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Trump Should Be a Shoo-in for 2020, But Low Approval Holds Him Back

June 18, 2019, 9:01 PM UTC
Donald Trump enjoys a strong economy, a nation at relative peace, the advantage of incumbency and a well funded campaign — assets that make him a good bet for re-election, even though most voters say they don’t like him.

Trump will formally kick off his 2020 re-election bid in a prime-time speech to as many as 20,000 supporters in Florida on Tuesday, beginning a contest that serves as a referendum on both his job performance and his personal conduct in office.

Set aside his sagging approval ratings, the Mueller report and other controversies that have surrounded Trump’s Oval Office. The bottom line is that incumbent presidents seldom lose re-election, especially with a peacetime economy as strong as the U.S. presently enjoys. And Trump has made clear that he wants voters thinking only of dollar signs when they go to the polls.

Sustained economic growth and low unemployment have failed to bump Trump’s low approval rating, just 40% in the most recent Gallup poll. But his most ardent supporters — including rural areas where farmers have been hit hard by his trade war with China — are as enthusiastic as ever.

“Right now, Trump is much better positioned than the Democrats or the conventional wisdom would have us believe,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington who has predicted eight of the last nine elections, including Trump’s 2016 victory. “The Democrats, just like in 2016, are making the immense mistake that the way to win in 2020 is to play it safe.”

‘Just Stuck’

Still, no president since 1952 has been re-elected with a Gallup job approval rating below 48%, the last reading for George W. Bush before his 2004 re-election. Trump has never exceeded 46% in the poll since he took office.

“If you go into an election with more than 50% disapproval, it’s very hard to win re-election. Not very many of them are going to vote for you,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who has developed one of the more accurate election prediction models. “Trump is just stuck, and stuck well below 50%.”

A strong economy usually benefits incumbent presidents, but it isn’t always decisive and public perceptions of the nation’s trajectory are more important.

Barack Obama won re-election with Election Day unemployment at 7.7% and gross domestic product growth an anemic 0.5%. Lyndon Johnson withdrew his nomination in March 1968 with unemployment at 3.7% and GDP growing at 8.4% — but with thousands of American men killed at the height of the Vietnam War.

George H.W. Bush was defeated in 1992 despite economic growth of 4% or better for four consecutive quarters. He suffered from perceptions he was disconnected from the public after a six-month recession in 1990-91, and the unemployment rate was still 7.4% on Election Day.

Trailing Rivals

At the moment, Trump trails six of his top Democratic rivals in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week. He doesn’t exceed 42 percent of the vote against any of them, and loses by 13 points to former Vice President Joe Biden, the poll found.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday, Trump trails Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders in Florida. Biden leads Trump 50%-41%, while Sanders is ahead of the president 48%-42%, according to the poll.

Internal Trump campaign polling has also shown Biden leading Trump or within the margin of error in a number of key states for several months, according to a person familiar with the data. Trump has publicly insisted that all of his campaign’s internal polling shows him winning re-election.

“Looking at everything together right now, his prospects for another term are pretty dicey, though not inconceivable,” Abramowitz said.

Lichtman said he ignores national polls and looks instead at how Trump has performed while in office, examining factors including foreign policy successes, economic performance and midterm election performance. His model shows Trump with a comfortable cushion. That could change if House Democrats begin impeachment hearings, heightening the swirl of scandal around Trump, he added.

One problem is that Trump doesn’t get full credit for the economy, said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. While 70% of voters say the economy is excellent or good, only 41% say Trump deserves the credit, according to the Quinnipiac poll — about the same percentage who say they’d vote for him over a Democrat.

And there is no guarantee that the economy will hold on its current course. Most private forecasters expect the economy to slow entering the election year, as growth cools overseas, trade disputes threaten global commerce and the fiscal stimulus from Trump’s deficit-financed 2018 tax cut fades.

Private economists see a 30% chance of an actual recession in the next year, and the median forecast calls for a one percentage point drop in growth, to 2%, in next year’s second quarter.

“If unemployment is still below 4% and the growth rate still above 3% he is not going to lose,” Luntz said.

Different Campaign

Trump intends to run a much different race than his 2016 campaign, when the reality TV star announced his insurgent candidacy by gliding down the golden escalator at Trump Tower in New York. He is now a politician, with a record to defend and accountability for the domestic economy and international affairs.

His 2020 campaign is a more professional outfit than in 2016 with 80 employees already and $41 million in the bank. The campaign aims to have 2 million volunteers in the field by election day.

His campaign launch on Tuesday will be an all-day event at Orlando’s Amway Center arena called “45 Fest,” highlighted by a rally that’s expected to draw at least 20,000 people. While the prime-time rally will draw media attention to the president and motivate supporters, the event is also a massive data-collection operation.

To get tickets, audience members have to provide the campaign valid email addresses and phone numbers. To ensure the phone numbers are accurate — an aggravation for political campaigns — rally-goers must confirm their tickets by providing a five-digit code sent to their mobile phones.

The campaign is hoping to cement Trump’s grip on Florida before his Democratic challenger even has staff in the state.

Demography Challenge

Demography also works against the president. Non-college educated whites, who overwhelmingly supported Trump, are shrinking as a proportion of the population. They made up 44.7% of eligible voters in 2016 but will fall to about 40% by 2020, according to a projection by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Trump’s voters in 2016 were also older relative to his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meaning some will no longer be alive, based on life expectancy predictions. Younger first-time voters are more likely to vote for the Democrat, Luntz said.

Last year’s congressional elections, which gave control of the House of Representatives to Democrats, point to surging enthusiasm among Democratic-leaning voters. Overall turnout in 2018 was the highest for a midterm election in the four decades that the U.S. Census has collected the data, at 53% of the voting age population. That was an 11 percentage-point increase from 2014, according to an April 2019 Census report.

Right Direction

Trump advisers say they aren’t focused too much on head-to-head polling at this stage. Many of the Democratic candidates remain relatively unknown to the broader electorate — and thus susceptible to efforts by Trump’s campaign to define them in negative terms. Trump’s advisers say they also aren’t overly concerned about his approval rating, which was historically low even when he won election — suggesting Americans will vote for him even if they don’t like him personally.

“Any poll number now is pretty useless — this is still a referendum, this is Donald Trump against a fictitious candidate,” said David Urban, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign who remains close to the president. “When we get a nominee is when I’ll start paying attention to the numbers. When they have a president and a vice presidential candidate, then we can start talking.”

A key number Trump’s team do watch is the percentage of Americans who regard the country as headed in the right direction. That metric has improved since 2016 but hasn’t exceeded 40 percent in Trump’s presidency, according to both Gallup and CBS News.

His advisers are particularly focused on four states where they believe the election will turn: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Trump only won the Electoral College in 2016 after carrying Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a combined margin of about 77,000 votes out of 13.3 million cast in the three states.

Campaign advisers are confident Trump will hold onto Ohio and Florida, healthy stores of Electoral College votes that turned rightward in the last two elections.

“Anyone who thinks this is going to be a blow-out in one direction or another is really just mistaken,” Urban said. “This isn’t even about the popular vote; it is about the votes in a handful of states in the electoral college.”

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