Is the 2020 Election Going to Be An Easy Win for Anyone the Democrats Nominate?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Today's question is likely to seem counter-intuitive (if not flat-out odd) in today's political context: Why are we acting as though there is any chance at all that Donald Trump can win the 2020 election?

After laying out the reasons to believe that next November will be a laugher for the Democrats, I will explain the strategic and prudential reasons for the Democrats to assume that it will be a tough fight.  I will also, however, add a brief warning about the downside of treating this as a close call -- and a reminder that none of this might matter in a post-democratic world.

Given that the national conversation has already become obsessed with the "Who can beat him?" question, it is worth reminding ourselves why the answer really should be, "Anybody and everybody" -- not just as a moral matter (that is, Trump clearly deserves to lose, for oh-so-many reasons) but politically as well (because even though moral imperatives and political reality are often strangers, in this case they are aligned).

We can start with a quick recap of the 2016 election.  Trump won 46 percent of the total vote, to Hillary Clinton's 48 percent, with Johnson and Stein picking up most of the rest.  Trump's improbable Electoral College win was the result of impossibly dumb luck in three post-industrial states, where the margin of victory was in the low tens of thousands in each of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (roughly one-fourth to one-half of one percent in each state).

I happen to think that the Monday-morning-quarterbacking snark that Clinton lost those states (especially Wisconsin) because she took them for granted is simply nonsense.  She was under intense pressure to run up the score, and she would have been excoriated at the time if she had campaigned in what should have been safe states.  Not only would that look foolish, but more importantly it would look desperate.  "Oh my God, she actually answered the phone call from the mayor of Madison -- Madison! -- and got talked into giving a speech there?  She must not be doing as well as we thought.  Voters smell a loser."

But assume that I am wrong about that.  Certainly, not only late-night comedians but even many politicians do.  (In a show of surprisingly bad form, Senator Amy Klobuchar took a not-at-all-veiled swipe at Clinton on that score while announcing her 2020 candidacy.)  The point going forward is that those three states were essentially tied in 2016, meaning that any of the x-factors in that campaign -- most prominently, of course, James Comey's inexcusable decision to announce a non-development in an FBI investigation less than two weeks before Election Day -- was more than enough to swing the election.

Normally -- but of course nothing is normal anymore -- there is a huge advantage to being the incumbent.  That would weigh in Trump's favor next year, except that it now seems that the only incumbency-related factor that could help him is the president's ability to drive the political agenda, which Trump was already doing in 2016 due to the media's slavish obsession with his campaign events.  Even the most Trump-unfriendly media outlets seem to have learned nothing, so we can count on them to give him more oxygen than he deserves in 2019-20; but again, that is not a net advantage for him compared to last time.

What has happened since November 2016?  All of the comforting things that people told themselves -- that Trump would "grow into the office" after understanding the gravity of taking the oath of office -- have been exposed (as many of us predicted at the time) as wishful thinking.  Nothing that he has done could possibly have attracted new voters to him, and everything that he has done has driven people away.

Most importantly, Trump's actions have had a necessarily disproportionate impact on 2020 voter turnout.  Trump's rabid supporters were rabid in 2016, and they will be rabid again.  By contrast, many anti-Trump people were at best lukewarm about Clinton and either cast protest votes or (in much larger numbers) presumed that other people would take care of getting her past Trump, causing far too many people to stay home.

The 2018 midterms were proof of what can happen when the majority of Americans are motivated.  And even though that was a historic election, it was still only a midterm.  Democrats have built-in advantages in presidential elections, due to turnout patterns by younger voters and others.  Trump's base of immovable supporters is depressingly large, but it is still (as measured by his approval numbers) stuck in the 38-42 percent range.  One recent poll indicated that 60 percent of respondents have decided that they will definitely not vote for Trump next year.

What would even the low end of that range, a 58-42 percent win for a Democrat in 2020, look like?  Only two of FDR's four wins were larger, and Ronald Reagan's reelection landslide in 1984 was by a margin of 18.2 percent.  By American standards, a win by fifteen percent or more is epic.

This is the starting point from which all political analysis for 2020 should logically begin: A man who fluked his way into the White House has done everything possible to alienate voters (including, it should be added, even the worried workers who are supposedly persuadable and who have now seen that their lives are not getting better), leaving him with a concentrated rump of supporters who can allow him to win a predictable set of red states but nothing more.

Yes, there can be arguments around the margins, but these basic facts should in no way cause anyone to think objectively that "this is going to be a nail-biter."

No one, however, is thinking objectively, and for good reason.  After all, no objective observer thought that Trump could possibly find a way to win in 2016.  (Even though Nate Silver and other polling mavens have correctly pointed out that "Clinton has an 80 percent chance of winning" is not evidence of a sure thing, it still seemed impossible that she could lose, even with Putin and Comey doing their worst.)

This, then, is the first reason that it might be good for people to pretend that the overall situation is not as promising for Democrats as it actually is.  Taking things for granted can be deadly, and no one wants to do that again.  And as Professor Dorf pointed out in a column in early January, the stakes are simply too high for the country and the world for Democrats to do anything but absolutely maximize the likelihood of winning.  Complacency is deadly.  So far, so good.

The second reason to worry is that there might actually be more people who are amenable to voting for Trump than it seems.  In a post-midterms column, I looked at the electoral picture in a deliberately pessimistic light and wondered whether there are even enough states in play for any Democrat to win.  Supposedly strong Senate candidates in Tennessee and Florida lost to Republican extremists, and Georgia and Arizona had not turned as purple-ish as it seemed they might.

Maybe there actually are enough people who will vote Republican no matter what, and maybe such people are located in precisely the right places, so that Trump could somehow win in the Electoral College again even if he loses the overall vote by ten percentage points or more.  Having had some time to reconsider my comments from November, however, I would describe them as truly worst-worst-worst case: but it is true that there is a way to see how such a result could come about.

In the extreme, however, this would mean that the Democrats could not win under any circumstances.  If reliably red states now constitute an Electoral College majority, then the game is simply over.

The more plausible view of the Electoral College map is that even Trump's overall unpopularity, along with the high motivation levels of Democratic and NeverTrump Republican and independent voters, does not make it possible -- and even putting emotion aside -- to say that this election is all but out of reach for Trump.

Although I find the hand-wringing among those who have taken to criticizing Democrats as becoming "too extreme" more than a bit annoying and potentially self-defeating, there is at least some helpful analysis out there.  Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin is alternately one of the worst offenders in this regard and one of the most insightful observers of the political scene.  I continue to believe that she and other NeverTrumpers often simply ascribe their own (very conservative) policy priors to voters when claiming that Democrats have "moved too far to the left," but when she moves away from "Democrats should adopt policy ideas that I like" to "Democrats should worry about how voters might react to unforced errors," she is on more solid ground.

In a recent column, Rubin offered useful observations about two of the Democrats' most prominent candidates.  First, she noted that Elizabeth Warren might have done mortal damage to her chances by being baited into her DNA publicity stunt.  When that happened, I thought that it was a smart move on Warren's part, but (especially because of the press's complete failure to understand that the DNA test results actually did support Warren's claim)  it turns out that it has done lasting damage.  Rubin makes the case that the damage could be irreversible:
"The problem for her is the nagging sense among Democrats that Trump has already gotten the better of her — and their conviction that their party’s nominee cannot start out already playing defense. Her problem isn’t that she seems dishonest, it’s that she seems politically feckless. And in an election where winning is everything, that’s worse."
Second, Rubin notes that Bernie Sanders presents a different version of the same problem:
"[Democrats] should be petrified about what Trump is going to do with the socialist affiliation of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It will frighten voters and transform the election from a referendum on Trump to one on socialism. The future for them, Trump already insists, would be Venezuela.  Sure, it’s ridiculous to claim that socialism is best exemplified by Nicol├ís Maduro’s Venezuela (Why not Norway?), but it sure doesn’t help when Sanders refuses to condemn Maduro outright."
Some readers will recognize that this is a version of my argument as to why Sanders would have lost in 2016, had he won the nomination.  (Back then, Trump was arguably less scary than he is now; and Sanders would have been a sitting duck for the red-baiting that he has now had several years at least to prepare for).

In any case, Rubin is surely correct that is would be bad to give "Trump the political upper hand" and -- most importantly -- that Democrats must nominate "a candidate who can remind voters Trump is the scary one with policies (e.g., repealing Obamacare, tax cuts for the rich) ordinary voters hate."

Again, none of this truly should matter, given everything that we know about Trump, and given that any Democrat would be a better president -- and because of all of the advantages that Democrats possess.  Even so, extreme caution is the order of the day.

I should add, however, that Democrats could at least try to come off as a little bit confident.  People notice fear, and there is a not-so-fine line between avoiding complacency and sounding like losers.  Just a thought.

Finally, I should note that all of this might well be irrelevant, because Trump might simply refuse to accept a loss next November, even an overwhelming one.  In a new Verdict column today, I explore the recent evidence supporting my suspicion/fear that Trump will never peacefully relinquish power.  Enjoy!