14 September 2018

Whatever his critics think, Trump has every chance of victory in 2020

By Oliver Besley

The last few weeks have seen yet more chaos and turmoil in Trumpland. Ex-lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws on the same day as ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud. Last week we had the extraordinary spectacle of an anonymous administration official, aghast at the President’s impulsiveness and unpredictability, voicing their concerns on the pages of the New York Times. And now we have legendary political journalist Bob Woodward’s new tell-all book, simply titled Fear: Trump in the White House.

All this is more grist to the mill of those who think – or at least hope – that Trump will not see out his full four-year term. To his critics, the prospect of re-election in 2020 and a full eight years in the White House might appear laughable. But despite all the allegations against him and his own manifest incompetence, Trump’s prospects of re-election are not nearly as bad as some might expect.

In all likelihood, Trump will still be president by the time of the 2020 election. Repeated speculation about impeachment is, at best, far-fetched. Impeachment by majority vote of the House of Representatives is a possibility should the Democrats gain control at the November elections. But removal by a two thirds vote in the Senate is wishful thinking. It would mean somewhere between ten and 15 Republican Senators voting against the President, something recent history would suggest is extremely unlikely.

The impeachment process hinges more on partisan than judicial considerations. When the Republicans tried to impeach Bill Clinton, every Democratic Senator voted against. Despite the evidence his election campaign colluded with Russia, Trump himself would need to be implicated in an active and deliberate role. A supposed nod of approval for the Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer is unlikely to get Republicans to turn against their own side.

As for re-election, Trump’s presidential approval ratings are something of a curiosity. Much comfort was derived from his staggeringly low approval ratings for the first year of his presidency. But he has hung in there, with ratings starting to creep above 40% this spring and summer. Indeed, Trump’s ratings are not dissimilar to Obama, Clinton or Reagan’s at the same point in their presidencies, and all three presidents went on to be re-elected.

The recent Trump-linked court cases have shown little evidence of denting his popularity. Some 57% of voters either saw the wrongdoing as isolated to Manafort and Cohen or felt too uninformed to make a judgement 1. As for Bob Woodward’s book, it is sure to be read voraciously by Trump’s critics, but it’s not clear it will do any more lasting damage than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.

Perhaps most importantly, the 2020 naysayers forget that Trump can triumph in the Electoral College without winning the popular vote, just as he did against Hillary Clinton.

Crucial to Trump’s re-election chances is his enduring appeal to white voters without college degrees. In tipping-point states (those which carried Trump’s crucial College votes), these voters average just over 45% of the electorate, compared with US average of just under 42% 2 . His approval rating in Florida, a vital battleground holding 29 electoral votes, have consistently outperformed his national ratings.

Another card he holds is the strength of the US economy, which is currently growing at around 4% per year. Despite high levels of public disapproval for the cruelty of family separation at the Mexican border, immigration typically lies third behind the economy and healthcare in voter priorities. Whether justified or not, Trump’s economic ratings are over 50%. Of course, a pre-2020 recession would deal a fatal blow to his chances. On the other hand, sustained growth would provide an opportunity for a highly effective ‘don’t let them ruin it’ line against the Democrats, many of whom are currently scrambling leftwards in nomination primaries.

Were Trump to win again it might be as much thanks to the disunity of the Democrats as his own campaigning. Clinton’s loss in 2016 has exacerbated the divide between the centrist establishment and a left-wing grassroots. Parallels with the Labour Party are certainly not unfounded. The Democrat’s divisions are not merely rhetorical. In June, long-time Congressman and House Democratic Caucus chair Joe Crowley lost the party primary for his seat to democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Presidential nomination favourites are likely to again include Bernie Sanders, along with fellow left-wing Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Of course, most Europeans would not bat an eyelid at Sanders or Warren calling for a single-payer government health system. But the issue of federal healthcare intervention is altogether more charged across the pond, where the wounds of the Obamacare battle are still fresh. In 2016, the Democrats easily won in left-leaning coastal states where moral outrage at Trump struck a natural chord. But these states alone cannot carry the Presidency. A divided party unable to reach beyond its base risks losing out again in Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Come 2020, the Democratic presidential ticket will undoubtedly appeal more readily to most Brits than four more years of Trump. The economic agenda will appear centrist, probably closer to the Conservatives than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The respect for abortion rights will sit far more comfortably with the broad swathe of British opinion. It will seem obvious that four years of erratic behaviour and embarrassment on the international stage will give way to a more measured approach.

Yet, as in 2016, the headline mask the precariousness of this assumption. We may have to prepare ourselves for a nasty case of déjà vu.

Oliver Besley is an intern at the Centre for Policy Studies