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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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