As the first Democratic presidential primary debates rapidly approach, observers of American politics both domestically and around the world are increasingly focused on one key question: Will Donald Trump be re-elected president in 2020? Many of the academic models that historians and political scientists use to predict presidential elections are favorable for a Trump re-election, and most of the global betting markets have him as close to an even-money proposition. On some level, this makes sense; incumbent presidents typically win re-election barring economic recession, an unpopular major foreign military engagement, or crippling scandal. In Trump’s case, these indicators are all relatively benign. The American economy is strong, Trump has launched no new military ventures, and, while partisan bickering over alleged process crimes will certainly continue, Trump was essentially exonerated on the central focus of the Mueller investigation: conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign. Thus, according to all the conventional rubrics, President Trump should be on track to a reasonably smooth re-election in 2020.
Trump, however, has been anything but a conventional president. For several reasons not captured in standard electoral modeling, Trump will have a decidedly uphill re-election battle; indeed, I would argue that Democrats should be regarded as substantial favorites to retake the White House next year. To understand why, one must focus on three key areas: the nature of Trump’s 2016 victory, the structure of his electoral coalition, and events likely to transpire in the next year-and-a-half leading up to the 2020 election.
It must be remembered that Trump’s initial election in 2016, inflated rhetoric to the contrary, was hardly an “overwhelming victory”. Trump garnered 46% of the national popular vote, compared to 48% for Hillary Clinton, and prevailed principally because he won very narrowly - by margins well less than 1% - in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, three traditionally Democratic strongholds. Indeed, Clinton won at least 45% of the vote in 7 states that Trump carried (worth 117 electoral votes), while Trump was similarly close in only 2 Clinton states (worth 10 electoral votes). This is not to say that Trump’s election was illegitimate; close wins still count, and all candidates know that an American presidential election is a state-by-state contest, not a national referendum. Still, this examination of the 2016 results serves as a reminder that Trump’s winning strategy left very little margin for error; a shift of 1% of the vote in every state would have cost him the presidency, and a shift of 2% would have produced a decisive Democratic victory.
Clearly, Trump’s 2016 victory was a marvel of electoral efficiency, as he managed to assemble the classic minimal winning coalition. This does, however, leave him highly vulnerable to any erosion in his base of support, or even simply to more effective mobilization by his opponents in 2020. Trump was able to win in 2016 by dominating among less educated white voters (especially males), holding his own among college-educated whites (though underperforming a typical Republican), and losing racial and ethnic minority voters (though no more decisively than other recent Republican candidates). Troublingly for him, however, his strongest segment of the electorate is a shrinking one; with each passing year, white voters without college educations are a smaller and smaller proportion of American voters. The demographic landscape will thus be slightly less favorable to him in 2020 than it was in 2016. To be sure, the difference in four years’ time will not be great, but it doesn’t need to be, given that he initially won by the narrowest of margins. The most troubling reality for Trump campaign strategists is that the President has done nothing to expand his coalition. His approach to immigration policy and his periodically insensitive rhetoric continue to alienate racial minority voters. The “gender gap” in attitudes toward Trump, always large, has become a chasm, as women are particularly repelled by the President’s bombastic and pugnacious personal style (not to mention policy disagreements on a range of key issues). Finally, many college-educated whites who were willing to take a chance on the unconventional Trump in 2016 have been disappointed by his failure to “grown in office,” and by his continued tendency to disdain expertise and to flaunt the traditional norms of presidential behavior. They trended strongly against the president’s party in the 2018 mid-term elections, as Republicans underperformed strikingly in affluent suburban districts. All of this helps to explain why, despite relative peace and prosperity, Trump’s job approval rating sits around 43-44%--not abysmal, but several points shy of his 2016 vote share.
In addition, there are several potential headwinds for the Trump re-election campaign that could prove troublesome over the next year-and-a-half. One significant one is a potentially slowing U.S. economy. Trump’s own trade policy, especially regarding China, has rattled financial markets and led economists to cut their forecasts for U.S. growth in the coming year. Moreover, the American economic expansion, fueled in part by tax cuts and deregulation in 2017, cannot continue unabated indefinitely; at some point, there will be a lull. If Trump’s job approval is tepid even in a period of low unemployment, low inflation, and solid wage and GDP growth, what will happen if the economy slows next year?
A second issue for Trump is the inevitable progress of potentially damaging investigations. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s failure to find evidence of collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign likely takes impeachment and removal from office off the table, but the Democratically-controlled House is certain to move ahead with theatrical investigations of Trump’s conduct during the Mueller probe, his personal tax returns and business activities prior to taking office, and the conduct of various offices in his administration. Trump is likely to be defiant in the face of an endless stream of hearings and subpoenas, precipitating acrimonious political and legal confrontations and furthering the sense among many voters that this is not a “normal” administration. The inevitable resulting negative media coverage will be an ongoing albatross for Trump’s re-election effort.
Finally, while it is still very early in the campaign cycle, Democrats seem intent not to squander their opportunity to unseat President Trump in 2020. Trump’s great hope would be that the Democrats give in to their increasingly radical left flank and nominate someone that he can portray as an advocate of dangerous and radical socialist ideas and/or steeped in divisive identity politics. Right now, however, the runaway leader in Democratic primary polls is former Vice President Joe Biden, a familiar center-left figure who represents a return to the pre-2016 “normalcy” that many voters crave. It will be hard to paint Biden as a dangerous radical, and even if he is a mediocrity that has failed in two previous presidential bids, he will be a safe, stable choice who will even have some appeal to Trump’s base of blue-collar whites. Currently, Biden enjoys a comfortable lead over Trump in (admittedly early) national polling, and even polls slightly ahead of the President in states like North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona, without which Trump will lose in a landslide.
None of this is to say that the 2020 outcome is a foregone conclusion. Democrats could overplay their hand in the congressional investigations, particularly if they move for impeachment (which most Americans oppose), or they could nominate a candidate farther from the national ideological mainstream than Joe Biden. A scenario in which Trump ekes out a narrow victory very similar to his 2016 win remains plausible. But Republicans dismissing the president’s lackluster approval ratings and poor early head-to-head polling performances by saying that there are “secret Trump supporters” out there, or that a strong economy will inevitably buoy the president, are kidding themselves. From the vantage point of 2019, President Trump should be regarded as a decided underdog for re-election.