Off to the Races

Who Can Win the Narrow Middle in 2020?

Trump is historically unpopular and will have trouble persuading swing voters. Will Democrats pick a candidate who can take advantage?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Jan. 7, 2019, 8 p.m.

It is striking how many of President Trump supporters I meet who seem largely unconcerned about his chances of reelection. He won a race in 2016 that he wasn’t expected to win, so why not in 2020? This despite the fact that he lost the national popular vote by 2.9 million and notched razor-thin victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—fewer than 78,000 votes determined the presidency out of 137 million cast. Still, he won then; why not again?

Here are the key questions: Given that Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin effectively determined the presidency, does the fact that Democrats went 6-0 in those three states in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in November signal anything? How much did Hillary Clinton matter in those 2016 outcomes? Does it matter that with the highest midterm-election turnout since 1914, Democrats won the popular House vote last year by an 8.6-point margin?

It’s not just that Trump’s approval ratings have never matched the 46 percent of the popular vote he received in 2016; his weekly Gallup approval (starting this month, Gallup will report only monthly numbers) has hit 45 percent just twice. It’s the fact that his numbers have fluctuated so little that should be concerning. In his weekly Gallup job-approval ratings in 2017 and 2018, his approval number never exceeded 45 percent or dropped lower than 35 percent, averaging 39 percent. As the Gallup Organization’s Jeffrey Jones noted in a report last month, the Trump presidency has been notable for its lack of either a honeymoon or of rally events. If Trump were a stock, you would say that he has a very narrow trading range.

Keep in mind that the economy was growing at a mind-boggling rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter of last year, at 2.2 percent in the first quarter, and at 3.5 percent in the third quarter, and will probably come in for the fourth quarter at about 2.5 percent, and yet his approval rating never exceeded 45 percent; that is his ceiling. And few suggest that the economy will grow in 2019 or 2020 as much as it did in 2018.

Even within Trump’s narrow trading range, most voters are locked in, either firmly in his camp or firmly in opposition. In surveys last month by Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Trump’s approval ratings were 46 percent, with 52 percent in each poll disapproving. CNN’s poll had his approval somewhat lower at 39 percent but with the same share, 52 percent, disapproving. But in the Fox News Poll, 27 percent strongly approved and 42 percent strongly disapproved (a total of 69 percent having strong feelings one way or the other about him); in the NBC/WSJ Poll it was 27 percent strongly approving and 44 percent strongly disapproving, totaling 71 percent; in the CNN poll it was 30 percent strong approve, 44 percent strong disapprove—77 percent with strong emotions. In the November national exit poll, the overall approval was 45 percent and disapproval 54 percent, with 31 percent strongly approving and 46 percent strongly disapproving—77 percent with strong emotions.

Also in the NBC/WSJ poll, 23 percent said they would definitely vote for Trump and 15 percent said they probably would, for a total of 38 percent. Another 39 percent would definitely vote for a Democrat, and 13 percent probably would. That’s 52 percent, leaving less than 10 percent truly up for grabs. In the Fox News Poll, just 8 percent of respondents were in the middle, not yet leaning either way.

This is where the Trump fatigue comes into play, which is not too dissimilar from the Clinton fatigue that had built up and worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016—too much accumulated baggage, making it harder to win over the swing vote in the middle. Historically, electability has not been a major motivating force for a party in terms of determining a presidential nominee. But what about unelectability? For most Democrats and liberals I know, the most horrible possible thing that could happen in 2020 would be a giant asteroid destroying planet Earth. A close second for them would be Trump getting reelected.

So rather than focus on who specifically Democrats will nominate, ask instead what kind of candidate they’ll pick. One who is not risky, someone broadly acceptable who can take full advantage of Trump fatigue? Or someone with a bold message, reflecting the passion that is in the Democratic base, even if that risks losing some of those voters in the middle? Ultimately the big questions for Democrats are: What is their risk tolerance in this election, how bold do they feel, and how lucky do they feel? The outcome of this election will be more determined by Democrats’ upcoming moves than Trump’s.

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