Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
With an economy as strong as the one that the nation currently enjoys – 3.2% growth in this year’s first quarter – President Donald Trump should be feeling pretty good about his prospects for re-election. In post-WWII history, the only presidents who have failed to win re-election struggled with a tough economy (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush), or decided not to run (Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson).
So, why are 20 Democratic candidates running to unseat President Trump? With candidates ranging from formerly little known figures such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg to seasoned politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, many Democrats think that they have a real shot at taking back the White House.
What accounts for the optimism? Democrats are betting that even if the economic numbers hold, the president is extremely vulnerable. Most importantly, Trump’s national standing remains weak. The new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that only 39% of the public supports him. And, according to Gallup, since taking office, his approval ratings have hovered consistently in the 30s and the low to mid 40s, when average presidential approval ratings for presidents at this point in their first term have been much stronger.
Added to his struggle with national approval, the fallout from Robert Mueller’s report seems to be further eroding his reputation. While only 37% of Americans say that they support moving forward with impeachment, nearly six out of ten believe that the President lied in matters under investigation by the special counsel, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Democrats are also hoping that the 2020 election is not just about “the economy, stupid” – a phrase that James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist during his 1992 bid for the presidency, coined. The basis of Democratic optimism is the argument that the economic numbers don’t capture how badly the public is responding to the commander in chief’s rhetoric and policies.
Democrats are making the bet that at some level this is a values election, which is the message that Biden emphasized in his opening video for his 2020 presidential bid. The values range from the way the Democratic presidential hopefuls envision the proper use of the president’s bully pulpit to policies such as immigration.
The reason that enough voters would be willing to get rid of an incumbent under these economic conditions is that the President’s fundamental values are so deeply compromised that he cannot be trusted. In other words, Trump’s decision to traffic in nativism, sexism and conspiracy theories are so unsettling and reflect so poorly on the nation, that voters feel compelled to demand change.
The recent poll also suggests that more of the public might see the election as the antidote to the President’s alleged abuses of power. The poll reveals that a sizable number of Americans believe that the President lied in the Mueller investigation and that he obstructed justice.
Democratic candidates also hope that the strong economy is not enough to overcome the fact that Republicans have moved so far to the right on many key issues that voters care about. On climate change, the GOP has embraced denialism – a far cry from what the majority of Americans believe – rather than addressing the need to tackle this global crisis.
On gun control, Republicans have stood firm against almost any substantive measures to constrain access to weapons, when larger portions of the public want stricter gun laws and background checks. And then there is health care, where a clear majority of Americans are desperate to retain the protections afforded by Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act – even as the President keeps threatening to tear these down.
Finally, there is the nature of our current economy. We live in a moment of history when strong economic conditions don’t necessarily make middle class Americans feel secure. Although many Americans are working harder, they have lost access to the kind of long-term, secure jobs that unions used to provide and the protections that collective bargaining offered. This chronic insecurity undermines some of the political benefits that a President might otherwise enjoy during a time of economic growth.
None of this is to say that Trump can’t win re-election. He certainly can. Democrats who are underestimating this possibility would be making a huge mistake. And it’s not far fetched to imagine that these economic conditions are sufficient for voters to decide they want to keep the same horse in mid-stream – despite everything they dislike about Trump.
Still, the poll numbers do get to the basic fact that Trump’s strategy has not been working, if the definition of working is to create a politically invincible incumbency. There are many lines of attack that Democrats can take – assuming they can focus on the core issues that seem to be animating the conversations of everyday Americans.