Off to the Races

Setting the Odds in an Odd Cycle

President Trump is historically unpopular, but figuring out whether he'll win a second term—or if he'll even be on the ballot—is exceedingly difficult.

President Trump reacts after signing the farm bill in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Dec. 20, 2018, 8 p.m.

The University of Virginia’s inimitable and highly regarded political scientist Larry Sabato is fond of saying, “He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass!" As we prepare to turn the corner from postelection 2018 to the beginning of the 2020 election cycle, that would seem to be even more true. A period that’s already been incredibly uncertain looks likely to become even more so.

During the 2016 cycle, unprecedented things occurred. Putting aside the widest gap in 140 years between the national popular vote and the Electoral College outcome, the fights for the two major party nominations defied expectations. Historically, the Republican Party’s presidential nomination almost always goes to a candidate either from the party establishment or at least to someone acceptable to the party’s traditional leaders. But early on in the 2016 campaign, it became clear that the GOP nomination was not going to go in a conventional direction—to a Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or another traditional GOP candidate. It increasingly looked like it would come down to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. History then would have argued that Cruz, despite being a very polarizing figure and hardly an establishment favorite, would be a more plausible choice, but Trump obviously prevailed. On the Democratic side, little in history would have forecast that Bernie Sanders would give Hillary Clinton such a strong challenge, but he obviously did.

The 2018 cycle had few huge upsets: none in Senate or gubernatorial general elections, and just four in the House (California-21, Oklahoma-05, New York-11 and South Carolina-01). The overall outcomes were largely as expected, but only after the conventional wisdom had shifted a great deal over the course of the cycle. One well-regarded Democratic strategist surveyed a large number of peers in August 2017, finding that just 12 percent expected Democrats to retake the House. A year later, it looked highly probable. It should be added that the polls this year were quite accurate.

Focusing on Trump and his prospects for reelection, the storm clouds are darkening and the waters are getting increasingly choppy. But who can say with any certainty whether he will be reelected or even who his Democratic opponent will be? Trump has yet to see a weekly Gallup job-approval rating of even 46 percent, equal to his share of the national popular vote in the last election. Last week (Dec. 10-16), his Gallup weekly approval rating stood at 38 percent—a point below his average since taking office—and 57 percent disapproved. Among Republicans his approval was a stout 86 percent, but it was only 37 percent among independents and 7 percent with Democrats. The RealClearPolitics average of all of the major national polls was somewhat better—42 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove—but these are still really bad numbers.

Even during the second quarter of this year, when the economy (GDP) was growing at a blistering 4.2 percent, followed by the third quarter when it was at a very good rate of 3.5 percent, neither his weekly Gallup approval nor RealClearPolitics averages ever exceeded 45 percent. No previous president has had job-approval ratings this low in December of his second year in office.

Now factor in that the economy is unmistakably slowing down. The December survey of top economists by Blue Chip Economic Indicators forecasts a 2.5 percent growth rate for the current quarter, and no better than that for 2019. Morgan Stanley last month put the odds of a recession in 2019 at 15 percent and in 2020 at 30 percent; former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers puts the odds at nearly 50-50. But even if the economy doesn’t tip into recession territory, if one of the strongest quarters of economic growth in the last 15 years doesn’t seem to help Trump’s standing that much, what does a merely slowing economy portend?

On the legal front, while no one knows where Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe will end up or what a report might say, it is hard to argue anything but that things are looking worse for the president. To be clear, I think it is unlikely that Trump will be indicted; after all, Justice Department policy since 1973 and reaffirmed in 2000 is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Impeachment seems pretty unlikely too. What would be the point for House Democrats to do it, other than placating their base, since it would require not just each of the 47 Democratic senators (including Doug Jones in Alabama) to vote to convict but also 20 Republican votes—an impossibility given the lack of tolerance within the GOP even for criticism of Trump (just ask Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake or Rep. Mark Sanford)? A House vote to impeach would be purely an act of self-indulgence that would very likely create backlash against the party going into a critical presidential election.

But even if there isn’t a clear finding of Trump or his campaign “colluding” with the Russians, particularly since collusion isn’t really a legal term or explicit crime, this story, along with House Democrats' looming subpoena power, is not going away.

Then throw in a foreign policy situation that looks to be a hot mess. Imagine how surprised Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our coalition allies were when finding out that the president had announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria. Mattis on Thursday tendered his resignation, effective at the end of February, citing disagreements with the president. And after the announcement on Syria, foreign policy experts fear that the president might make a similar unilateral decision on Afghanistan; an even bigger concern would be some kind of kinetic action against Iran.

For good measure, toss in the little chance of him getting anything meaningful through a divided Congress. How do things get a lot better for him than what we saw this year, when Democrats won the national House popular vote by 8.6 percentage points, four times Trump’s 2.1 percentage-point popular-vote loss in 2016?

The president was probably right when he said as a candidate that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his base would stand with him, and his rock-solid support appears to be between 35 and 38 percent. His bedrock opposition seems to be substantially larger, between 45 and 55 percent. Even assuming that Trump retains his entire base, are these the circumstances that make it look likely that he can run the table with every voter who isn’t locked in one way or the other? The answer, of course, depends partly on the question: Whom do Democrats nominate?

Keeping in mind Sabato’s admonition about eating ground glass, what are Trump’s chances to have a second term, even if indictment, impeachment, or losing renomination are removed from the range of possibilities? It would be foolish to predict that Trump will step down early or not seek reelection, but those outcomes cannot be completely ruled out. And even assuming that he runs for reelection, is his fate in his own hands or mostly in the hands of Democrats and their eventual nominee?

A couple of things seem clear. First, that this job is not nearly what he expected it to be. It’s harder, and the issues are far more complicated, than he ever imagined. And stipulating that he is an extremely competitive person, can anyone imagine with him coping psychologically with having lost reelection? To be clear, I think it is more likely than not that he opts to stay in office through the remainder of this term and seeks reelection, but the odds of him stepping down early or not seeking reelection have to be greater now than six months or a year ago. That’s not a prediction—or a look into a crystal ball. It’s just a thought.

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