time seems to be happening to his party as well—and that is a problem.

Back to the original question of whether Trump will be reelected in 2020, I am once again reminded of the joke about the woman who is s asked, “How’s your husband?” Her reply comes: “Compared to what?” In the end, it may well come down to who Democrats choose to nominate and how the economy is performing in 2020, but in the meantime, President Trump is doing little to help his own case.

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