Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is thinking about challenging President Donald Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary for one simple reason: He’s not sure Trump can actually win a second term.
“The issue I’m concerned about is he has a very low re-elect number, I think in the 30s, high 30s, low 40s,” Hogan said in an interview with CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe. “So the chance of him losing a general election are pretty good. I’m not saying he couldn’t win, but he’s pretty weak in the general election.”
Hogan’s analysis is, on one level, obviously self-serving. If you want to challenge a sitting president in a primary (and Hogan is at least interested in the prospect), the worst thing you can do is suggest your motivation is selfish. The way to sell it to voters is that you aren’t running because you have some deep-seated desire to be president – although of course you do – but rather because you are worried about the broader party losing its grip on power.
But regardless of the motivations behind Hogan’s assessment of Trump as “weak,” there’s a larger question here: Is Hogan right? Is Trump ripe for the picking by any Democrat who wins the nomination next year? And, most importantly, is Trump so damaged that he simply cannot win re-election – meaning that nominating him is a sure loser?
Obviously, any attempt to peer 20+ months into the future has to come with this caveat before we even start: Stuff – ahem – happens. Races for president are evolving creatures. They are impacted by outside events – and how candidates react to them. Chance/luck plays a role. So there’s that.
With all that said, there are still plenty of ways to compare where Trump is today, politically speaking, with past presidents at this same time in their first terms.
The best way to do so is to compare Trump’s job approval at the moment with where his predecessors stood. And thanks to Gallup’s amazing Presidential Job Approval Center, that’s easily done.
The most recent Gallup weekly tracking poll puts Trump at 44% approval. That’s similar to the 48% approval rating for President Barack Obama at this time in his term, although it’s well below where George W. Bush (61% approval) and George H.W. Bush (79% approval) were at this point in February 2003 and February 1991.
Here’s the thing: Of that trio of past presidents, only George H.W. Bush lost re-election. Which speaks to why these numbers can’t be seen in a vacuum. H.W. Bush’s poll numbers were still riding high from the declaration of the Gulf War in February 1991. By mid-February 1992, his approval numbers had absolutely tanked – down to 39% in Gallup polling. (George W. Bush’s 2003 numbers were similarly impacted by external events; he remained popular in the wake of his handling of the September 11, 200,1 terrorist attacks.)
A look at Jimmy Carter’s poll numbers may well be more instructive, given that he didn’t benefit from any sort of massive external event that provided him a major polling boost halfway through his term. In February 1979, Carter’s job approval was at 42% – which is marginally worse than Trump’s right now. Interestingly, Carter’s approval numbers bounced back considerably by February 1980 – he was at 55% in the middle of that month in Gallup polling – but he ultimately lost convincingly to Ronald Reagan that November.
Of course, Carter too is a somewhat imperfect comparison, because he had to weather a primary challenge from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy during his 1980 race – the most serious challenge to a sitting president in the modern political era. Kennedy lost to Carter in the primary, but the energy and money Carter needed to fend off the scion of one of the first families of Democratic politics badly weakened him for the general election. (For more on that amazing race, go buy “Camelot’s End,” by Jon Ward.)
While Hogan and others – most notably former Ohio Gov. John Kasich – are making noise about primarying Trump, the 45th President is in a MUCH stronger position with his party than Carter was at this time of his presidency.
Almost 9 in 10 Republicans approve of how Trump is handling his job, according to Gallup’s most recent numbers. And, if anything, Trump is getting even more popular with Republicans as his term goes on; back in 2017, his approval among Republicans was in the 80s or even low 70s. But since last fall, Trump has been in the high 70s and even the low 90s in job approval.
Another argument against the idea of Trump’s supposed “weak” political standing is the strength of the American economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 30% since Trump took office. The unemployment rate is 4% and has dipped as low as 3.7% in Trump’s tenure, the lowest that mark has been since 1969.
Most presidents who lose re-election do so amid faltering economies. (Voters, historically, have given presidents more credit – and more blame – than they almost certainly deserve when it comes to the economy.) While the Trump economy could falter – and there are those who believe his tariffs could do that trick – at the moment he is siting on a percolating economy.
None of that is to say that he is in rock-solid position for re-election, though. After all:
- Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes
- His job approval rating has never been above 45% in Gallup numbers
- His approval ratings in critical states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have flagged
- The number of people who strongly disapprove of him far outruns those who strongly approve of him
None of these factors are conclusive. And it’s always important to remember that Trump – based on many of these same metrics that we are using to analyze whether he can win re-election – would have never been elected in the first place. He is a political black swan.
Is Hogan right, then, that Trump is “weak?” Yes-ish. It’s hard to imagine any president in a political environment this polarized feeling great about his (or her) re-election. There’s just lots and lots of people who won’t vote for you no matter what. Trump is an extreme case, of course, in that he courts this disapproval from voters outside of his base with his words and his actions.
But for every norm Trump has broken and every rule of politics he has flouted, no one can look at him as DOA in 2020. He has a fighting chance, which is more than most people thought he had in 2016.