How the numbers could play in Trump’s favor for 2020

How the numbers could play in Trump’s favor for 2020
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Despite the focus on liberal insurgency, conservatives and moderates will decide Trump’s reelection. The current static analysis, by which additional liberals are simply attributed to Democrats’ tally, may prove accurate for November’s midterms, but not 2020. Presidential elections are more dynamic than midterms — with broader issues influencing a broader electorate, three-quarters of which were conservative and moderates in 2016. 

Liberals appear poised to be November’s newsmakers. Propelled by motivation and momentum, conventional wisdom predicts Democrats riding a popular wave. By now, this is hardly news. It has been proclaimed since Trump took office and historically, presidents’ parties lose seats when they are off the ballot. 


More newsworthy are caveats to the Blue Wave assumption. Comprising just 26 percent of 2016 voters according to CNN exit polling, liberals are decidedly America’s smallest ideological group (conservatives were 35 percent; moderates were 39 percent). Also, each of the last three midterms saw liberals’ popular vote percentage dropped from their preceding presidential election total — not so, conservatives or moderates.  

However, even assuming liberals’ 2018 strength, 2020 will be very different. Presidential elections’ electorates are broader than that of the midterms, where smaller but motivated voter groups dominate. This broader, less predetermined, electorate is more up for grabs — and usually grabbed again by incumbent presidents, which is why they rarely lose.  

Applying 2018’s static analysis of simple liberal movement predicts a Trump 2020 loss. True, Trump will not likely win 10 percent of liberals again, as he did in 2016. Assume him losing that 10 percent in 2020. At 26 percent of the total electorate, that takes 2.6 percent off the 46.1 percent of voters he won in 2016, and raises Democrats’ 2016 total to 50.8 percent — seemingly a landslide loss.  

Yet, such simple calculation neglects the dynamic on the broader 2020 electorate, and broader issues than simple liberal anger with Trump. America’s economy and liberal animosity will have an important impact on the three-quarters of the non-left electorate.  

The economy, and Trump’s overall agenda, have particular appeal to conservatives. Overlooked is Trump’s 2016 loss of 16 percent of conservatives to Clinton. At 35 percent of 2016’s electorate, regaining these would be worth a 5.6 percent boost to Trump. Even losing all liberals, conservatives could put him at 49.1 percent — three full percentage points higher than his 2016 total and almost a full percentage higher than Clinton’s. 

Even a small gain in moderates also offers great potential. Moderates comprised 39 percent of 2016’s electorate; Clinton won 52 percent and Trump 40 percent. Should Trump just halve that 12-point deficit, it adds another 1.2 percent to his 2016 total — putting him just over an outright majority at 50.3 percent. 

If that still seems narrow, consider three points. 

Trump won the presidency with just 46.1 percent of the popular vote. Called a fluke by critics, it also indicates incredibly efficient vote placement. Padding such placement would make him even more potent in 2020. 

Nor are bare majorities presidentially insignificant. With well less than the 50.3 percent, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE won twice and George W. Bush once. That makes four of the previous seven elections won with smaller popular vote percentages.

Finally, U.S. presidential politics is a zero-sum game. What Trump gains, Democrats lose. The net effect is therefore double. The outlined conservative and moderate moves would put Trump at 50.3 percent; they would leave Democrats with just 44 percent of the 2016 popular vote. The important question then becomes: Where do Democrats make up any conservative and moderate losses?

Democrats have only two options: Bring in still more liberals (6 percent voted third party in 2016), or attract the 8 percent of moderates and 3 percent of conservatives who voted third party in 2016. Yet, courting liberals is not costless. The leftward agenda liberals demand will push away conservatives and moderates — enabling Trump to make the illustrative inroads outlined, and blocking Democrats from attracting them. 

America’s left are not only off-center, they are much smaller than the right. Thus they have a greater “push factor” and a smaller base on which to build. Together, that makes a sizable Democratic disadvantage.  

America’s presidential politics is far more dynamic than the midterm static analysis of simply adding more liberals to the Democratic column suggests. Courting the left comes with a cost: There is a reason Democrats have avoided the liberal label for decades. Additionally, while Democrats’ left pushes moderates and conservatives away, Trump has the economy helping attract them. Regardless of this November’s outcome, 2020’s will be far more complex — and likely less Democratic — than many now assume. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.