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Why Donald Trump Will Probably Be Re-Elected

The signs are beginning to point more clearly to a Trump re-election victory.

Confirming that, Goldman Sachs has released a report stating that President Trump is likely to be re-elected in 2020:

While Trump reelection is far from assured, Goldman’s economists believe the president is bolstered by “the advantage of first-term incumbency and the relatively strong economic performance,” in what is sure to be a “close call” election.

The report is right, of course. Trump carries several advantages that no one else running has. All of these have to do with the fact that he’s currently in office. Here are three of the most important:

Now let’s unpack these.

Trump’s Incumbency Advantage

On October 20, 2012, USA Today released a prescient article about the Obama-Romney race. Here’s what it said:

There is one basic, fundamental reason that President Obama has a good chance at re-election — the same reason that Mitt Romney faces a basic, fundamental challenge.

Obama is an incumbent.

Since George Washington took the first oath of office in 1789, a total of 31 sitting presidents have participated in national elections — and 21 have won.

As Meat Loaf said, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

Incumbency is a major, major advantage in any presidential election, even when the incumbent is having a rough go. Think about how many embattled presidents have won re-election in spite of major challenges and scandals.

For instance, Richard Nixon won an enormous landslide victory in the shadow of the emerging Watergate scandal. How enormous? The Electoral College went 520 to 17 for Nixon over George McGovern, and Libertarian John Hospers received one faithless elector. Nixon won every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

I’m not saying Trump will win every state or mirror the landslide re-elections of Nixon (520 electoral votes) or Ronald Reagan (525 electoral votes), or even perform as well as Bill Clinton (379 electoral votes) or Barack Obama (332 electoral votes).

However, the last three presidents have been re-elected in challenging circumstances. Only George W. Bush, who received 286 electoral votes, received fewer than 300 votes in the Electoral College. But he still won – and you have to go back to his father, George H.W. Bush, to find the last incumbent who didn’t.

The Economy is Growing

The growth of the economy is a story that has not been covered as much as it normally would be, especially given the huge attention that the Mueller investigation was given over the past year.

But when one looks at the numbers, they’re pretty good. And if you’re Donald Trump, they’re good enough.

Alan Abramowitz is a political scientist who has worked on correlating various factors with the outcome of presidential elections for a long time. Recently, he applied his model to Trump.

Writing at Rasmussen Reports, Abramowitz says:

The results in Table 3 show a wide range of potential outcomes, from near certain defeat for the incumbent if the economy stalls out and his approval rating falls far below the neutral point, as it has from time to time, to near certain victory if the economy grows faster than expected and his approval rating rises to the neutral point, where it has essentially never been in his first two-plus years in office.

The most plausible prediction at this point, however, is for a very close contest. Given a net approval rating of -10, approximately where Trump’s approval rating has been stuck for most of the past year, and real GDP growth of between 1% to 2%, in line with most recent economic forecasts, the model predicts that he would receive between 263 and 283 electoral votes. Of course, it takes 270 electoral votes to win.

Trump’s approval rating, which factors into Abramowitz’s model, is the most negative aspect to contend with. However, plugging GDP in gives a range of outcomes.

As he says here, if the economy were to stall out going into the 2020 election, things may change. But to state that Trump would win “near certain victory if the economy grows faster than expected and his approval rating rises to the neutral point” is something to consider.

Trump’s approval rating has indeed ticked up a bit. More important, however, is that GDP growth remains strong.

First-quarter GDP growth has slowed, but is not expected to stay there.

Goldman Sachs analysts state:

“While this would mark a significant deceleration, we expect much of this weakness to reflect temporary factors likely to shift growth to Q2,” analysts said in a note to clients. They highlighted 3 key factors: “residual seasonality, the government shutdown, and tax refund delays.”

Unemployment is Declining

Unemployment has long been linked to presidential re-election. For instance, a 2012 article from the Brookings Institution summed up the prior 60 years’ elections as they pertained to the economy:

In the postwar period, incumbent presidents have run for reelection 10 times, winning 7 and losing 3. The winners all had strong job markets going for them. Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004 all ran with both full employment and low inflation, and all won easily. Unemployment was still around 7.5 percent when Ronald Reagan ran in 1984. But job gains were rapid and unemployment was falling from a recession high of 11 percent. When Harry Truman ran in 1948, the economy was experiencing a postwar boom led by the backlog of demand for housing and autos, but was also buffeted by organized labor unrest and inflation driven by rapid wage increases. Truman won a close election. Richard Nixon in 1972 had a strong recovery and an inflation problem that he suppressed with price controls until after the election. He won in a landslide. 

The three losers all confronted economic issues. In 1976, Gerald Ford ran with a stubbornly high rate of inflation inherited from the post-price control Nixon years and the first OPEC oil price shock. The economy was recovering from recession but unemployment was still high. In 1980, Jimmy Carter stood for re-election with even more rapid inflation, fueled by the second OPEC oil price shock, and with a sharply higher unemployment rate, which stemmed from policies to reduce that inflation. He lost in a landslide. George H.W. Bush ran during the first “jobless recovery” of the postwar period. Employment was up by barely one percent in the year leading up to the election, and the unemployment rate stood at 7.5 percent, its worst level of the mild 1991-1992 downturn.

The article concluded that the situation emerging headed into the 2012 election “would clearly favor the incumbent.” Obama won re-election, of course, so that prediction was correct.

The following data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Note how the unemployment figures and line continues to trend downward:

Source: Screenshot of Bureau of Labor Statistics public data about the unemployment rate

It’s difficult to see where this presents a challenge for Trump. Even if unemployment were to tick up slightly before 2020, it would have to rise to nearly 5 percent to unfavorably compare to the situation he was elected into.

Unlike GDP, unemployment is felt by the average person. If you don’t have a job, you are more likely to feel sour about the situation of the country. More are employed now than they were when Donald Trump won, and that’s good for his re-election chances.

Conclusion: Trump Likely Re-Elected

When we look at the hard data, and not just the feelings of various commentators and pundits, we see a situation that increasingly favors the President.

Could the economy worsen by the 2020 election? Absolutely. If it does, and his approval ratings dive, this picture changes quite a bit.

There are other black swan type events that could suddenly burst onto the scene and change things, too. Many of those are good for the President, by the way. Almost any national security crisis will generally favor the incumbent, for example. Continued problems at the border will drive turnout among the same base that elected Trump in 2020.

Numerous foreign policy events could occur, some of which would be good for Trump (such as resolution to the situations in North Korea or the Middle East) and some which might have no effect at all (such as Venezuela’s deepening crisis, Brexit, or the Ukraine’s political disaster).

But if nothing much changes, or if the economy does even better than expected – Trump will almost certainly be re-elected in 2020.


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