Mellman: From the midterms to 2020

Mellman: From the midterms to 2020
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2020 became the big story of 2018, before all of this year’s votes had even been counted.

But history teaches us that drawing a straight line between the midterms and the next presidential election is foolish.


In 1982, Ronald Reagan lost 26 seats in the House before going on to win 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBarr says he's working to protect presidency, not Trump Lightfoot takes office as Chicago's first black woman mayor De Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' MORE lost 54 House seat before being reelected by healthy margins.

Democrats weathered what President Obama labeled a “shellacking” in his first midterm, losing 63 House seats. The president himself was comfortably reelected two years later.

George H.W. Bush held Democrats to a gain of just eight House seats in 1990; two years later, he lost to Bill Clinton by 7 points and over 200 electoral votes.

Whether it’s positive or negative, the midterm mood is often a poor guide to the results two years later.

Nonetheless, putting 2018 in context can provide some hints about what’s to come.

First, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE’s approval rating has been quite sticky, and he’s been hobbled with a low ceiling. No Gallup poll has ever shown more than 45 percent approving of his performance, while his average approval to date is just 40 percent.

That’s a sharp contrast to other presidents, who have seen much greater fluctuations and hit much higher highs during their first two years.

Though he fell to a low of 35 percent, Reagan spent a lot of time during the first half of his first term at 60 percent approval or above.

Bush spent 18 months in his first term with an approval rating above 60 percent, though by the October before his ill-fated reelection bid, he crashed to 34 percent.

Clinton hit 55 percent approval multiple times during his first two years, while Obama spent his first six months over 60 percent, though his first-term average was a lower 48 percent.

No president in modern times has been reelected with an approval rating in the September before Election Day below 49 percent.

Trump has never been that high. Every president except Trump exceeded that mark sometime during their first two years.

Trump will have to accomplish what none of his predecessors have — hit a level of popularity going into his reelection that he has not achieved at any point during his first two years.

Could it happen? Of course. But history suggests it’s not very likely.

At another level, the state results also yield some insight into Trump’s 2020 prospects.

This president would not have been elected without narrowly winning Michigan (by less than 11,000 votes), Wisconsin (23,000 votes) or Pennsylvania (44,000 votes).

2018 suggests none of these three are particularly hospitable territory for Trump today.

All three reelected Democratic senators; one reelected a Democratic governor and the other two replaced Republican governors with Democrats.

Democrats won the House vote in all three by 8 to 10 points; Trump’s approval rating is below 49 percent in each.

To be sure, Democrats could lose these states in 2020, as they did in 2016, but voters there are not clamoring for four more years of Trump.

Add one more critical state to the calculus: Florida. While Republicans won the governor’s chair and the Senate seat, both races were essentially ties.

And, at the same time Floridians were voting for GOP candidates in those two races, over 60 percent were voting to restore voting rights to former felons.

As a result, 1.4 million people who were prevented from voting in 2018 and in 2016 will have the right to vote in 2020. Not all of them will exercise that newly granted right, of course, and not all who do will support the Democratic candidate, but this initiative changes Florida’s political arithmetic in a significant way.

2018 can’t predict 2020, but the data we do have suggests Donald Trump faces an uphill battle to secure his own reelection, despite the formidable advantages enjoyed by any incumbent president.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.