The midterm elections have yet to come, but already there is intense speculation about the presidential election in 2020. President Trump has already announced his intention to seek reelection and a number of Democrats are testing the waters. Unlike the 2016 election, there is no Democrat awaiting a coronation in which the primaries are a mere formality. A lot can happen over the next two years, but it is very possible that circumstances will combine in a way that will lead to the election of America’s first socialist president.
The first step towards a socialist is the razor-thin margins by which Donald Trump was elected in 2016. President Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory was predicated on winning a series of Rust Belt states that normally vote Democrat. Trump succeeded, but by an extremely narrow margin. Changing the vote by two percent in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would have changed the outcome of the election.
In order to win reelection, the president must either replicate the conditions that won those key states in 2016 or, preferably, win new supporters. However, when it comes to winning converts, the president’s unpopularity has been remarkably consistent. Just prior to the 2016 election, Trump polled at 42 percent. He beat this number in the actual election, winning 46 percent of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent. Since he took office, Trump’s average approval rating reached a high of 46 percent in February 2017 and then settled back down into the low 40s and high 30s where he has been ever since.
Trump’s approval is similar to that of Barack Obama, who was in the low 40s for much of his presidency. Obama did win reelection, but the problem for President Trump is that his approval has slipped in the places where he needs it most. In the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the president now has a negative approval rating. He is also negative in other swing states that he won in 2016 such as Ohio and Nevada. In Minnesota, a state that Trump only lost by 1.5 percent, his approval rating is now negative by 15 points. As it stands now, Donald Trump is an unpopular president who faces an uphill battle to get back to the electoral map that won him the presidency in a fluke.
Donald Trump is unpopular despite the fact that the nation is experiencing an economic boom. If President Trump’s policy of tariffs leads to an economic slowdown and more layoffs among American workers, then his approval could go even lower and spell disaster for his reelection hopes.
The manufacturing states in the Rust Belt are particularly vulnerable to President Trump’s trade war. International supply chains mean that products built in the US are often assembled with components that are imported and subject to tariffs. The tariffs mean higher manufacturing costs and a less competitive product. Tariffs applied to US exports also make American products more expensive to foreign buyers. When costs rise, demand falls. Wage cuts and layoffs may soon follow.
Meanwhile, President Trump has driven the Democrats crazy. The opposition party has moved farther to the left as many of its members embrace “democratic socialism.” Self-proclaimed democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become immensely popular in the Democratic Party. Rasmussen recently found that 51 percent of Democrats have a favorable impression of socialism. Fifty-five percent of Millennials also had a positive view of socialism according to a 2016 Gallup poll (although 57 percent also like capitalism and 78 percent like free enterprise).
Given the growing number of Democrats who openly profess an admiration for socialism, it is increasingly likely that the party will nominate a self-professed socialist. Bernie Sanders came within a whisker of winning the Democratic nomination in 2016 despite Hillary Clinton’s systemic advantages. In a June Harvard CAPS/Harris poll of Democrats, Sanders ranked third as a potential 2020 nominee behind Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton with Elizabeth Warren finishing fourth. Sanders has a dedicated and loyal following and a nationwide grassroots organization that could give him an edge in the 2020 primaries, especially Biden and Hillary split the Democratic establishment vote.
Would Americans vote for a socialist if the Democrats nominated one? A Hill/Harris poll recently found that 76 percent of Americans say that they would not vote for a socialist. Even 64 percent of Democrats say they would not pull the lever for a socialist.
Nevertheless, socialist ideas tend to be more popular than the label. Both Pew and Washington Post/Kaiser polls showed that more than half of Americans favor single-payer health care. Another Kaiser poll found that 59 percent approve of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan. Likewise, most Americans support other ideas championed by Democrats such as raising the minimum wage and free college tuition. For all their craziness, democratic socialists have some popular policy proposals to pair with their unpopular label. Many mainstream Democrats endorse many of the same ideas, blurring the line between socialism and liberalism.
As the country heads toward the next presidential election, the Republicans are saddled with an unpopular president who has done a poor job of selling his agenda to voters. President Trump won the presidency with a minority of votes and then proceeded, as Obama did before him, without regard to the need to build coalitions to support his actions and agenda. Both presidents relied on their congressional majorities, voter bases and executive actions to force their way rather than trying to win people over.
President Trump is immensely popular within the Republican Party. That is enough to win the nomination, but not the general election. For that, the president must persuade those moderate and independent voters that he has been ignoring since 2016. The voters who are unhappy with his trade and immigration policies as well as his continual bad behavior will ultimately decide the election.
Donald Trump was a reaction to the economic doldrums of the Obama Administration and the corruption and incompetence of Hillary Clinton. In 2020, the pendulum is likely to swing in the other direction due to President Trump’s incompetence and erratic behavior if the Democrats can keep the focus on Trump and off of their own foibles and radical platform.
While it is far too early to make predictions, conditions appear to be ripe for a backlash in 2020 against President Trump and congressional Republicans. If Democrat primary voters nominate a Democrat socialist, America might well find itself with its first self-described socialist president.