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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 19: If Trump Is Reelected in 2020, It Will Be an Even Bigger Surprise Than His 2016 Election

There was some buzz this week about the possibility that Trump might have an easier time getting reelected in 2020 than we’ve generally assumed. I looked at some historical precedents and offered a take at New York:

The belief that 2017 to 2021 is the danger zone for really serious Trumpian damage to the republic has lent some additional urgency to the Democratic drive for a big midterm victory that will neuter Trump until such time as he departs — voluntarily or under compulsion — the White House, cursing and boasting at every step.

Reinforcing this one-term assumption is the remarkable number of Republicans who will not commit to supporting Trump’s reelection, despite the GOP’s largely supine surrender to his takeover of their party.

But Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has published a warning to the complacent based on predictive models (mostly drawn from international samples) that suggest the power of incumbency is a bigger factor in reelection contests than is normally believed.

“[A]ssuming Trump is on the ballot, and assuming his approval rating stays around the 40% mark, it would probably be wrong to assume he’s an underdog for reelection. That’s not to say he would be a sure winner, but he wouldn’t be a sure loser, either.”

Placing a higher-than-normal value on incumbency has the benefit of helping explain why Trump managed to win in 2016: There was no Democratic incumbent, and moreover, it was (to use the title of political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s model, which predicted a Trump win) “Time for a Change,” since Democrats had held the White House for two terms. Here’s Abramowitz’s general take on how incumbency matters initially and then erodes as a party continues to hold the presidency:

“[C]andidates running for reelection after only one term in the White House enjoy a substantial advantage. In fact, in the past hundred years there has been only one election in which a party lost the White House after only one term — the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. After two or more terms in the White House, however, it appears that this advantage disappears. Even if the incumbent president is a candidate, there is no incumbency advantage in third or later term elections. As a result, these third or later term elections tend to be highly competitive. And of course 2016 is another third term election.”

And 2020 is another second-term election — the kind an incumbent party rarely loses.

That’s one way to look at the historical record. But there are others.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t just the only second-term incumbent to lose; he was also the only one (since the 1940s, when presidential-approval-rating polls became available) to have Trump-like approval numbers. According to Gallup, here are the preelection job-approval numbers for presidents facing voters after their party had just one term holding the White House: Eisenhower ’56: 68 percent; Johnson ’64: 74 percent; Nixon ’72: 56 percent; Reagan ’84: 58 percent; Bush ’04: 53 percent; Obama ’12: 51 percent. Carter’s final job-approval number before the 1980 election was 37 percent.

Using the same source (Gallup), Trump’s highest approval rating was registered on the week of his inauguration, at 45 percent. Unlike his predecessors, his approval ratings appear to have a very limited range. So it is not at all clear, unless you really value non-U.S. examples, that Trump would be an even bet for reelection if he doesn’t become more popular.

There are, of course, four crucial variables we cannot possibly know this far away from the 2020 election: the possibility of a disabling scandal like the one that swept away Richard Nixon’s presidency less than two years after he carried 49 states; the performance of the economy (crucial to many reelections); the possibility of intra-party opposition (Johnson ’68, Ford ’76, Carter ’80, and Bush ’92 were all incumbent candidacies damaged badly by primary opposition); and the identity of the Democratic nominee.

You’d have to say at this moment that Trump’s reelection prospects are most definitely threatened by ever-emerging scandals, a likely pre-2020 economic downturn, and a Democratic opponent not as thoroughly unpopular as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. A primary opponent is less likely unless Trump otherwise looks like a loser.

On top of everything else, it’s worth remembering that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by more than two percentage points, winning basically the same percentage that big-time loser John McCain won in 2008. Yes, he won the electoral college via the political equivalent of an inside straight, but pulling that off a second time is significantly less likely.

Anyone would be foolish to write off Trump’s reelection prospects entirely. But even with the advantages of incumbency, he’s going to have to do a lot better than he has so far to stay in the White House beyond 2021. And the sense that this strange man is never more than an inch from the political precipice is not entirely the product of his critics’ wishful thinking.

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