The New York Times(June 22, 2019)
Will America Make Trump Great Again?
The president, like his opposition, may be underestimating his ability to win.
By Jamelle Bouie(Opinion Columnist)
The night before the 2016 presidential election, I thought Hillary Clinton would win and Donald Trump would go down to a convincing defeat. I was wrong.
Since then, I’ve tried to be humble about my ability to forecast events, which also means taking the other side of a prediction as seriously as the one I’m inclined to believe.
I’m inclined to believe that President Trump is on the path to defeat.
He trails his most well-known rivals. He’s down nearly 9 points against Joe Biden, 6 points against Bernie Sanders, and roughly 3 points for Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
These matchups, in which he rarely lands above the low 40s, reflect Trump’s job approval. More than 53 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance; 42.5 percent of Americans give him good marks. That’s a relative high for a president who has never reached 50 percent approval, but it’s low compared with most of his predecessors at this point in their first terms.
Political elites are also acting as if Trump won’t glide into a second term. As they debate the future of their movement, many conservatives seem to think that Trump won’t last long or leave a permanent mark on conservative politics. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would rather face the president in an election than try to impeach him, it’s because she — and other more cautious Democratic leaders — believe they’re likely to win.
If virtually every Democrat under the sun is running for president, it’s because all 23 candidates think they stand a chance against a vulnerable president. They might be fighting over their “electability,” but no one has actually attacked a rival as unelectable. Maybe that’s just good manners, maybe it reflects a tacit belief that almost any of them could win against Trump. (Which gets to another point: The nomination contest is critical for the future of the Democratic Party, but it may not be the most important variable for the presidential election itself.)
But before running with this assumption, let’s think about the past. At this point in 1983, former Vice President Walter Mondale led Ronald Reagan 50 percent to 41 percent, according to The New York Times/CBS News survey. In July 1991, 45 percent of voters said they would vote for George H.W. Bush versus 22 percent for his Democratic challenger (24 percent said they would wait and see who it was). Bob Dole led Bill Clinton 48 to 42 percent in August 1995, and Barack Obama trailed a generic Republican 47 to 39 percent in July 2011.
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None of these numbers held. Reagan won a resounding landslide and Bush crumpled against his eventual opponent, Clinton. Clinton overpowered Dole and Obama won re-election with more than 50 percent of the vote. And while it’s tempting to credit campaigns for victories and poor tactics for defeat, the most important variable for each outcome was the economy.
Reagan rode an economic rebound, while Bush stumbled after a slump sent unemployment up to nearly 8 percent the summer before the election. Clinton had rapid economic growth, and Obama could claim a slow and steady recovery from the Great Recession. Run with the growth side of a business cycle and you have a path to re-election; hit a downturn and your chances shrink accordingly.
Trump is on the growth side of a business cycle. It’s not as robust as past expansions, but unemployment is low and, crucially, wages have increased, however slightly. Seventy percent of Americans say the economy is either “excellent” or “good,” although only 41 percent say he deserves credit. It’s his behavior — the lies and the prejudice, the corruption and the incompetence — that has made him unpopular, and kept him far below the typical president with economic growth on his side.
Will this hold? Will Trump claim the benefits of a strong economy, or will his actions and behavior leave him on the wrong side of the public and on the path to defeat?
Pollsters may have missed key signs of a Trump victory like his late surge in the Rust Belt, but most political science forecasts of the 2016 presidential election were close to the mark. Of 10 forecasts made between late June and early September, all but two came within roughly 2 points of the final two-party national popular vote. One of them, the Time for a Change model from the Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, undershot Hillary Clinton’s share of the vote but predicted, correctly, that Trump would win the election.
In April, looking ahead to the 2020 election, Abramowitz published a range of likely forecasts of the Electoral College vote using second-quarter economic growth and Trump’s overall approval (his negative rating subtracted from his positive rating) as his key variables. Under a significant slowdown, where the economy does not grow in the first half of next year, Trump loses even if he pulls the impossible (for him) and shrinks the gap between his approval and disapproval ratings. Under a modest slowdown, where the economy is growing at about 1 percent, he loses unless he eliminates that gap. But if the economy continues on its path — if there’s 2 percent or 3 percent growth in the first half of next year — then Abramowitz projects a Trump win even if his disapproval rating rises.
Donald Trump is a bizarre man to have as president. He confounds the conventional wisdom about politics. But he’s also been subject to the typical rules of politics. When he does unpopular things, he becomes unpopular. Political gravity exists, and it has kept him at a disadvantage.
But the problem with making predictions — or just trying to think through the next few years of American life — is that most unpopular presidents don’t have a strong economy behind them. Will voters remove the president they dislike, or reward him with a second term despite their personal misgivings?
It’s worth saying that Trump seems to think he’s vulnerable, bravado notwithstanding. (“If I didn’t have the Phony Witch Hunt going on for 3 years,” he said on Twitter, “I would be way up in the Polls right now.” But, he continued, “I’m winning anyway!”) His internal polling from earlier this year shows him far behind Joe Biden in four critical swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida — as well as slightly behind in Republican-leaning states like Georgia and North Carolina. Embarrassed by the disclosure, Trump said it was “incorrect polling” and subsequently fired the pollsters.
In the same way, you can also understand his willingness to accept foreign election assistance to be a tacit admission of his own weakness, the language of a cheater who isn’t confident he can win of his own volition.
But if that’s true, Trump, like his opposition, may be underestimating his ability to win. If the economy continues to grow and his approval stays steady — if the future looks and feels like the present — then President Trump will be on his way to a second term. He’ll have four more years to “Make America Great Again” — or “Keep America Great” — with all that means for the fate of our democracy.