Trump Needs a Choice Election, Not a Referendum

Charlie Cook New
February 4, 2020

Given President Trump’s historically low job-approval ratings, he’d be hard-pressed to win an up-or-down referendum vote on his presidency in the Nov. 3 general election. Trump is the only president in the history of modern polling (since 1945) never to have a majority approve of his performance in office in a major national poll. In fact, since taking office there have been 394 major national polls measuring Trump’s job approval, with 393 showing him “underwater” or “upside down” in pollster parlance—his disapprovals outweighing his approval numbers.

The only major national poll giving him a positive approval rating was the Feb. 11-13, 2017 Fox News poll, its first after Trump took office. That survey showed 48 percent of registered voters approving of his performance, with 47 percent disapproving. The 31 Fox polls taken since then have all shown him underwater, with the most recent showing 45 percent approval versus 54 percent disapproval. (Fox News’s detractors on the left should know that the network’s poll is one of the better national surveys, not one to be dismissed.)

Trump’s numbers seem almost impervious to news and developments, positive or negative. Months with 50-year-low national unemployment rates and other accomplishments haven’t moved his numbers up, just as scandals and missteps have hardly hurt him. In their first three years in office, presidents usually have a “trading range,” the difference between their highest and lowest job-approval ratings, of between 20 and 25 points. In Trump’s case, however, the Gallup poll has shown only an 11-point range, from a 35 percent low to a 46 percent high. Both CNN and Fox News have had a 10-point range, NBC News/Wall Street Journal and PBS/NPR/Marist polls 9 points, and the ABC/Washington Post poll even narrower still at 8 points.

The people who liked Trump in his earliest months in office and those who do now are pretty much the same people; those who initially disliked him are pretty much those who do now. There is little reason to believe that his numbers will suddenly become volatile now.

Trump needs this to be not a referendum but rather a “choice” election between himself and someone or something at least as polarizing and unpopular as he is, like democratic socialism. If it is to be a referendum, they would rather it concern impeachment more generally than the Trump presidency in particular.

For the first two years of the Trump administration, I often wondered that if the president actually had been trying his best to lose reelection, what would he be doing differently than he was? Normally a president elected without winning the national popular vote would be obsessed with winning the support of swing voters in the middle and wooing the other party’s supporters. But Trump’s approach was the exact opposite, speaking ever more narrowly to his base. Then I started wondering whether there was some method to this madness, a kind of strategy of necessity.

First though, who are these swing voters? Generally, they:

  • have little real attachment with one of the two major parties;
  • ideologically speaking, are neither particularly liberal nor particularly conservative. They might have some odd mix of political/policy views that defies traditional or logical categorization; or just don’t follow politics and current events closely on a day-to-day basis;
  • may agree with many of President Trump’s positions but don’t like him as a person, or vice versa.

The Trump campaign seems to have concluded that they could spend their entire campaign budget, time, and attention trying to win over these swing voters, and fail. They are very deliberately ignoring swing voters. Almost daily we hear Trump or administration officials say things or take actions that reflect an “all-in” approach on base development. There is a remarkable focus, saying or doing very little that would distract from or muddy the messaging to this target audience.

As random as much of what Trump says or does may appear from a distance, this is a very well thought through strategy that may be the only way that he can win. That is: identify those who are demographically, psychologically, and ideologically similar to his existing supporters, but are currently not registered to vote or vote infrequently. By locating these people, persuading them to support Trump and motivating them to vote in sufficiently high numbers, he might be able to draw enough new voters to offset expected losses among swing voters.

The question of whether Trump will succeed in winning reelection reminds me of the old joke about the woman who’s asked: “How’s your husband?”

“Compared to what?” she replies.

How will Trump do? Compared to what?

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on January 31, 2020