Can Trump Win Re-election in 2020? Early Signs and the Role of the Economy

By: Bennett Siems
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How & When the Trump Presidency Could End, Part Three

A recent US national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed President Donald Trump badly trailing five major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. When he was pitted against the candidates, Trump’s support ranged between 38 and 40 percent, while support for the Democrats ranged from 49 to 54 percent.

Those numbers might seem too steep for a US President to surmount, but it is important to remember that the election is still over a year away. And Trump has already defied the election odds once by defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016, when many major polls had suggested that Clinton would win the election comfortably.

As The Millennial Source has previously reported, Trump’s immediate challenge is to survive as president until November 2020, when the next election will occur. Both the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment and the impeachment process threaten to bring his presidency to a premature end. Assuming he weathers those storms successfully, however, the 2020 election will be the next major hurdle that he faces. 

Approval Ratings and the Vagaries of the Electoral College

Throughout most of his presidency, Trump’s national approval rating has hovered around 40%, against disapproval ratings often well above 50%. The conventional wisdom in US politics is that a president who is continually “upside down” in approval numbers (meaning that a majority of voters express disapproval) cannot win re-election. However, nothing about the Trump 2016 candidacy, or his presidency, has been conventional.

For one thing, Trump still has time to mend his national reputation before he faces head-to-head competition. His Democratic opponent will not be known until the 2020 northern hemisphere spring. Before taking on Trump, the many Democratic contenders must first compete with each in a primary election in each state, the first of which will occur in Iowa on February 3.

Based on the primary election results, the Democratic party will choose a single presidential nominee. Battles between the frontrunners over the next three months could easily erode their national popularity before they even have a chance to debate Trump directly. (Trump himself will have to compete against Republican rivals in some state primary elections, but there is little chance that his candidacy for re-election will be threatened in the process.)

Even if the eventual Democratic Party nominee remains significantly more popular than Trump throughout 2020, that will not guarantee a Trump election loss. It is important to remember that Democrat Hillary Clinton received almost three million more votes than Trump in 2016. Under the US Constitution, the president is not elected by national popular vote, but rather, through a complex state-by-state voting system known as the Electoral College.

Under the Electoral College system, each state and the District of Columbia (the “DC” in Washington, DC) has a specified number of “electoral votes”, based on the state’s population. With just a few exceptions, the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within a particular state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

As a result, by amassing victories in strategically targeted states, a candidate can win a US presidential election while losing the overall vote. Trump did just that in 2016, as did George W. Bush in 2000, and three presidential candidates in the 1800s.

Therefore, in spite of all the current stresses on the Trump Administration, re-election in 2020 remains a real possibility – a fact of which veteran Democrats like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are acutely aware. Pelosi’s caution regarding impeachment rests heavily on her concerns about disturbing the Electoral College math, which currently, but shakily, leans in Democrats’ favor.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

During the 1992 US presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville famously said that Clinton’s winning issue would be “the economy, stupid!” In part because Clinton won that election by over 200 electoral votes, the saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” has become an American political cliché. The implication is that above all other factors, the status of the US economy determines the fate of any president seeking re-election.

For two years, a robust US economy has provided Trump’s greatest protection against political threats. The national unemployment rate fell significantly in 2017, and has remained at historically low levels ever since. However, the White House’s own data shows that Trump’s frequent claim that the current unemployment rate is the lowest to ever occur in the country is inaccurate. It is also worth noting that the trend of decreasing unemployment was already well established by 2012, and continued throughout President Barack Obama’s second term.

Trump and his supporters have also made economic growth a centerpiece of the Trump presidency brand. Throughout most of 2018, the US registered GDP growth significantly above three percent; the growth rate had never reached three percent during the Obama Administration. However, the 2019 GDP has been significantly less rosy, with growth at 3.1% for the second quarter, but only 1.1% for the first quarter and 2.2% for the third quarter to date.

Raising further concerns, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has revised estimates for job creation during several months of 2019 downward. While these corrections were not dramatic, they do show fairly convincingly that job growth in the US has been slower in 2019 than in 2018.

A further sign of potential economic trouble emerged in August, when financial data revealed an inverted yield curve for the US bond market. Essentially, an inverted yield curve means that short-term bonds are delivering higher returns to investors than long-term bonds, which in turn would discourage long-term investment. As many analysts pointed out, an economic recession has followed within about two years after every inversion of the bond yield curve in the US since the 1950s.

In the wake of the yield curve news, US stock markets took a major hit during the week of August 12-16, causing something of a media frenzy. However, the media coverage was a pretty clear case of sensationalism. The drop in stock market value was short-lived and has now been completely erased by subsequent gains. Nevertheless, worries of a recession are gradually spreading across the country.

Trump Risks Alienating His Base with Trade War

Trump has to some extent undermined his own presidency’s economic successes with his insistence on the use of import tariffs as the central weapon in his trade war with China. Although Trump Administration spokespeople have consistently asserted that China pays for these tariffs, that is simply not how tariffs work.

Since the tariffs are assessed when imports arrive at US ports, they are paid by US companies. As a result, in the words of Princeton University economist Stephen Redding, “Somebody in the U.S. is paying higher prices.”

Perhaps more importantly, retaliatory tariffs imposed by China have substantially reduced export sales for many Americans, especially farmers. As one Illinois farmer put it, in the Trump-China trade war, farmers are the ones “taking it on the jaw”:

Combined with bad weather throughout the summer, this loss of export markets has many US farmers feeling significant pain. Direct subsidies for farms that Trump ordered in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the trade war have only partially made up for farmers’ losses.

As the standoff with China continues, a growing number of farmers are expressing frustration and even outrage. With rural areas providing the core of Trump’s support, unrest in the agricultural sector is a worrisome sign for his 2020 re-election prospects.

Trump’s Difficult Path to an Eight-Year Presidency

Recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans now believe that Trump is a racist. Multiple other polls indicate a split between public opinion and Trump’s aggressive stance on immigration. In light of these numbers, a sagging economy in 2020 would seem to be a certain signal of the end of his presidency. Yet once again, everything will depend on state-by-state trends because of the electoral college.

If Trump does mount a successful 2020 re-election campaign in spite of all the forces against him, it will be his second highly improbable electoral victory. Yet it would not insulate him from further threats to his presidency. Because of the 22nd Amendment two-term limit, US Presidents are generally considered more vulnerable during their second term in office than during their first. Both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment inquiries took shape after those presidents won re-election.

In addition, if Trump’s recent mystifying behavior actually does signal a mental decline, as many have asserted, the symptoms of that decline will presumably grow more pronounced over time. Therefore, the threat of removal from office under the 25th Amendment could also be greater after 2020 than it is today. In short, the obstacles to Trump remaining in power until January 2025 are many and great, but in the present era of US politics, nothing is predictable.