forest

Look at the Forest, Not the Trees: What We Do and Don't Know About 2020

AWalter Head
April 9, 2019

In this age of constant stimulation and news and information overload, it is harder than ever to get perspective. I am as guilty as anyone of getting sucked into the vortex of political twitter, only to emerge hours later with little to show for it. 

So, this week, I took a break from the BREAKING NEWS alerts and focused instead on the bigger picture view of the upcoming presidential contest. Here’s what we know — and still don’t know — about what to expect for 2020.

The History:

It’s hard to beat an incumbent president. 

Since 1900, 19 presidents have sought re-election, only five have failed. If you don’t count Gerald Ford (who wasn’t elected president), it is 4 of 18. That’s almost an 80 percent re-elect rate. Not slam dunk territory, of course, but also pretty good odds.

BUT, BUT, BUT*   President Trump's job approval ratings have consistently underperformed the last eight president’s seeking re-election. In the major — non-Rasmussen polls, Trump has never hit 50 percent job approval. The only president to win re-election with an approval rating under 50 percent was George W. Bush, who clocked in at 48 percent job approval in late October 2004.

It’s also hard to beat an incumbent when the economy is good — or at least not doing poorly.

In a March 2019 CNBC "All America Economic Survey," 50 percent of Americans said they thought the economy was doing "excellent" or "good." Compare that to 2016 when just 25 percent felt similarly upbeat about the state of the economy. In 2012, it was 14 percent positive. In 2008, just 7 percent felt that the economy was in "good" shape. None picked excellent.

And, President Trump’s job approval ratings on the economy have consistently been higher than his overall job approval ratings. For example, in the latest CNBC poll, Trump’s overall job approval rating was 40 percent approve to 49 percent disapprove (-9), but opinions of his handling the economy were much more positive; 47 percent approve to 43 percent disapprove (+4). If Bill Clinton could win his 1992 race on the message of "it’s the economy, stupid," why can’t Trump?

BUT, BUT, BUT: Which is a better predictor of Trump’s re-election chances: his overall job approval rating (which is dangerously low), or his job approval rating on the economy (which is pretty good). According to CNN’s Harry Enten, "history suggests that overall approval ratings are far more telling of electoral success that economic approval ratings. Look at the seven elections in which the incumbent ran for re-election since 1976 (the first election for which we have economic approval ratings). The average difference between the net approval rating (approval-disapproval) rating of the president and the general election margin has been 7 points. When you examine the economic net approval ratings (in CBS News polls) compared to the general election margin, the difference has been a much higher 19 points." In other words, the president’s job approval rating was much closer to the ultimate vote the president got on election day was his economic job approval rating. 

The Midterm elections are not predictive of presidential performance two years later.

In 2018, Democrats won the national House vote by almost 9 points. If that were to be replicated in 2020, the Democratic nominee would win in a landslide. But, that’s not how these things work. Take 1994. President Bill Clinton’s party was crushed that year, losing both the House and the Senate. Two years later, he won re-election easily. Democrats lost 63 seats and control of Congress in 2010 in an anti-Obamacare/anti-bailout backlash. In 2012, Obama was re-elected handily.

BUT, BUT, BUT: 2018 wasn’t a typical midterm election. Part of the reason we can’t (shouldn’t) equate midterm with presidential performance, is that turnout in midterms is much lower than in presidential elections. Last year, however, saw the highest midterm election turnout in 100 years. The gap between 2016 presidential turnout (60 percent) and the 2018 midterm turnout (50 percent) was the narrowest in recent history.

As such, while 2018 may not be a predictor of 2020, it is a likely preview of the intensity of the upcoming election.

The President:

Donald Trump's job approval ratings aren’t going to move much between now and 2020

Opinions of the president have not moved all that much during his presidency. Trump’s highest job approval rating – as measured by Gallup – has been 45 percent, while his lowest approval rating clocked in at 35 percent. That 10-point range, according to Gallup, “is the smallest for any president during his first two years in the Oval Office by a significant margin.” In other words, Trump has a low-ceiling, but a pretty high floor. And, nothing, not outside events, nor events of his making, have moved those numbers substantively or permanently.



Some of this can be blamed on extreme party polarization — something that had been on the rise even before Trump’s election. For example, while Trump has yet to have a rallying event that pushes his job approval rating up five points or more, President Obama only had one rallying event in his entire presidency: the capture of Osama bin Laden.

But, Trump’s governing and personal style has also been a significant contributor to this narrow trading range. His hyper-focus on keeping his base happy has kept his approval ratings among GOP voters consistently strong (in the 85-90 percent range), but according to NBC/Wall Street Journal data, his job approval rating among independent voters has averaged an anemic 39 percent. Trump carried independent voters in 2016 with 46 percent.

BUT, BUT, BUT: The question isn’t will Trump’s job approval ratings will spike up or bottom out before the 2020 election. The more salient question is whether his job approval ratings will be closer to 45 percent (making his re-election a more do-able prospect), or 35 percent (which would seem to doom his chances at re-election).
 

The Playing Field:

My colleague Charlie Cook points out that in 2016 there were ten states where the margin of victory for Clinton or Trump in a two-party match-up was less than 2 points. Combined, those states equal 125 Electoral Votes. And, this is where the battle for 2020 will be centered again.

But, Trump’s narrow-win states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina), total 101 electoral votes, or one-third of the total votes Trump won in 2016. The states Clinton barely won (Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada), combine for 24 electoral votes (Clinton got 23, since Trump carried Maine’s 2nd CD), or just 10 percent of Clinton’s electoral vote haul.



BUT, BUT, BUT: Right now, most of the data we are getting is from national polls. They are an important gauge to whether Trump is polling closer to the higher end of his trading range of the lower end of it. But, as we get deeper into the campaign, we (hopefully) will get more state by state polling. Watching Trump’s job approval ratings in these ten states will help us evaluate the places he’s struggling - and the ones in which he’s stable. I will be updating this chart a lot.

The Democrats:

The 2018 election was a referendum on Trump. The 2020 election will be a choice between Trump and someone else. The strategy of the Trump campaign is to make the Democratic nominee an unacceptable choice. Many Republicans hope — and Democrats worry — that Democratic primary voters are going to choose a nominee who will be easy for Trump to marginalize.

Democrats will pick the most liberal candidate. Or will they?

It’s easy to assume that Democrats are going to pick the most liberal candidate as their nominee. After all, most of the candidates in the race are embracing ideas that not long ago would have been the province of only the most radical lefties: the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, reparations for slaves, abolishing the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court.

BUT, BUT, BUT: As my colleague Charlie Cook and I have written previously, perceptions of the Democratic electorate as monolithically liberal are inaccurate.

And, in recent days, Nate Cohen of the New York Times’ Upshot also reminds us that the Democratic primary electorate is much less 'woke' than the inside-the-Beltway or Twitter suggest it is.

While, CNN’s Harry Enten writes that the "Democratic electorate is older, more moderate and less educated than you think."

This doesn’t mean that Bernie CAN'T win the nomination. But, it also doesn’t mean that we should assume that he and the Democratic Socialists are the new 'center' of the Democratic party.

Biden and Bernie are the frontrunners. But, they aren’t scaring anyone off.

Just this week, another two candidates announced their intentions to run: Reps Tim Ryan (OH), Eric Swalwell (CA), while Sen. Michael Bennet (CO) says he’s all but certain to throw his hat in the ring. That brings the total number of Democrats running to 18. Why would these three candidates who have almost no name recognition join a race already saturated with Washington insiders? The current crop of frontrunners — or wanna be frontrunners —do not look invincible. The first quarter fundraising results for the 20202 Democrats were decent — but not eye-popping. For example, Bernie Sanders raised $18.2 million in the first quarter of 2019. That’s not much more than the $15 million he raised in his first full fundraising quarter of 2015 when he was an obscure senator from Vermont and a long-shot candidate.

The other frontrunner in the race, former Vice President Biden, may be leading in the polls, but the last few days have provided a preview of the uncharted waters in which he will be forced to swim. No one knows if he’ll be able to stay afloat or if he’ll be sucked down by the undertow.

Another reason: The institutions that once granted legitimacy and status to frontrunners — SuperPACs and superdelegates — have been sidelined. Big donors that, in previous elections, would be busy bundling for the top-seeded candidates, are currently sitting on their wallets, waiting for the 'right' candidate to break out. Political pundits and reporters, burned by 2016 where the conventional wisdom was almost universally wrong, are more willing than ever to watch the primary develop on its own timeline, instead of trying to hurry it to a conclusion. What all of this has meant, however, is a field in suspended animation, waiting for someone or something to push it along.

BUT, BUT, BUT: waiting for someone to 'break out' is hard when everyone is, well, waiting.  Breaking out requires movement. Not just by the candidates. But, by everyone. Donors, voters, the media elites.

Authenticity vs. Ideology

The media and political class overemphasize ideology as the driving factor in voting behavior. Unlike us geeks who do this for a living, normal voters don’t go into their polling place with an excel spreadsheet that categorizes candidates by their voting records and/or ideological consistency ratings. Voters want to be able to connect to their candidate on shared experiences and values.

This pull between heart and head is nothing new in primary politics. But, this time around, with so many Democrats seeing Trump as an existential threat to democracy, many feel even more pressure to make the "right" choice. They want to fall in love with a candidate, but they also don’t want to fall too quickly for someone who may not prove to be the "right" candidate to beat Trump.

Revolution vs. Restoration

The more substantive dividing line right now between the candidates running for the Democratic nomination is style. I divide it broadly into two categories: the revolutionaries and the restorers.

The revolutionary candidates are a small group, basically Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They want to see big, structural, fundamental change to our country’s major institutions — both public and private. Like Trump, they argue that the country is hungry for a disrupter. One who will challenge the status quo instead of enabling it.

The restoration candidates are basically the rest of the field. These candidates argue that the country is tired of drama and disruption, but are hungry for a return to normalcy. Democrats won in 2018, they would argue, not by lunging to the left or blowing up the system, but by preaching protection of the things that people already like: pre-existing conditions, political checks and balances, and bipartisan compromise.

At this point, it seems likely that the contest will eventually whittle down to a showdown between these two choices. The only question is how many will be in each category? Is there room for two disruptors? Will the restorers consolidate behind one candidate? Or will this vote be divided among the many different flavors of restorers? There are more inspirational restorers like Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg. And more practical ones like Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. Booker and Harris also have the advantage of being the only two African-American candidates in a primary season that is front-loaded with states that have a significant base of African-American voters: South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, California, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee. That gives them an added advantage in consolidating delegates early in the process.
 

Bottom Line:

This is not an exhaustive list of the many different dynamics at play in 2020. The other HUGE (and underappreciated) factor is the calendar and the ways in which delegates are allocated. Once those dates (and delegates) are finalized, we will tackle and deconstruct the process. My colleague, David Wasserman (the resident quant of the Cook Political Report), has already given us a preview of the potential pitfalls of the Democrats “mess of a primary system.” But, for now, this is good place to start. And, a good place to come back to throughout the course of this campaign whenever you feel that you are losing sight of the trees.

*  - Apologies to POLITICO Playbook for appropriating this phrase..