The Memo: Trump faces uphill 2020 climb

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE is a slight underdog to win a second term with less than a year to go before the 2020 election.

The president is saddled with low approval ratings nationally and weaknesses with key voting groups. Trump’s approval ratings are mired in the low 40s, and he may remain the first president since modern polling began whose favorability number has never been above 50 percent in a Gallup poll.

Trump’s fiery and impulsive style appeals to members of his core Make America Great Again base, who continue to pack large arenas for his campaign rallies. But it costs him badly among other segments of the electorate.

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In one recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, his approval ratings were narrowly positive among male voters — 48 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval — but disastrous among female voters. The poll indicated that 61 percent of female voters disapproved of Trump’s job performance and only 32 percent approved.

Despite those stiff headwinds, Trump is nowhere close to a point where he can be counted out, however.

Going into Election Day 2016, he had the lowest favorability ratings of any major party nominee in history — numbers that were measurably worse than the opponent he went on to defeat, Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWill the Horowitz report split the baby? Gabbard commemorates John Lennon's passing by singing 'Imagine' Bannon: Clinton waiting to enter 2020 race and 'save the Democratic Party from Michael Bloomberg' MORE.

Trump threaded the needle on that occasion by demolishing the states that had been seen as a Democratic "blue wall" in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The president remains competitive in those states, according to some polls. 

In early November, a series of polls measuring Trump in hypothetical match-ups against the leading Democratic contenders in battleground states sounded a warning bell for his critics.

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The New York Times-Siena College polls showed Trump very competitive in key states against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Biden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHow can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states Buttigieg campaign says 2000 people attended Iowa rally MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE (D-Mass).

Among likely voters in the three states mentioned above, Biden beat Trump in all three but by no margin greater than 2 points. Sanders won only one, Michigan, and by just 3 points, while Warren lost all three to Trump.  

“Any Democrat who looks at that data should be concerned,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told The Hill at the time. “The blue-collar rift in this country hasn’t been healed in any way and Trump still commands tremendous loyalty” among his supporters.

Trump could also benefit from an economy that continues to perform strongly as well as the nexus of cultural and ethnic resentments that helped power his 2016 victory.

“Is he in serious trouble? Of course he is. But I’m not prepared to say he can’t win reelection,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and a polling expert at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

Madonna emphasized how the vagaries of the Electoral College could help Trump. 

He cited Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida as the “big four” states likely to decide the 2020 outcome, noting that while some other states could be competitive, “about 40 states don’t matter” because they are safely in the Democratic or Republican column.

Two other factors stand in Trump’s favor: his colossal campaign bank account and the unpredictability of the battle for the Democratic nomination.

Trump and the Republican National Committee together raised about $125 million in the third quarter and had about $156 million cash on hand as that quarter ended. Sanders, the best-financed contender for the Democratic nomination, had about one-fifth as much cash on hand.

Trump’s money advantage can be used not just on conventional campaigning methods such as television advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts but on tightly targeted social media promotion. 

Since May of last year, Trump’s Facebook page has run more than $23 million of advertising on the platform. During the same period, Biden spent about $3.1 million, Sanders $4.8 million and Warren $5.5 million.

The contours of the 2020 battlefield will remain hazy until Democrats decide upon a nominee — and that could be a long process.

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There is considerable fluidity in the polls, with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states MORE (D) having risen sharply in the two states with the first contests, Iowa and New Hampshire.

But there are serious questions around Buttigieg’s apparent inability to attract black support. Meanwhile, Biden remains the leader in national polls, and Sanders and Warren stay in serious contention.

Given the candidates’ strengths and their varying demographic appeals, it is plausible that the first four contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — could all produce different winners, laying the ground for a prolonged primary leading up to the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Milwaukee in July.

Meanwhile, any objective look at polling and its variances demonstrates the dangers of making overly assured predictions this far out.

In early November, polling from ABC News and The Washington Post showed Biden, Sanders and Warren defeating Trump nationwide by 17 points, 14 points and 15 points, respectively.

More recently, Emerson College polled the same hypothetical contests. Its polling found Trump defeating Biden by 2 points, tied with Warren and losing to Sanders by a single point.

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