The Third Big Indicator To Watch in 2020 — Trump’s Strategy

For these first days of the new year, I’ve hit the ground running on the 2020 general election. Though I’ll return to the Democratic Primary on Monday, this week I’ve been identifying the Big Indicators we’ll be watching for the next ten months as we try to evaluate the general election horse race. So far, they are:

  1. President Trump’s approval rating
  2. The Electoral Map

Both of the above will be affected by this third Big Indicator…

3. President Trump’s campaign strategy

Recent history has taught us that incumbent presidents go into their re-elections at the advantage. President Trump is aiming to be our fourth consecutive two-term president. In fact, since Herbert Hoover’s 1932 re-election loss at the height of the Great Depression, only two presidents have served a complete first term but lost re-election.[1]

The incumbency advantage is well-documented, but among the greatest of these advantage is its straightforward playbook: the incumbent president can A) brag about his or her accomplishments and B) tear down whichever opponent emerges from a frequently bruising primary, a primary that usually highlights said opponent’s weaknesses.

For some time now, President Trump has telegraphed how his 2020 strategy gibes with this playbook. It’s a simple, two-pronged approach that is predictable, understandable, and historically effective.

Prong #1: Highlight the President’s accomplishments, especially economic ones

Though the President loves to read down a laundry list of his accomplishments every week or so (or perhaps in a six-page single-spaced letter to the Speaker of the House that does not all make him sound like a crazy person), none are as salient as the strong American economy. Democrats may try to spin some yarn about how the economy isn’t as strong as we think — indeed, in the last Democratic debate, front-runners Biden, Sanders, and Warren each took turns criticizing some of its imperfections — but the American people are generally with Trump on this one. We have incredibly low unemployment, a stock market that keeps hitting record highs, and nearly unprecedented consumer and business confidence. Though a debate can be had about whether the Obama economy put America on “third base” before Trump scored with this economic success, Democrats will have a hard time convincing Americans that Trump has been bad for the American economic engine.

The President knows that, and, barring an economic downturn liberal media have been predicting for his entire administration but never seems to get here, we’ll hear about it every day for the entire general election.

But that’s not all we’ll hear about…

Prong #2. Demonize the Democrat.

If you’re one who enjoys drinking games, health complications, and premature death, take a shot every time our President says or tweets the words “Radical Left.” You’ll be inebriated between now and Election Day, if your liver makes it that far.

According to Real Clear Politics’s average of presidential approval polls, President Trump has not had an average approval rating of more than 46% for his entire presidency. (And that 46% happened on February 4 of his first year, about two weeks into the job.)


This past year has been a particularly stable period for his approval as he bounces like a bowling ball between 42 and 45 percent bumpers. Most polls suggest equally consistent but much stronger disapproval, including numbers around 50% that say they’ve ruled out voting for him in 2020. It’s therefore a decent bet that he will not reach the 48% support that, historically, has been needed by presidential candidates to earn the win. (As noted on Wednesday, Trump 2016 was the only nominee to win a two-candidate race — defined by no third candidate winning double-digit support — with less than 47.5% of the vote. I think it’s likely that his 46.1% win was the exception, not the new rule.)

But that doesn’t mean he can’t win. Though re-elections can be seen as a referendum on the incumbent, they still come down to popularity contests against the opponent. As we saw in 2016, neither nominee was particularly popular — in fact, they were the two least popular presidential nominees in polling history — but the ones who didn’t like either candidate tipped heavily toward Trump. Considering his high unfavorables, it’ll be critical to make the Democratic nominee unpopular again, no matter who it is. Indeed, polling suggests that even when his approval is in the low 40s, his head-to-head number against specific Democrats is higher in the very same sample of respondents. In other words — and this is really important — there are voters who don’t “approve” of the president but prefer him to certain Democrats anyway.

As an example, let’s look at the most recent head-to-head polling available. On Tuesday, Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy released polls from two important battleground states: Florida (won by Trump in 2016) and Virginia (won by Hillary Clinton). In Florida, Trump was given a 46% approval rating. In Virginia, he earned a 45.

But look what happens when the same respondents are given the choice between Trump and one of the four leading Democrats:


In Florida, where Trump had 46% approval, we see that he’d win between 49 and 51% against three of the Democratic candidates. In Virginia, where he had 45% approval, he earned between 47 and 51% against the same three.

Now, this is just a snapshot. There are other polls of other states taken at other times –if a candidate has a hot January they’d look a lot better in polls like these by February — but Election Day is just a snapshot, too. The point remains: Trump’s approval is important, but how he looks compared to his opponent can be more significant, particularly in a close election.

So what we’ve seen is the President lump all Democrats into the “Radical Left” camp; considering how the least Left candidate of the four — Joe Biden — polls against him, that’s understandable. It’s not exactly fair, of course. Republicans aren’t a monolithic block of officials and voters, and Democrats, too, have a range of ideologies from moderate to democratic-socialist. Recall how Trump tried to hold up the controversial (and, it has to be said, fully minority) “Squad” as the personification of the entire party, despite the Squad not at all being representative of Congressional Democrats, including fellow freshmen who mostly won office by being relatively moderate in formerly Republican districts. It’s dishonest, but that’s politics for you.

Of course, it’s this kind of ranting, tweeting, and insulting of fellow Americans, alive and dead, that rub many voters the wrong way, even members of his own party. With this strong economy and no new wars, it feels like re-election should be a lot easier for him. It’s almost as if one more prong would seal it…

Optional Prong #3: Impulse control

Expectations for his behavior are so low at this point that any even barely acceptable demeanor, just something remotely presidential with how he behaves himself, should do wonders for his re-election chance. If he could just pull himself together for, say, the four months from the convention to the election, he could earn himself four more years in the White House.

Though some will say Trump isn’t Trump unless he behaves like the caricature of a petulant trust-fund baby grown into a boorish and cretinous charlatan, I’d like to think it would only help his re-election chances, to say nothing of the reputation of the presidency and country, if he matures a bit. But that’s just me.

Anyway, his strategy is pretty obvious. What’s less clear is the Democratic strategy. How do they go about trying to evict President Trump from the White House? For that, check back tomorrow.


[1]The exceptions: Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. The only other incumbent to stand for re-election and lose was Gerald Ford in 1976, but he had a Nixon-shaped albatross around his neck after finishing the former President’s scandalous second term.


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