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Trump’s Re-election Chances Are Slim But Not None

While Trump cannot be counted out for re-election, he faces a difficult campaign.

I’ve long been skeptical about Donald Trump’s chances for re-election. The mere fact that the president started with a popular vote loss and then proceeded to become even more unpopular due to his behavior and policies while in office is an obvious sign that his battle for re-election will be fought in an uphill fashion. Now, as more and more polling comes in about potential matchups with Democrats, the data confirms that Trump is in for a hard fight.

I have noted in the past how President Trump’s approval has fallen almost everywhere since the 2016 election. The president’s popularity has sagged to the point where even many red states now look like battleground states. This is particularly true in those states where farmers have suffered from the trade wars.

Josh Kraushaar recently wrote in National Journal that Trump is “in the weakest political shape of any sitting president (Republican or Democrat) since George H.W Bush.” He continues, “Trump hits 50 percent disapproval… in North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa — all states he carried in 2016.”

Now, The New York Times reports that even Mr. Trump’s own internal polling shows him to be trailing Joe Biden in the states that he needs to carry in order to win the election and the president seems to be in denial of that fact. “After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. Biden in many of the states he needs to win,” the Times said this week. “Trump instructed aides to say publicly that other data showed him doing well.”

If you’re a Trump supporter, you’re probably thinking that you’ve heard all this before. The polling up to Election Day showed Mr. Trump being soundly defeated by Hillary Clinton and he won. The pundits gave Hillary a 99 percent chance of winning and she lost. The polls were wrong then so they are garbage now.

Not exactly.

If we look back at archived national polls of the 2016 election on Real Clear Politics, the average of polls gave Hillary a three-point lead. That is almost exactly identical to the national popular vote result. The split between the popular vote and the Electoral College came down to about 53,000 votes spread over five key states. Most of the polling in these states also showed a close race. Polling was substantially off in only one state, Wisconsin, where Hillary’s eight-point lead in the polls turned into a one-point loss.

Some analysts realized that the race was closing in the final days of the election. The wonks at FiveThirtyEight gave Trump an almost one-in-three chance of winning in a forecast that is still archived. While they still figured Trump to be an underdog, a 30 percent chance of winning is a far cry from a 99 percent chance of losing.

Even with stolen Democratic emails dribbling forth throughout 2016 campaign, it took yet another October surprise to put Donald Trump over the top. Polling showed that James Comey’s memo to Congress was the deciding factor in pushing voters toward Trump. The president cannot depend on a similar fortunate circumstance to save him next year, however.

An unnamed “ally” of the Trump campaign made Trump’s case to Axios, saying, “Trump has always under-polled. Until it’s actually a binary contest, though, these polls really don’t matter.”

“When Trump gets a shot at defining someone one-on-one,” the Trump surrogate said, “They’re no longer going to be what they are now, which is, for the most part, a ‘generic Democrat,’” He added that the Trump campaign hopes to define the eventual Democratic opponent by support for such policies as the Green New Deal and Medicaid-for-all, policies that he hopes will frighten away most Americans. Finally, the solid economy is what the Trump campaign hopes will be its ace-in-the-hole.

“Historical data says that with the economy roaring like it is, the incumbent always wins,” the Trump ally says.

The problem with this strategy is that Trump previously faced the candidate widely panned as the worst in modern American history, a candidate who also had a radical agenda that included a public health insurance option, and he still failed to win a majority of the popular vote and came within a whisker of losing the Electoral College. Likewise, voters twice refused to be put off by Barack Obama’s radically leftist ideas. Portraying the Democratic candidate as a radical will motivate the Republican base but won’t necessarily win swing voters.

Likewise, depending on the economy is not a sure thing. Just ask Hillary Clinton who was running on the promise of “four more years” in an economy that was not so different from the current one. Unemployment has been trending down since the Great Recession ended in 2009 while the stock market has continued a ten-year climb. Economic growth under Trump is only marginally better than it was under Obama.   

Another problem with relying on the economy is that the trade war is taking a toll. I recently reported how the tariffs were offsetting the benefits of tax reform for both individuals and businesses. With the Chamber of Commerce and agriculture groups signaling opposition to the tariff war, President Trump may be about to lose core Republican constituencies such as businesses and farmers despite the good economy.

Worse, there are signs that economic growth may be slowing due to the trade war. One leading indicator is the transportation industry. Forbes recently reported that rail shipments were down almost every month of 2019. There are other indicators as well, such as last week’s disappointing jobs report and slowing transaction volume for businesses, which may be partly due to trade uncertainty. A recession is not a foregone conclusion, but if one occurs President Trump will own it.

The 2018 midterm elections should have been a wakeup call for Republicans. Despite the good economy and Trump’s control of messaging in the final weeks of the election, the GOP took a beating in the House and only maintained control of the Senate through a very favorable map that allowed red state Republicans to eke out victories. Swing voters who supported Trump in 2016 swung back toward the Democrats in 2018.

The wild card is Russia. In 2016, Trump benefitted from Russian interference even if the Trump campaign did not actively work in concert with the Russian government. Few steps have been taken to protect the election infrastructure from similar interference next year. If the Russian government does launch new attacks on the 2020 elections, there is no guarantee that they will benefit Mr. Trump this time.

The bottom line is that neither President Trump’s personality nor his policy has endeared him to swing state voters as they have to his base. While Trump cannot be counted out for re-election, he faces a difficult campaign. If he can stay off Twitter and not act crazy for the next 18 months, his odds would improve greatly, but both are unlikely. On the other hand, if the economy softens in the months leading up to the election, Trump’s goose is likely to be cooked.

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