The 2020 U.S. election campaign will be the most bitter, acrimonious ever. Whether Trump is re-elected or not, America will emerge from the election even more divided, resentful, and changed.
In the coming year, no political contest will receive as much attention around the world as President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The outcome of the 2020 U.S. election will not only have profound implications for American foreign and domestic policy, but also shed light on the future of the populist movements re-shaping right-wing politics worldwide. As things stand now, the campaign really could go either way—most recent polls show the race close between Trump and prospective Democratic challengers, and betting markets have the president a near even-money proposition for re-election. No matter the outcome of the contest, it will be historic. If Trump wins, he will become the first president ever re-elected with an approval rating below 48% (he currently sits at about 44%), and the first president ever re-elected after being impeached by the House of Representatives. If, conversely, he loses, he will be the first president to fail in his bid for re-election with the national unemployment rate below 7% (it is currently half that, at 3.5%). Thus, the result will necessarily prompt a revision of some piece of received wisdom about American politics—something in which Trump has specialised during his four years in the political arena.
So how might Trump defy his tepid poll numbers and secure a second term? The best case for the president’s prospects rests on three key premises. First, in an increasingly polarised and regionally divided country, overall national polling numbers may be less relevant than they once were. Given the American Electoral College system, no matter how decisively Trump loses on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast, he will be re-elected if he holds on—however narrowly—in the states that he carried in 2016. He can even lose Pennsylvania and Michigan, states that surprisingly supported him 2016, and still eke out a victory. Current polling does seem to indicate that the president is running stronger in the battleground states than in the nation as a whole, raising the real possibility that he could once again win an Electoral College victory without a national popular majority. In addition, many Trump supporters believe that there are a number of “shy Trump voters” who don’t show up in surveys because they are reluctant to profess support for such a polarising figure. While the scale of this phenomenon is not clear, even a 2% underestimate of Trump’s support could be decisive in a close election. Finally, Trump firmly believes—and there is some limited polling evidence to support this—that he can expand his support among black and Latino voters (particularly male ones), for whom unemployment is at historic lows. While no one believes that Trump will garner majority support among these populations, even a 15% share of the black vote or a 35% share of the Latino vote would doom Democratic efforts to take Sun Belt states like North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona.
While all these arguments are plausible, there remain considerable reasons for scepticism about Trump’s re-election prospects. Most fundamentally, Trump’s approval rating has stayed fixed within a narrow range in the low to mid-40s, regardless of positive or negative news. Consistently, a small majority of the American public disapproves of his job performance, more repelled by his abrasive and unpresidential style than attracted by favourable economic numbers. Trump’s electoral coalition in 2016 was a minimal winning one, as he won several critical states by very small margins to secure the presidency. Given that Trump’s coalition is comprised of slowly shrinking groups in the population (working-class whites, older voters, the religiously observant) and the Democratic coalition is comprised of growing groups (racial minorities, young voters, seculars), the passage of four years does not bode well for his vote share. Moreover, the Democrats have many more targets of opportunity in the Electoral College than do Republicans. They were close in 2016 (winning at least 45% of the vote) in seven Trump states worth 117 electoral votes, while Trump came that close in only two of Hillary Clinton’s states (worth a mere 10 electoral votes). Thus, the Trump campaign has very little margin for error; they will be on the defensive throughout, having to successfully defend virtually all their 2016 territory because of minimal realistic opportunities to offset any losses. Thus, while Trump is in a stronger position than he was a few months ago, and his re-election is a very plausible prospect, he goes into 2020 as a bit of an underdog.
Whether Trump ultimately wins or loses, the 2020 campaign will hold up a mirror to American society, and the nation may recoil at its reflection. This will almost certainly be the most bitter, acrimonious presidential campaign in American history, with the president’s tweeted invective matched only by the vitriol of his opponents’ attacks. Increasingly, Americans on both sides of the partisan divide see their political opponents not simply as people with whom they disagree about policy, but as fundamentally un-American, betraying the nation’s most important values and actively seeking to destroy the things that they hold most dear. Leaders and activists on both sides are already describing the electoral stakes in existential and apocalyptic terms, proclaiming the prospect of a victory by the other side as the end of everything true, good, and beautiful about the United States.
Whether these pronouncements are hyperbolic or not in any objective sense, the critical thing is that millions of people across the ideological spectrum believe them. It is, therefore, hard to imagine a scenario in which either side graciously concedes to the other and acknowledges their victory as legitimate. While it is tempting for some to lay all this national angst and malaise at the feet of President Trump, his crude and pugnacious style—and the increasingly frenzied and hysterical responses of his opponents—are more a symptom of underlying ills in the nation’s politics than their cause. Thus, while a definitive prediction of either success or failure for the Trump campaign would be dicey at this juncture, one bet, unfortunately, seems safe: that America will emerge from the 2020 election deeply divided, with half the country profoundly aggrieved and the status quo ante of pre-Trumpian politics receding ever-more irretrievably into the mists of memory.