“The 2020 election isn’t going to be close.”
That’s the provocative first line of a Washington Post piece by conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt in which he makes the case – as you might have already surmised – that President Donald Trump will be easily reelected.
Here’s the key piece of the Hewitt case, referencing the positive gross domestic product number released last week:
“Last week’s message from a booming economy should have rocked the Democratic field. Alas, the party seems collectively intent on poring over the Mueller report yet again in the hope that, somehow, someway, there’s something there. But the probe is over. No collusion. No obstruction. Democrats have to campaign on something else besides a great economy, rising values of savings, low unemployment across every demographic, clarity about allies and enemies abroad, and a rebuilding military.”
There’s truth in what Hewitt argues here, which can be boiled down to: It’s the economy, stupid. Traditionally, presidents overseeing strong economies get reelected and those presiding over flagging economies struggle to win. There’s no question that the economy is currently humming and, as Hewitt also argues in the piece, it’s unlikely that we will find ourselves in a recession come 2020.
But Hewitt’s piece also takes a number of liberties to draw his conclusions, ignoring some recent electoral history as well as the unqiueness of the position Trump currently occupies in our politics. I’ve listed some of the biggies below.
(Nota bene: Hewitt and I are friendly and I occasionally appear on his radio show.)
1. We don’t really do blowout presidential elections these days
The country is deeply divided along partisan lines. And almost no external events impact how people think about their political affiliation. It’s why Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016 – in which he won 56.9% of the 538 electoral votes – was the 12th lowest percentage in history, according to The New York Times. And why three of the 11 elections in which a president won with a smaller percentage of all electoral votes have come in 1976, 2000 and 2004. In the last five presidential elections, the winner has averaged 311 electoral votes. The five before that? The winner averaged 438 electoral votes.
We are simply not constructed at this moment politically to deliver any president a not-close victory. And that’s before you remember that Trump’s popular-vote deficit to Hillary Clinton in 2016 – almost 3 million votes – is the largest in American history for a victorious presidential candidate.
2. Trump’s approval ratings remain dismal
The economy, as Hewitt notes, has been clicking along well for much of Trump’s presidency. Which, if past was prologue, would mean the President would be quite popular. He isn’t. Not even close. In the latest Gallup weekly tracking poll, 45% approved of the job Trump was doing while 51% disapproved. Trump is the first president since Gallup began asking people about their views on the commander-in-chief who has never – not once! – had a job approval rating at 50% or above.
That is deeply atypical – and suggests that while polling suggests voters do believe the economy is doing well, they simply don’t give Trump the credit for it that they might give another president. Or that, if they do give Trump some credit for the economy, other things matter more to them when considering whether Trump is doing a good job.
3. Trump’s standing in key states is weak
Trump won the White House due to, essentially, three states: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Turning those large population, Democratic-leaning states in the Midwest red gave him the margin that few – including Trump himself – saw in the electoral map. While Trump could win the White House in 2020 without those states – or at least two of them – it’s a much harder map for him.
And at the moment, his approval ratings in all three states look bad. According to a Gallup state-by-state polling, just 42% in all three states approved of the job Trump was doing as of late February. In all three, a majority of people disapproved of how Trump was handling his job in the White House.
Which would be OK, if Trump looked to be in position to win states he lost in 2016. In an interview over the weekend, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale floated four such states – Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire. The problem? Here’s the job approval number for Trump – again, according to Gallup – in those four states: 39% (Colorado), 38% (New Mexico), 40% (Nevada) and 35% (New Hampshire).
None of that is to say that Trump can’t or won’t win next November. I’ve told anyone who asks that assuming – simply because of his weak approval numbers or his, um, unpresidential manner – that Trump is a goner in 2020 is a major mistake. He proved in 2016 that he had an appeal that went beyond traditional metrics. And I’m assuming that he will keep that appeal in some circles come 2020.
But Hewitt’s claim that Trump will walk to reelection is equally farcical. Even without all of the data about how divided we are as a country – which predates Trump – the President’s numbers, especially in key swing states combined with the narrowness of his 2016 victory suggest that the 2020 election is likely to be close.
Potentially very, very close.