[The New York Times] <opinion>
Why Trump Will Lose in 2020
The president is running hard on a strategy of riling up his base. But by doing that, he riles up the Democratic base, too, and that one is bigger.
By Rachel Bitecofer
*Dr. Bitecofer is a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University.
Jan. 24, 2019
With several major Democratic primary candidates having declared, the palace intrigue of America’s 2020 presidential election is already in nearly full swing. But what if I were to tell you that barring a significant unforeseen shock to the system, the outcome of 2020 is already set in stone?
The high levels of hyperpartisanship and polarization in the electorate have profoundly affected the political behavior of Americans and, by extension, made the outcome of our elections highly predictable.
Always powerful, partisanship has become the be-all and end-all for American voters. With these political dynamics, a person accused of sexual misconduct against teenage girls and young women can run for and win upward of 90 percent of his party’s vote — as the Republican Roy Moore did, according to exit polls, in the special Senate election in Alabama in 2017.
Yet a key aspect of polarization has been somewhat overlooked: negative partisanship. Voters with this attitude are mobilized not by love of their own party so much as by hatred of the opposition party. Negative partisanship especially benefits the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, because out-party voters find themselves living in a world where their political preferences are under constant assault, or at least appear to be so.
For the midterms, I devised a new forecasting model informed partly by this new paradigm of voter behavior. It was as accurate as the best in the forecasting business, and my predictions were made months ahead of the others. That’s important, because it is already telling us what we can expect from the 2020 election.
For the 2018 midterms, my model predicted a large partisan surge for Democrats. I identified America’s suburbs as ground zero for a political realignment away from Republican House candidates. The realignment was fueled by two things: One was conventional — the movement of disaffected independent, or swing, voters away from the president’s party, which has happened in every midterm election since 2006.
The other can be tracked to the mobilization of negative partisanship in driving turnout from Democrats who usually sit out midterm elections. By identifying Republican-held districts with both a reasonably competitive partisan electorate and a large number of college-educated voters who could form a Democratic turnout swell, I predicted — in July 2018 — that negative partisanship would allow Democrats to pick up 42 House seats and sweep “Reagan country” in Orange County, Calif. At first, my model was an outlier, but by Election Day, the FiveThirtyEight “classic” forecast, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report all agreed with my forecast.
Motivated by the threat posed by the Trump administration, casual Democratic voters, especially college-educated women, have been activated since Mr. Trump’s election and will remain activated so long as the threat he presents to them remains. And the complacent Democratic electorate of the 2010 and 2014 congressional midterms as well as the 2016 presidential election is gone (for now). It has been replaced by a galvanized Democratic electorate that will produce the same structural advantage for Democrats that manifested in the 2018 midterms.
The surge won’t be uniform. Democrats will win big in more urban, more diverse, better-educated and more liberal-friendly states and will continue to lose ground in other states like Missouri. Although Mr. Trump may well win Ohio and perhaps even Florida again, it is not likely he will carry Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2020. Look at the midterm performance of statewide Democrats in those states. And his troubles with swing voters, whom he won in 2016, will put Arizona, North Carolina and perhaps even Georgia in play for Democrats and effectively remove Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire from the list of swing states.
In short, the 2020 presidential election is shaping up as a battle of the bases, and the Democrats’ base is simply bigger. When their demographic advantage combines with an enthusiasm advantage and heightened party loyalty fueled by negative partisanship, they hold a significant structural advantage. Turnout in 2018 was about 12 points higher than 2014 turnout and higher than any midterm in decades. Midterm turnout can sometimes trail presidential-election-year turnout by 20 points. It was just 10 points in 2018, when it hit nearly 50 percent, versus 2016. It is not infeasible that turnout in 2020 will exceed 65 percent. Presidential-cycle electorates are better for Democrats than midterm electorates are, and the third-party share in 2018 was also at its lowest levels in decades. In congressional midterms, the average third-party balloting rate in recent elections is about 3.5 percent; in 2018, it was just half that.
We’ll spend the next 21 months captivated by an election whose outcome may already be determined because of polarization and negative partisanship. Democrats have a clear path to recapturing the White House. It is hard to imagine any other president facing these conditions running for re-election. But needless to say, Mr. Trump isn’t just any other president.
Rachel Bitecofer (@RachelBitecofer), a political-science professor at the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, in Virginia, is the author of “The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election.”