Four General Election Indicators to Monitor in 2020 — #1: Presidential Approval

I hope you enjoyed the last few days of a relatively peaceful 2019, America. We are now in the year 2020. On November 3, the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election, the 33 Class 2 Senate seats are up for re-election, and, of course, President Donald F. Trump is up for re-election.

Brace yourselves.

Assuming my stamina holds — and prior experience suggests that is no sure thing — I’ll peck out hundreds of thousands of words on the 2020 general election, probably starting in the spring with a Democratic nominee determined. Starting next week, my focus until then will be, as it has been, on the Democratic Primary. Still, with 2020 now showing on the calendar, it feels like a good time to establish the Big Indicators of the general election we’ll be keeping an eye on for the next ten months. Each will get its own post for the first four days of the year, starting with:

1. The President’s approval rating

If that italicized heading looks familiar, it’s because I deployed it with regularity throughout the buildup to the 2018 midterms. I noted how presidents’ approval were correlated to their party’s performance in midterm elections. Sure enough, though a favorable map maintained the Republican Senate majority, President Trump’s low approval helped send the GOP to its worst midterm performance in the House since Watergate. In retrospect, to correlate President Trump’s popularity with the House results was wise.

As you might assume, a President’s approval rating is even more relevant in their re-election bid. Presidential elections pitting an incumbent against a challenger is a glorified referendum on the incumbent. We can assume that if President Trump’s approval is in the low 40s on Election Day, he’s going to lose no matter who the Democratic nominee is. If he’s in the high 40s, he’s going to win re-election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

The grey area is in between — that 44 to 47 range. In 2016, Trump won 46.1% of the vote, and he eked out wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by less than one percent each — a total of 77,744 votes across the three states. In other words, it was a perfectly placed 46.1%, unlikely to be duplicated. And if he were one percent less popular nationally — that is, if he finished at 45.1% — he likely would have lost the election. (This conclusions is not ironclad, of course, as perhaps a one-percent-less-popular Trump would have been two percent less popular in California but equally popular in the three swing states, which would have meant the same electoral result. Still, it’s a rough estimation with which we can work for the moment.) To be safe, he really wants to crank it up to 47%+.

History backs up this prediction. Aside from Trump, presidential candidates in two-way races have needed to get to at least 47-and-a-half percent in the popular vote to win. Here’s a look at the 12 worst performances by presidential winners, as measured by their percentage of the overall vote:

All other winners earned at least 48% of the vote.

It’s worth noting that all of the sub-Trump results had extenuating third-party circumstances that permitted the unpopular winner to emerge triumphant:

  • Of the bottom three (JQA, Lincoln, and Wilson), all involved major popular and electoral votes won by a third or fourth candidate.
  • Nixon, Buchanan, and Cleveland also saw third party candidates popular enough to win electoral votes and divide the national vote.
  • Though Clinton and Taylor were not in elections where a third party earned electoral votes, there was a third party candidate who earned double digits in the popular vote.

Trump is the only candidate ever to earn less than 47 percent of the vote and still win the election without a strong third party result. It’s at 47.5% that we start to see more success in two-candidate races.[1]

At this point, I’d like to think the numbers strongly suggest Trump wants to get his approval to 48% — just because 46.1% was good enough to win an election without a strong third party presence once in American history, even if it’s the most recent, does not make it a good bet again — or at least an approval that’s within striking distance of earning 48% in the actual vote. (Complicating matters is that a president’s approval/disapproval might be, say, 45 approve/49 disapprove, but the undecided voters who comprise the 6% could break either way on Election Day, potentially pushing the incumbent into the high 40s.)

All of the above being the case, we should monitor the President’s approval rating. My two preferred outlets for doing this are Real Clear Politics, which averages all major approval surveys together, and FiveThirtyEight, which weighs qualifying pollsters according to partisan lean and other “house effects.” Here’s what they reveal:

  • RCP: 44.5 approve, 52.0 disapprove (-7.5)
  • 538: 42.6 approve, 52.9 disapprove (-10.3)

In both averages, Trump is currently short of what he needs. Even if he sweeps the remaining undecideds of the more favorable RCP average (where his approval and disapproval total 96.5%, which leaves 3.5% up for grabs), he’d reach exactly 48 — but that’s with an unlikely sweep of undecideds. The FiveThirtyEight average is even worse, partly due to them downgrading the weight of Rasmussen, a pollster that, though it was accurate in 2016, badly over-represented Republican support two years later. Rasmussen regularly gives Trump high, outlier approval ratings (which Trump often retweets as Gospel).

Of course, we’re ten months from the election. Today’s numbers are just a starting point, and I’m mostly writing them down to act as a benchmark for future comparisons and momentum considerations. Other presidents have been near Trump’s approval at this stage in their presidency and still won re-election. He’s close to matching Obama, Clinton, and Reagan’s numbers one year before they won re-election. There’s also a chance some people might disapprove of him and yet vote for him anyway, hence adding a couple points to these numbers. That’s a dynamic I’ll be taking a closer look at later in this series. To be clear, the President is in an adequate position for re-election, and one could reasonably install him as a favorite.

Still, it’s worth considering just how incredibly stable Trump’s approval has been. His supporters are almost all locked in, as are his detractors. He’s such a divisive guy that there’s remarkably few swing voters remaining. Since his approval never dips or climbs too much, we’ve actually talked ourselves into an average approval of 40 looking surprisingly low for him and one of 44 looking like he’s on a roll. In past presidencies, a four-point swing was one good or bad week. It was nothing — a blip on an EKG. Trump seems so locked into this narrow band that, unlike past presidents, it’s hard to imagine how he’d ever fall into the 30s or get to 50 in an average of polls.

Of course, aside from the sheer distance between us and the election, there’s another mitigating factor when using approval rating in our analysis, and this one also helps Trump’s chances: we don’t hold a popular vote for president!

That brings us to the second Big Indicator to monitor in 2020. I’ll talk about that tomorrow. See you then.


[1]Still, some candidates have reached 48 to 50 and lost, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Al Gore in 2000, Richard Nixon in 1960, and, most strangely, Samuel Tilden in 1876, who won 50.9% of the vote but lost the election. However, I’m more concerned with where Trump’s more-than-likely-to-win number would be. Given the current Republican advantage in the Electoral College, Trump hitting the high 40s nationally would be an electoral win.

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