Donald Trump’s bid for re-election in 2020 will test the proposition that incumbent presidents generally win re-election, especially if the economy is secure and their reputation intact. This has been the case for most of America’s history for the past seven decades. As the chief of state, the president projects a staying power simply by occupying the White House and fulfilling his high-profile duties. Moreover, sitting presidents can drive national media attention and distribute fresh patronage in ways highly favorable to their re-election.
How often has this pattern recurred? Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and most recently, Barack Obama all served two terms, winning re-election easily. It’s happened so often, in fact, that one might reasonably conclude that there’s a regular “pendulum swing” operating in partisan politics at the national level.
Blame it on the Founders, who abhorred the idea of semi-permanent majorities tyrannizing over the electorate. In fact, when FDR managed to break the mold, and got elected four consecutive times, the Congress and the citizenry of both parties rebelled and demanded presidential term limits. And yet, in a gesture toward political continuity and stability, voters regularly give each party a full eight years to rule.
The case for Mr. Trump’s re-election is already quite strong. His remarkably successful stewardship over the economy shows no sign of faltering; whatever problems might loom on the horizon, they are unlikely to appear before 2020. On foreign and defense policy, despite turmoil at the top of his cabinet, the president’s planned withdrawal of US forces from Syria and Afghanistan has received widespread support. And he’s already handled one dangerously brewing international crisis — with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over nuclear weapons — far better than expected.
When was the last time a president could boast of having brought the American people “peace and prosperity”? It’s been decades. Neither of Trump’s two predecessors could make such a claim. American under Reagan suffered the US embassy bombing and generally sputtered in the Middle East. Bill Clinton intervened badly in Bosnia and Somalia. Trump has used force, too, but he’s done so decisively and effectively — against ISIS, one of America’s leading foes.
The 2010 electoral math also favors the president. True, Mr. Trump may be increasingly vulnerable in the Rust Belt, especially in Pennsylvania but also in Michigan and Wisconsin – three states where he achieved historic breakthroughs in 2016. But Republicans have never needed these states to win. Give the GOP Ohio and Florida – where Trump is stronger than ever now — and the party is well on the road to victory. In 2020, the real swing states are likely to be Blue-trending North Carolina and Georgia and Red-trending states like Minnesota, which Trump narrowly lost in 2016. Trump will also need to hold traditionally Red Arizona and at least split Iowa and New Hampshire to prevail. All signs indicate that Trump will secure enough victories to win – not by a landslide, but still comfortably.
Democrats, of course, are confident that the electorate will turn on The Donald, especially once the Russia-Gate Investigation is concluded. With the House back in their hands, they also plan to launch fresh investigations to further embarrass the president. Democrats may not initiate a full-fledged impeachment drive, knowing full well that they lack the votes in the Senate to convict. But, they’re hoping that an impeachment threat will allow them to exert leverage on the president to make major policy concessions.
The problem? That’s not likely to make Trump less popular. In fact, it could well boost his support. Past presidents have frequently pivoted to the center to win over wavering voters, usually after a defeat for their party in the mid-term elections. Clinton, working closely with the GOP, oversaw a major overhaul of U.S. welfare policy that many Democrats abhorred. Trump and the Democrats could well conclude a deal on infrastructure funding that might not sit well with the GOP, but would help Trump in 2020.
Trump actually scored important victories in 2018 that the media largely ignored. For example, Democrats lost the governor races in Ohio, Georgia and Florida as well as a key Senate race in Florida. Having Republicans in those key state houses will increase the president’s leverage for re-election. The two Florida races also revealed that Republicans – including Trump himself — are increasing their popularity with Hispanics, who can tilt elections elsewhere. In general, Democrats are not gaining appreciably with White voters while their standing with minorities – including African-Americans — is slipping.
Trump also has the advantage of enjoying record-high support from Republicans (93%), but he still needs to win over wavering independents, especially suburbanites. In 2016, he won them over in the late stages by projecting a softer, more statesmanlike image. On the eve of the recent mid-terms, the president suggested he might do so again. If so, we have yet to see it. Presently, his favorability rating still hovers in the low-to-mid forties, which was enough for him to capture the White House against Hillary Clinton, whose favorability rating was similarly low.
But that’s not likely to be the case with a Democratic standard-bearer in 2020, and if history is any guide, incumbents need a 48% voter approval rating to win re-election. Trump’s not there yet, but shutdown or not, he’s a lot closer than his critics think.