How Trump can improve on 2016 victory
As an incumbent, history would suggest President Trump should improve on his 2016 victory — but how he does so is another matter. Perceived divisiveness and low approval ratings appear capable of eliminating Trump’s incumbency advantage, so showing his path to 2020 success is more important than usual. He has two great 2020 opportunities: one with conservatives and one with moderates, thanks to Democrats.
Since 1916, elected incumbents have averaged a 3.4 percent increase in their popular vote margin when seeking a second term. This uptick from initial election to reelection has propelled incumbents to an 11-3 record in second term attempts. So strong is this incumbent advantage that among winners, only President Obama saw his vote percentage fall. Among those who lost reelection, each had an economic contraction within a year of reelection.
However, if ever there was an incumbent apparently poised to undo incumbency’s advantage, it is Trump. Even with a strong economy, his approval ratings have persistently hovered below break-even. Virtually since taking office, his strong opposition has consistently surpassed his strong support.
For these reasons, it is more important to understand how Trump could improve over his 2016 total, than to simply cite past presidential precedents.
There are two great 2020 opportunities for Trump — one Trump has earned and another likely gifted by Democrats.
Conservatives would seem to be a group with whom Trump would have little chance for advancement; instead, they are his greatest 2020 opportunity. Although he won them overwhelmingly in 2016, he also lost a substantial amount. According to exit polling, Trump won 81 percent, but amazingly Clinton won 16 percent (3 percent going elsewhere or not responding).
Combined, Trump failed to secure roughly one-fifth of conservatives — America’s second largest ideological group — in 2016. This will not happen again. In 2016, Trump was an unknown to conservatives; since taking office, his policies should have removed any conservative doubts. On taxes, immigration, judicial nominations, foreign policy, the economy and social policy, it is hard to imagine conservatives being unhappy.
Certainly, Trump’s conservatism will cost him too.
In 2016, he won 10 percent of liberals. Do not expect a repetition.
However, liberals are America’s smallest ideological group. So, netting the two out, picking up twice as big a percentage from a larger group, is a great trade for Trump.
Of course, Democrats will argue that Trump may also fail to match his 2016 moderate support. They may be right; he may get more. The biggest reason likely will be Democrats’ nominee.
In 2016, Trump won 40 percent of moderates, while Clinton won 52 percent. Even assuming Trump in isolation may be less appealing to moderates in 2020, he may be more so in juxtaposition to Democrats’ nominee.
In 2016, Clinton personified an establishment Democrat. Moderates may not have liked her, but felt they knew her policy direction — and that it was not far from their own. In contrast, Trump was their unknown.
In 2020, the roles likely reverse.
Support for left candidates has exploded among Democrats since the last election. In 2016, Clinton was able to limit Sanders to winning 45 percent of awarded delegates, while super delegates ensured her ultimate victory regardless — thus allowing her to keep from going too left ahead of the general election.
Currently, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of national polls, Democrats’ left candidates have a combined 59.2 percent support. It is impossible to see Democrats not nominating a candidate from this rapidly growing majority, and with super delegate rules now changed, there is no brake on Democrats’ going far left: Even should proclivity not lead there, necessity will.
Such a far-left Democrat nominee becomes Trump’s safety valve on moderate support. For moderates, a far-left nominee becomes the ultimate unknown, but policy positions on spending, taxes, social issues, immigration and foreign policy — all are likely to give them significant concerns. In contrast, after four years Trump will be “known,” having survived four years he will at worst benefit from “choosing the devil we know over the devil we don’t.”
Going back to the numbers gives a good picture of potential electoral impact. Even assuming Trump fares no better with moderates, should he win all conservatives (and they remain 35 percent of voters), that means he wins an additional 7 percent of the electorate. Even losing all liberals, (and they remain 26 percent of voters) he would only lose 2.6 percent from his total. That nets out to a 4.4 percent gain, which would put him at 50.4 percent of the popular vote.
As implausible as such an outcome seems to many now, Trump has a very plausible path to getting there. He trades conservatives for liberals, while a far-left opponent holds — at worst backstopping and at best increasing — his moderate support. Although out of line with conventional wisdom, it also would be in-line with the past century’s historical precedent.
Presidential politics is a game of chess. While it may seem interminable, it’s possible moves are not infinite. Trump is two relatively simple moves — one he can make and the other his opponents seem intent on making for him — from putting Democrats into checkmate. It is therefore time for a reality-check on current 2020 expectations.
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 through 2000.
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