Many people these days have never driven a car with a manual transmission, but: We are now at a point when the clutch is in yet we haven’t fully shifted into gear or reverse. We aren’t quite finished looking back and analyzing what happened in this year’s midterm elections, but the 2020 campaign has fully begun.
Two nights in Iowa this past week made me think of this, as Iowans are still contemplating their state’s House delegation shifting from three Republicans and one Democrat to, come January, three Democrats and one Republican. The one surviving Republican, the inimitable Rep. Steve King, representing the northwest quadrant of the state, is almost a caricature of the Republican Party today, spending much of his time bashing immigrants and minorities. In fairness, the GOP did hold onto the governorship, with incumbent Kim Reynolds surviving a reelection challenge that at one point looked like it would come up short.
It’s hard to have many conversations with politicos in the state without hearing about the parade of Democratic operatives that have already begun arriving, recruiting talent for the 2020 caucus—scheduled for Feb. 3—with an anticipated field of two dozen or more Democratic contenders. While there always is an influx of campaign workers flocking to the Hawkeye State from all over the country, it is usually leavened with plenty of indigenous Iowa operatives giving each candidate at least the appearance of having a locally-oriented campaign. This time those will likely be in short supply.
After the first four states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, there is a deluge of primaries and caucuses in March. Almost half the states and well over half the delegates will come from states with February or March primaries or caucuses, and with the widespread availability and popularization of early voting, many in those March states can start casting ballots in early February. So there will be in essence a two-month period of constant, coast-to-coast voting.
Some in Iowa and New Hampshire are worried about losing clout amid the expanded number of big states with March primaries, with California and Texas holding theirs on March 3, the same day as those in Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia, as well as precinct caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. That is followed by primaries or caucuses in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio just in the first 17 days of March, according to the Green Papers website. With so many of those March states having early voting—including California and Texas—Iowa and New Hampshire will have less time alone in the spotlight, and the importance of a strong first- or second-place finish in those two early February states appears to have eroded. Yet a decent case can be made that they will remain important for their ability to shape the stature, potential, and viability of contenders. The difference in news coverage in February of those winning or placing high versus a disappointing fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-place finish can hardly be overestimated.
For all of the talk just a few months ago that President Trump might be tough for Democrats to beat, the size of this likely Democratic field is testament to the perceived value of the 2020 Democratic nomination. Keeping in mind that Trump received just 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016 and how little he has attempted to expand his base beyond that point, a president of 20 months who has yet to see a Gallup weekly job-approval rating above 45 percent—which also happens to be his approval rating in the networks' exit poll, with 54 percent disapproving—is very, very vulnerable.
Consistently, Gallup polling has shown a ratio of at least 1.4 voters strongly disapproving his performance for each one who strongly approves, and in the exit poll, 46 percent strongly disapproved while just 31 percent strongly approved. These are very troubling signs. Two years ago, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 4 points among independents while Republican House candidates topped their Democratic rivals by 6 points among independents. In this year’s midterms, the 30 percent of the electorate that described themselves as independents voted for Democrats by a 12-point margin, 54 to 42 percent,
Maybe Trump can squeeze out another Electoral College majority while losing the national popular vote, but the popular-vote advantage of 9.4 million that Democrats had in House races this year dwarfs the 2.9-million edge that Clinton had in 2016. Democrats may find a way to blow this upcoming election, but it would take considerable effort to do so.