The pundits got it wrong. Journalists got it wrong. Full disclosure: I got it wrong. Trump won the 2016 election-albeit by a very thin margin-in one of the greatest upsets in U.S. presidential history. The reasons for Trump’s shocking victory have been thoroughly dissected and can continue to be puzzled over, debated, and litigated. Lingering doubts remain whether those same confluence of factors propelling him to the presidency can replicate again in the next presidential election in 2020. Some have ardently affirmed Trump an indomitable force, sagging popularity notwithstanding, and his clinching the presidency a cinch. Others, citing said low popularity levels, say Trump’s base cannot expand and his narrow electoral victory over a historically unpopular candidate highlights his personal shortcomings as a candidate.
There are valid points to both developing narratives about Trump’s reelection chances, but only by acknowledging President Trump’s strengths and liabilities can one understand his chances in the 2020 election and what he may do in the coming years to preserve his power. From my standpoint, President Trump’s chances of retaining the presidency rest on whether he can work with Congress to accomplish one of his major policy initiatives, shoring up his support among Congressional Republicans, and his foreign policy. Of course, the wild card in all this is whether Trump gets impeached, but I find such a scenario unlikely.
If it Ain’t Too Broke…
Let’s begin with one of President Trump’s central strengths: he is an incumbent. Psychologists have noted people are willing to tolerate and even prefer to maintain conditions even if they are slightly unpleasant because change is uncomfortable and risky. This phenomenon is called the “default effect” and explains why political incumbents tend to be reelected even if they face competent challengers.
This built-in advantage has intensified for the presidency in recent history. Nearly every single president since Franklin Roosevelt’s first election in 1932 has won a mandate on their term. The notable exceptions are President Ford, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. However, Ford took over as president after President Richard Nixon was elected to two terms and President Bush Sr. assumed the presidency after Reagan held office for eight years. Carter is the sole president who was elected and failed to receive a second term and he was marred in multiple crises (energy, economic, and international hostage crisis). An eighty-four year pattern is not iron-clad, but it points to a general trend that the American public is usually satisfied with one political party controlling the presidency for eight years.
What Would it Take?
What does it take for the party in power to become unseated? There has been an interesting model developed by the political scientist Allan Lichtman which is outlined in his book The 13 Keys to the Presidency. Essentially, Lichtman argues there are thirteen key factors deciding whether the incumbent party wins the presidency. If six or more of these factors are false, then the incumbent party will lose. Lichtman has accurately predicted the electoral outcome since he came up with the model back in 1984 so I will employ his model as a starting point when thinking of President Trump’s electoral chances. Here is a breakdown of the thirteen factors and my assessment of what their status will be in 2020:
- Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections-Likely False
- Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination-Likely True
- Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president-True
- Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign-Likely True
- Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign-Maybe True
- Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms-Likely True
- Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy-TBD
- Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term-False
- Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal-False
- Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs-TBD
- Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs-TBD
- Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero-False
- Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero-Likely True
In my assessment, there are six factors that are true or likely to be true by the time the 2020 election rolls around. The most controversial ones I cite are the economy, but the long term growth over Trump’s term will likely exceed the years when President Obama was in office. This is simply because Obama presided over the deepest recession since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. It is unclear whether a recession will occur during Trump’s term, but given recent economic indicators (low unemployment rate, rising wages, strong stock market, and uptick in the interest rate) the economy will probably do modestly well throughout most of his term. This is certainly a wild card though and I admit wiser people than I have eaten their words when it comes to economic predictions.
The unknown factors rest on President Trump’s ability to work with Congress and his foreign policy acumen. If President Trump can pass a major policy initiative, his chances of reelection are optimistic. So far the evidence is pretty grim. President Trump and the Republican-held Congress have wasted considerable time and political capital attempting to pass contentious legislation repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. At this juncture, President Trump’s best bet is either passing major tax reform legislation or enacting a major infrastructure bill. Congressional Republicans have much more of an appetite for tax reform so it will likely need to be passed before the 2018 midterms when the Democrats could take back the House. However, infrastructure usually has bipartisan interest allowing for passage under a Democrat controlled House and it has the added benefit of garnering Trump’s blue-collar supporters gainful employment.
If Trump works too closely with Democrats though, he could rile conservatives who consider compromise with liberal politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi anathema. However, Trump has remained somewhat aloof from criticism from the right and his base support has not withered considerably even in the face of him flip-flopping on various issues. President Trump could spin compromising as being an expert deal maker and stave off any major Republican challengers to his nomination. Inhibiting Trump the most though is himself. He has demonstrated little interest in policy details, leaving it to Congressional leadership to delineate the contours of legislation. Rather, his calumnious behavior has infuriated Republican leadership and galvanized public opposition making it arduous to gin up the necessary enthusiasm and votes for Trump’s initiatives.
In regards to foreign policy, Trump’s rhetoric could again be the biggest impediment to his success. His diatribes and isolationist/unilateral disposition have made America’s European and Asian allies uncomfortable causing uncertainty globally. This rhetoric can also result in dangerous escalation with volatile rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Given the domestic benefits for these rogue states’ leadership standing up to the U.S., Trump’s propensity to glibly insult them, and long standing tensions over their nuclear programs, Iran and North Korea are the most likely areas where Trump could stumble into a major military conflict, which could be seen as a foreign policy disaster. Conversely, if the conflict goes well (or at least is seen as going well by the time the 2020 election rolls around), these conflicts could be marketed as an accomplishment.
Risk of a foreign policy failure has intensified, but foreign policy success may not be out of reach for Trump than many people perceive. President Trump inherited a beleaguered ISIS when he assumed office. Trump will mostly likely benefit from his predecessor’s groundwork and oversee ISIS’ defeat. When ISIS’ military force is largely wiped out in Iraq and Syria, it will be a major foreign policy success and Trump will be able to claim it as mainly his handiwork. Bearing this in mind, Trump’s foreign policy may end up being hogwash to his ultimate presidential chances, his success with ISIS canceling out his perceived blundering in other foreign policy areas.
Impeachment: Trump’s Sword of Damocles
All this hinges though on whether President Trump can even last his full term. President Trump has been persistently plagued by allegations his campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election. The investigation is ongoing and seems to be accelerating in recent months. Couple this with corruption cases filed against him and some believe impeachment is inevitable (including, it should be noted, Allan Lichtman). However, one must remember that impeaching and convicting a president is a political act that does not rest entirely on the typical court’s legal standards of evidence. The House of Representatives impeach a president through a simple majority, but two-thirds of the Senate are required to convict the president. Even if the House becomes controlled by Democrats and impeachment proceedings begin, since conviction requires two-thirds of the Senate, several Republican Senators would have to vote their own party’s president out of office.
Solid and consistent, President Trump’s support among conservative Republicans increases the political risk of Senate Republicans voting against President Trump. Some might point to President Nixon’s impeachment as evidence that senators can turn against their own president when it becomes clear he committed a crime. However, partisanship has increased during this period as well making it more difficult for senators to buck their political parties’ preference. Only if President Trump’s support evaporates among conservative Republicans will one likely see Senate Republicans convict him, but given increasing tribal loyalties and confirmation bias, it is hard to see Trump’s core support withering anytime soon.
Where It Stands
After my rundown, I give President Trump a slight edge in winning reelection in 2020. Incumbents have a built-in advantage since people tend to favor the status quo, Trump remains popular with his core base blunting attacks from the right, and Trump will likely benefit from the economic headwinds and effective ISIS operations left by his predecessor. It is not a slam dunk though. Trump’s core support could fade if he fails to deliver any meaningful legislative victory, the economy turns sour, or a major overseas military operation goes awry. Given President Trump’s temperament, all of these possibilities are tinted with uncertainty -one way or the other- as is the ultimate question of whether Trump will be impeached. However, it behooves one not to underestimate President Trump like many did (myself included) and fail to see the conditions for his victory.