What polls and history tell us about Trump's reelection prospects

 What polls and history tell us about Trump's reelection prospects
© Getty

A University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll released earlier this week shows that 43 percent of registered voters would “definitely not” vote to reelect President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE next year, while another seven percent would “probably not” vote for him. The survey results feed a narrative that Trump is in trouble—that if he’s struggling in Texas, he can’t possibly win. National polls this year have drawn similar conclusions, and at times have painted an even starker picture of a president who’s permanently lost a majority of the country.

The term “definitely not” suggests finality — that nothing will change these individuals’ minds during these next 16+ months. Not war, not economic shifts, not policy making. Just as Trump said in January 2016 that he could shoot somebody in public and not lose any voters, accepting these polls as fact assumes that Trump (preposterously) can do absolutely nothing to win over any of the tens of millions of Americans who “definitely” would vote against him if the election were held today.

Not a single person.

ADVERTISEMENT

Two months ago a Washington Post / ABC News poll revealed that 52 percent of registered voters “definitely” won’t vote for Trump. Yet three months before that, another Washington Post / ABC News poll showed that 56 percent of registered voters “definitely” won’t vote for Trump. So between January and April, four percent of respondents left the “Never Trump” camp. Or, such polling doesn’t capture the impermanence of seemingly hardened decisions.

Because surveys in general don’t uncover answers to "why." Why have so many people ruled out reelecting Trump? And why might some people change their mind?

There are competing realities to 2020 presidential election. On the one hand, Trump is in serious trouble politically. One could argue that he should be doing better because of a strong economy. Of course, one could also argue that he should be doing worse, if not for the strong economy. But the conventional wisdom surrounding Trump’s future political fortunes is on the mark: He has done little to expand what in 2016 was an unusually narrow coalition of supporters, and demographic shifts favoring Democrats make Trump’s 2020 prospects tougher than what most incumbents have faced.

On the other hand, he has a bully pulpit that no predecessor has used with greater regularity, volume, or fervor. He also has history on his side.

There have been 58 presidential elections in U.S. history. In 40 of those elections, the sitting president sought reelection, with the incumbent going on to win their party’s nomination 33 times. Of those 33 reelection efforts, the incumbent prevailed 23 times (70 percent).

ADVERTISEMENT

Among the 10 instances of a sitting president losing, most seem obvious in hindsight. For example, John Quincy Adams leapfrogged the more popular Andrew Jackson at the ballot in 1824, thanks allegedly to the infamous “corrupt bargain,” which handed Jackson a valuable rallying cry heading into 1828, when Adams was soundly defeated. Martin Van Buren was a political goner at the outset of his presidency, thanks to the Panic of 1837 and ensuing recession, which devastated the country throughout his single term.

In the following century, William Howard Taft lost reelection in 1912 principally because former President Theodore Roosevelt mounted a formidable third-party challenge that siphoned votes from the incumbent. The Great Depression doomed Herbert Hoover in 1932, while the pardoning of Richard Nixon arguably did the same to Gerald Ford in 1976.

Trump opponents can point to a number of reasons why the current president is unfit to serve another four years — not to mention the remainder of his current term. But despite all of the surveys showing a large minority or small majority will never vote for Trump next year, this contingent is less relevant at the moment than the state of our economy. In the last 100 years, sitting presidents have won 13 of 17 times (76 percent), with three of the losses tied largely to the economy: Hoover, Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterDoes Trump have a bunch of 'losers' to thank for a growing economy? Jimmy Carter 'up and walking' after brain surgery The Hill's Morning Report - Diplomats kick off public evidence about Trump, Ukraine MORE in 1980, and George H. W. Bush in 1992 (though some would argue the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran was equally or more impactful in Carter’s failed reelection).

We already know the “definitely not” crowd is not 100 percent “definitely not.” Their movability hinges almost entirely on how the economy’s faring in September/October 2020.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.