Members Only | February 26, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Yes, Trump Can Win 2020
For the same reasons, a plain-Jane Democrat has an advantage.
Today is a good day to remind everyone that the president, despite being unpopular, can win reelection. I say this knowing I’ve made a lot of hay out of the fact that Donald Trump is weak. But being weak does not necessarily mean he can’t be reelected. I think we should all presume he will win, and work like hell to see that he loses.
I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is special. He’s not covered in Teflon. Scandals stick to him. But the advantages of incumbency can’t be overstated. Any incumbent is a Colossus. In this case, he’s a Republican Colossus, meaning that the GOP, the mega-donors, the right-wing media apparatus—everyone on the right has huge incentive to see him win. That incentive is so great it may be the only thing holding up Trump. If he didn’t have an election ahead, the party might have abandoned him by now.
Trump is special in one constructive way. He will say anything, no matter how false, indecent or incendiary. In a context in which individual voters determine the outcome of an election, it wouldn’t pay to be that polarizing. But we’re not talking about a context in which individual voters determine the outcome of an election. We’re talking about a presidential election, and Trump can win again by splitting the country.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about the myth we all understand implicitly but rarely talk about, which is that individual voters decide who wins the presidency. If we did, the winner would be the person who won the most votes. That’s not the case. The Electoral College decides. But what does that mean? That, I think, is what many people truly don’t understand. It means that states decide who wins the presidency.
States decide who wins even if candidates do not win a majority of voters in those states. This is what happened in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016, where Trump’s margin of victory was smaller than the percentage of voters won by third-party candidates. The result was Trump not getting more than 50 percent of the vote. Some 87,000 voters delivered Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to Trump. All things considered, we can expect the same structure in 2020, in which bedrock states are more or less ignored by the candidates while all the action is in the swing states.
For this reason alone, it is nonsensical for Democrat candidates, and the news media covering them, to wonder which path is the best one, the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. That is a false choice, though I’m sure a lot of energy will be put into thinking about it. It’s a false choice, because there is no choice. The Democrat must compete in both.
Now, to be clear, when the news media asks whether the best path is the Rust Belt or the Sun Belt, what reporters are really asking about is racism. Specifically, they are asking whether the party should put up a candidate of color who might turn off white voters in the Midwest. Again, lots of hand-wringing will go into this question, but I contend it’s wasted time. Why? Two reasons. One, Barack Obama. Two, Trump.
Obama won the Midwest, twice, not in spite of being African American but because he spoke directly to the party’s traditional white working class voters (and because the news media relayed his message, which is not what happened in 2016). Over time, that voting bloc grew more hostile to black politics, but the party’s next nominee does not need to win all white working class voters. He or she does not need even half to win. Maybe a third, or less. (Remember, you don’t have to win a majority to win a state when a third-party candidate is running.) That means leaning into the second reason.
Being a Goliath is good for an incumbent, but that means bearing the onus of the election, which is to say that 2020 will be a referendum. This is the fundamental difference between 2020 and 2016, and any analysis that does not take that into account is not serious. No matter who the Democratic nominee is, voters will be thinking about whether to vote for or against the incumbent. No matter what policies the Democratic nominee embraces, even if wildly unrealistically “socialist,” the incumbent will be foremost in voters’ minds. And in a place like Michigan, where tariffs have been especially harmful, the Democrat need only ask whether voters are better off now than they were before. If not, perhaps give the Democrat a try.
One can argue that the more the president divides the country—the more Donald Trump remains the same—the more effective the Democrat will be by just standing still, providing an alternative or at least a tolerable alternative to the status quo. Being currently and historically unpopular does not mean Trump can’t win reelection. But those same reasons mean a plain-Jane Democratic nominee has an advantage.