The Memo: Trump begins uphill slog to 2020

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE will launch his reelection bid on Tuesday with a huge rally in Florida — but he faces an arduous climb to a second term. 

His approval ratings remain historically mediocre. His standing in key states in the Rust Belt and Midwest is just as bad. And he is the most polarizing president of modern times, with those who loathe him seemingly in the plurality over those who love him.

Early internal polling conducted by the Trump campaign shows the magnitude of the challenge the president faces.


ABC News on Friday published data from those polls that showed Trump losing Pennsylvania to Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Biden offers well wishes to Lebanon after deadly explosion MORE by 16 points, Wisconsin by 10 points and Florida by 7 points. Trump won all three states in 2016.

The same data also showed Trump edging Biden, the former vice president, by only 2 points in the GOP redoubt of Texas.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE, derided the data as “ancient” in a statement to ABC, in which he also insisted that “since then, we have seen huge swings in the president’s favor.”

Trump, typically, is adamant that public polls showing him struggling are all wrong.

He tweeted a video on Friday that spliced together clips of his election night victory in 2016 with polling that had predicated his heavy defeat by Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Even the Post Office is political now | Primary action tonight | Super PACS at war Should Biden consider a veteran for vice president? Biden leads Trump by nearly 40 points in California: poll MORE.

The president’s supporters take succor from those memories. They also note that a fractious Democratic primary could damage that party’s nominee.

“It’s hard to take the polling seriously after 2016,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “Trump is branding each one of these Democratic candidates while they have their knives out for each other.”


In recent weeks, Trump has slammed most of the leading candidates on the Democratic side, targeting Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersLongtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump says government to review 5M Kodak loan deal Michelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again MORE (D-Mass) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMichelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate Michelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' Harris endorses Democrat in tight California House race MORE (D-Calif.) as well as his favorite foil, Biden.

Trump’s hopes are also buoyed by a strong economy — a factor that almost all political observers, on both sides of the partisan divide, consider his strongest card.

The national unemployment rate was 3.6 percent — the lowest of Trump’s presidency — in both April and May. That’s a decline from 4.7 percent when he took office in January 2017. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent in October 2009.

The stock market has also risen sharply during Trump’s presidency, though he has recently complained that it would have soared even higher were it not for the Federal Reserve increasing interest rates.

He told ABC News last week that if current Fed Chairman Jerome Powell — a Trump nominee — “did nothing or perhaps even loosened” interest rates, then the Dow Jones Industrial Average could be “10,000 points higher.”

Even the nation’s robust economic performance has not lifted his approval ratings appreciably, however — and there are serious questions about his standing with the voters in key states who carried him to victory two-and-a-half years ago.

A recent series of state polls from Morning Consult showed Trump’s net approval ratings in negative territory in Wisconsin, by 13 points; Michigan, by 12 points; Pennsylvania, by 7 points; and Ohio, by 4 points.

“He has to spend a lot of time in these battleground states making the argument that he is working for them,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and a polling expert at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

“The key is, can he generate the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm among the white working class?” Madonna added. “That won him the 2016 election, with the Rust Belt strategy. Those voters are still with him, but it is the enthusiasm level that is going to be really significant.” 

The zest of the Trump base could be particularly vital because so many voters opposed to the president are ardent about ousting him.

In a Washington Post–ABC News poll in April, 52 percent of registered voters said they “definitely” would not vote for him, while only 30 percent said they definitely would do so. Fourteen percent said they would “consider” voting for him. 

Even Republicans who have been skeptical of Trump in the past acknowledge that he cannot be counted out, especially if the economy keeps surging ahead.

But they also note just how unusual the 2016 race was, from Trump’s long-odds victory in the Republican nominating process to a general election against a historically unpopular opponent to whom Trump lost the popular vote.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, said Trump can “definitely win.”

But Heye also cautioned that the president’s approval ratings do not look good and “last time it took him running against the second least popular nominee in history in order for him to win. He can’t depend on that to happen twice.”

He also noted that it was “smart” of the Trump campaign team to try to expand the electoral map. Trump aides have been looking at states that the president lost relatively narrowly in 2016 as possible gains this time around — a category into which they place New Hampshire, New Mexico and Nevada.

A suggestion that Oregon could also be in play seems more fanciful, however. Trump lost there by 11 points in 2016, and no Republican presidential nominee has carried the state since incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor who was one of the few experts to predict Trump’s 2016 victory, said that according to his model, the president’s 2020 chances "are much better than the conventional wisdom allows.”

But he also cautioned that a lot rests on whom Democrats choose as their nominee.

“Can they find their John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE or their Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBass honored US Communist Party leader in unsurfaced remarks WNBA players wear 'Vote Warnock' shirts in support of Loeffler Democratic challenger Michelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' MORE of 2008? There may or may not be such a gem” in the large Democratic field, he said. 

Meanwhile, as the political world tries to read the tea leaves in an election that is still 17 months away, the president himself — whatever the odds — evinces no concern.

Asked by George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosMeadows defends US COVID-19 testing amid criticism Meadows says White House is 'hopeful' it can announce new coronavirus therapies 'in the coming days' Mary Trump's book sells 950,000 copies in preorders alone MORE during his ABC News interview about the internal polling showing him down, Trump at first dismissed the importance of polling. 

Then, he added, “I just had a meeting with somebody that's a pollster and I'm winning everywhere, so I don't know what you're talking about.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.