Remember all the excitement among Democrats when Conor Lamb won the special election for Congress in a Republican district? This euphoria was repeated when the Democratic Party took back the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections. Now it is happening again, as Trump levels racist attacks against progressive members of Congress. Many political pundits are predicting that these events, along with other positive signs, are setting up a major Democratic victory for the presidency in the 2020 election.
As I survey the political landscape in the summer of 2019, I do not feel confident that Trump will be defeated. In fact, given his formidable array of political advantages as the incumbent president, I believe the odds of Trump being re-elected increase the closer we get to Election Day.
The economy has always been a major factor in national elections, and Trump’s economy is the most robust in the world. Despite ongoing trade battles with China and saber rattling with Iran, the stock market hit all-time highs in mid-July. Unemployment, new jobs and GNP numbers continue to impress. Consumer spending is on fire with not even a hint of recession on the horizon. The Federal Reserve has conceded to the president’s demand to reduce interest rates, guaranteeing that cheap borrowing and the economic expansion will keep humming along through 2020.
A great deal of research has been conducted over the years on the effect of economic conditions on presidential elections. Politico points out that Yale economist Ray Fair, who pioneered this kind of modeling, shows Trump winning by a fair margin in 2020 based on the economy and the advantage of incumbency.
Most Americans have little interest in following Trump’s tweets. They are not familiar with the myriad of articles, books and cable news shows that explain how Trump has degraded both domestic and foreign policy institutions. They do not care who was appointed to the Trump cabinet or why certain officials resigned in disgrace.
These voters, who are not avowed members of one of our partisan political tribes, and who have no ideological skin in the game, will enter the voting booth in 2020 asking one primary question: Do I feel more economically secure and has my 401(k) account grown since the last election? In many cases, Trump gets an affirmative vote, no matter what secondary issues may concern the voter.
In addition to the economy, if matters stay the same, the president will also be able to claim a reduction in American troops in the Mideast with no new entanglements. This is critical to winning over a war-weary nation and a position shared by most of the Democratic electorate.
There will be those who challenge my assessment of Trump’s political future. They will point to his immoral standing, his imperial and narcissistic personality and his personal attacks against the rule of law, the media and against individuals who disagree with him. These were valid issues leading up to the 2016 election but will hold little water in 2020. At this point there is nothing new about Trump’s past, his political views or his treatment of individuals that would shock those who are familiar with his history.
Voters have come to expect the president to act out in unpredictable ways. Trump tends to say things that affront those who would never vote for him in the first place. He is careful to both praise and reward his political base with frequent announcements. Moreover, voters in recent elections have appeared to have been more influenced by “what affects them” than “what offends them.”
What about the Mueller Report and the possibility of the Democratic House bringing impeachment proceedings? The report has not changed the view of the Trump base and will have less impact on neutral voters as the election approaches. Any attempt to impeach the president is a fool’s errand because the Republican Senate will never convict. In addition, impeachment would provide Trump with additional fuel for his claim that a vast conspiracy is afoot to discredit his 2016 election.
For Democrats to cobble together a winning strategy to defeat President Trump in 2020 will indeed be a formidable task. The key will be to take back several key states that were part of the Obama coalition. There must be a willingness to listen to those voters who turned Republican in 2016 and to address their needs. Unfortunately, a good strategy and a humble attitude will not be enough to defeat Trump if the economy keeps firing on all cylinders and continues to reward those who previously voted for him.
While the president has few leadership or administrative skills, his political savvy as the ringmaster of the presidential circus is formidable. Every decision he makes going forward will be based on re-election. Unless the economy has an unexpected reversal, Trump will likely win a second term in 2020.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.