Off to the Races

Mueller Report a 2020 Turning Point

Democrats need to stop pinning their hopes on a devastating report from the special counsel, and President Trump needs to move beyond his base.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
March 25, 2019, 8 p.m.

Sunday afternoon’s release of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report marks a critical point in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democrats and other critics of President Trump had convinced themselves that Mueller would report a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives and/or that the president was guilty of obstruction of justice in hindering the Mueller probe and other probes (I avoid the term "collusion" because it is a silly term, with no meaning in the law). To say that Democrats and Trump critics are disappointed is an understatement.

The idea that the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated with Russian operatives always appeared to me to be rather far-fetched. But it is clear that Russians were active in trying to interfere in the 2016 election, to undermine the legitimacy of our democratic process, and to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It is also clear that the Trump campaign included some flawed people with questionable backgrounds, who during or prior to the campaign exercised terrible judgment. Some appeared to have an open-transom policy; they were willing to accept or have distributed dirt on opponent Hillary Clinton from any source.

But there is a leap between there and breaking the law, and Democrats were quick to make that leap—and now have embarrassingly fallen far short. To this eye, they overreached. Rather than going down future rabbit holes, they would be smarter to concentrate on what should have always been their primary objective: beating Trump on Nov. 3, 2020 and electing a Democratic president. They have wasted a lot of energy on this.

For Republicans and the Trump campaign, this outcome, while perhaps a bit short of the “Complete and Total EXONERATION” that the president claimed in his Sunday afternoon tweet, is as good as or better than they could have expected. It should be embraced as an opportunity to hit a reset button on his campaign and his presidency. Rather than continuing to obsess over their base of about 35 percent of the electorate, they should now focus on how to reach the next 20 percent or so, the malleable voters who sit between the Trump base and the 45 percent or so in the hard-core Trump opposition. Trump needs to win at least two-thirds and possibly as many as three-quarters of that quintile in the middle to stay close enough in the popular vote to capture the 270 electoral votes needed for reelection. The messages and tactics that could reach that fifth in the middle are very different than those used in reinforcing their base. Getting Trump to speak to swing voters may be as challenging as trying to teach him to speak Latin or Greek.

Prior to the release of the Barr summary, Fox News released its latest survey, conducted March 17-20 of 1,002 registered voters nationwide. Trump’s overall approval rating was 46 percent with a disapproval rating of 51 percent. Trump has been underwater in 21 of 22 Fox polls so far; the exception was its first poll taken in February 2017, in which Trump had 48 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval. No other post-World War II elected president has consistently had numbers this bad in their first term.

In the latest poll, 27 percent strongly approved and 19 percent somewhat approved of Trump's performance, while 9 percent somewhat disapproved and 42 percent strongly disapproved. Trump did post a 50 percent approval rating on handling the economy, but just 42 percent approval on taxes, 41 percent approval on immigration, and 37 percent on health care. Thirty-seven percent feel comfortable about the nation’s economy today, while 43 percent are nervous. Forty-four percent favor a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and 51 percent oppose it, while 36 percent support his decision to declare a national emergency over immigration versus 59 percent that oppose it.

In terms of 2020 politics, 67 percent of those who are more likely to vote in a Democratic primary or caucus would like to see former Vice President Joe Biden enter the race, while 19 percent would not. Biden had the support of 31 percent of Democratic primary/caucus voters, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders with 23 percent and Sen. Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke with 8 percent each. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren each garnered 4 percent and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand 2 percent, while all others had 1 percent or less. When asked which is more important in deciding their vote, 36 percent chose “supporting the candidate you like the most,” while 51 percent picked “supporting the candidate who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump."

There's no doubt that Trump’s numbers will inch up a bit with the Barr summary, but don’t expect too much movement or a long-lasting boost. With roughly 70 to 75 percent strongly approving or disapproving of him, those people aren’t going to move much, and his numbers tend to revert to the mean.

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