Change with minimal risk: Trump's Jimmy Carter problem

Change with minimal risk: Trump's Jimmy Carter problem
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Peter Hart, one of America's premier pollsters for almost half a century, sees a parallel — with a twist — between this presidential election and 1980: Voters want change but don't want to take a big risk.

Forty years ago there was personal respect for President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterBiden up 4 points in North Carolina, 1 point in Georgia: poll Ex-presidents honor Lewis's contributions to nation at funeral Jimmy Carter honors John Lewis: His contributions 'will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come' MORE, a man of high values, but deep concerns about conditions in the country: double digit inflation, high interest rates and joblessness.

The twist is today voters generally are pleased with how the country is doing but harbor deep concerns about the character and integrity of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE.

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“Voters clearly want to get rid of him if — a big if — there is a good alternative," the Democratic poll taker says.

Two dramatic numbers in Hart's latest poll for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, a survey he has been conducting for more than three decades, underscore this dramatic divide.

It's not a surprise that the public thinks the economy is doing pretty well, with low unemployment and interest rates, little inflation and a robust stock market.

More telling, the number of Americans who say 2019 was one of the best years is the highest in three decades; for the first time since almost then a majority believe it was one of the best years or at least average.

That is indicative of an overall good feeling about the country.

There are two clear political conclusions: The Democratic presidential candidate next fall won't dare reprise Ronald Reagan's 1980 question: “Are you better off than four years ago?”

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With those attitudes and numbers, a Republican President like Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Stimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE or John Kasich would be a prohibitive favorite for reelection.

“2020 should be dominant for the GOP,” ventures Hart, “great economy and no dominant Democratic candidate.”

But the other number Hart cites illustrates why Donald Trump is not.

Almost half of voters, 48 percent, say they're certain to vote against him this fall; only 34 percent say they're certain to vote for him.

That suggests Trump has to win the vast majority of that 18 percent who say it depends on the Democratic nominee. At a glance, that looks like a fairly friendly group to Republicans, but two numbers stand out in the context of him having to win four out of five of these voters: Over a third disapprove of the president, and almost a quarter believe he should be impeached and removed from office.

It's tough to see him getting many of these voters.

2020 thus is a classic character versus conditions contest.

The challenge for Democrats is to neutralize the economy, reassuring folks the good times can continue — that there won't be radical change but leadership of which you can be proud.

The Democrats didn't pass that test in the Los Angeles debate several weeks ago, claiming it's all lousy. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE insisted voters don't like this economy as "the middle class is getting killed." Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg similarly charged "the economy is not working for most of us."

Trump's policies have badly tilted to the rich, and there's a receptivity for higher taxes on the upper income and need for more government action to meet pressing needs on matters like health care, child care and climate change.

I suspect most of what Democratic Congresswoman Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits DCCC adds six candidates to program aimed at flipping GOP-held seats Time for a Democratic reckoning on race  MORE called the "Trump triers" —2016 voters who weren't especially enamored with the Republican candidate but wanted change — won't buy that everything is going to hell or vote for a candidate who'd take away their private health insurance or propose the biggest tax increases since World War II.

Hart contends that Bernie SandersBernie SandersCuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Trump Spanish-language ad equates progressives, socialists Biden's tax plan may not add up MORE “would be the equivalent of George McGovern,” who lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972.

For the President, the perils of his persona may be even more daunting. “The animosity towards Trump is like something we've never seen,” says Hart. Trump makes it easy for them, with a stream of insults even directed against dead American heroes like Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainChuck Todd's 'MTP Daily' moves time slots, Nicolle Wallace expands to two hours Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Asian American voters could make a difference in 2020 MORE or Congressman John DingellJohn DingellGreat American Outdoors Act will deliver critical investments to our national parks, forests The continuous whipsawing of climate change policy A quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power MORE. He's a pathological liar. Multiple fact-checkers find him averaging more than a dozen false statements a day for three years.

Can Trump convince enough of those triers or the “persuadables” that the benefits of the economy are worth putting up with him for another four years?

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.