Democrats still have so much post-traumatic stress from the last presidential campaign that they’re unable to recognize the obvious: President Trump is a serious underdog for reelection.
It’s remarkable to see the contortions that otherwise-savvy politicians, operatives, and analysts take in order to avoid this reality. President Obama’s former press secretary, Ben LaBolt, fretted in The Atlantic that Trump’s campaign is out-strategizing its Democratic opposition. Obama auto czar Steve Rattner warned in The New York Times that leading economic models predict a Trump landslide.
Talk to any Iowa or New Hampshire voter sampling the 23-candidate field, and they’ll obsess over the electability of certain candidates when matched against President Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t initiate impeachment hearings, out of fear that an aggressive approach will suddenly transform Trump into a sympathetic figure.
The reality? Trump is in the weakest political shape of any sitting president since George H.W. Bush. Despite a historically strong economy, his job approval ratings are still badly underwater. He’s never hit 50 percent job approval in any reputable national poll throughout his presidency. At least 40 percent of voters are fired up to vote against him, no matter what happens in the next year. He’s already lost ground with the working-class voters who defected from the Democrats to support him in 2016, with his favorability rating dropping 19 points among that critical Obama-Trump constituency in the last two years.
The latest wave of polling is even more alarming for Trump. His campaign’s own internal polling reportedly shows him trailing in many of the must-win battleground states. A new Quinnipiac survey shows Trump trailing all six Democrats tested against him; what's more, he couldn’t win more than 42 percent of the vote against anyone. He’s running 13 points behind Joe Biden, 9 points behind Bernie Sanders, and 7 points behind Elizabeth Warren.
In the latest Morning Consult tracking survey, Trump hits 50 percent disapproval ratings in North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa—all states he carried in 2016. Two recent polls show Trump trailing Biden in reliably Republican Arizona (by 5) and Texas (by 4), while holding only small leads against weaker competition. He trails Sanders by 12 points in Michigan, matching his deficit against Biden.
Meanwhile, Trump isn’t acting like a president seeking to build upon support from his base. His threats to impose tariffs on Mexico particularly alarmed Senate Republicans in states that he needs to win next year. Any economic downturn before the election would all but doom his already precarious prospects. His unwillingness to work with Democrats, given their aggressive oversight of his administration, makes it all the more difficult to tout any bipartisan accomplishments on the campaign trail.
Trump’s clearest path to victory relies on Democrats making a series of self-destructive decisions. But even if Democrats turn leftward and nominate a weak challenger, they’d still have a credible chance at unseating Trump. The country’s rampant polarization guarantees that anyone—no matter how extreme—would be well-positioned against the president. Just as Trump rallied enough skeptical Republicans to support him against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders would likely win over reluctant Democrats to his side against Trump.
Ironically, Trump’s very vulnerability is spurring Democrats to act in a self-defeating fashion. Long-shot candidates have crowded the primary field, recognizing that they’ve got a real chance to be president if they win the nomination. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has proven them right, demonstrating that a few viral moments and a strong performance on national TV can catapult the most obscure candidate into prominence.
Progressive Democrats, who would be unlikely to win an election against a traditional Republican opponent, recognize that 2020 presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain power. They’re willing to sacrifice the party’s strong odds of winning in order to move the party in a left-wing direction.
But all the Democratic overreach may not matter. Presidential reelection campaigns are fundamentally about the incumbent’s performance in office. As much as he wants, Trump can’t effectively use the slogan “make America great again” for 2020. He’ll need to run on his record, not just on the deficiencies of the challenger.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, Democrats had trouble recognizing their own good fortune. For a while, many believed the strong economy would insulate Trump from major losses. They worried they’d need to win too many seats in Republican territory to have a chance at retaking the House majority. They thought their party’s ascendant progressivism would cost them swing seats. Trump’s abnormal behavior in office allowed them to overcome all those obstacles.
The political environment hasn’t changed much since the midterms, but the Democratic pessimism remains—even though they’re in strong position to win the presidency in 2020. As long as they avoid the extremist temptation, they’ll be heavily favored to win the presidency. And even if they don’t, they still have a fighting chance.