How voters feel about economy, impeachment will decide which party rules in 2021
After Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, there’s a saturating fear of projecting elections. Nearly three years into his presidency, and with one year left in his first term, there are multiple potential outcomes for the 2020 elections. But the scenarios aren’t created equal and don’t have the same chance of taking place, and they will have a profound impact on policy in the future.
Even though predicting anything to do with Trump might seem like a risk because of how typically damaging stories don’t seem to impact his standing, the president is a historically unpopular figure whose job approval rating has been static for months. More voters have disapproved than approved of his job performance since about a week after he was inaugurated, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, and his approval rating has been between 41 and 44 percent for most of the past year and a half.
Trump remains incredibly popular with the Republican base, however, and the GOP has transitioned to primarily embracing a person more than a conservative ideology. That could eventually create a messy transition of power, but for now, it gives the president a high electoral floor as Republicans rally to his cause.
Meanwhile, without the White House and a clear leader, Democrats are battling for the heart and soul of their party in the presidential and congressional primaries. Whether that battle ends with a nominee from the party’s most liberal wing or one closer to the middle — and how long bad feelings in the losing side’s camp linger into the fall — may go a long way towards determining the odds of a Trump defeat. Still, amid the infighting, Democrats have a powerful common mission: preventing Trump from winning a second term.
The 2020 elections were already difficult to project, considering the closeness of the 2016 presidential election and narrow Republican majority in the Senate, but impeachment has thrown a new wrinkle into the cycle. Impeachment is a wild card: If independent voters believe Trump’s argument that it’s an abuse of congressional power driven by petty politics, it could drive up his vote in a way that a campaign with unprecedented financial resources might not.
A year before the election, there are still multiple potential outcomes for 2020, including four different combinations of partisan control of the White House and Congress. (The chances of a Democratic Senate with a Republican House are considered nil.)
The analysis that follows is based on voter behavior in past elections and historical cycles, assessing the variables that are foreseeable in 2020 and conversations with pollsters working with candidates in both parties who agreed to speak candidly on the condition they not be named.
Following are four scenarios, in order of their likelihood:
This outcome presumes that through the end of his term, Trump remains a polarizing president who mobilizes the Democratic base and cannot secure enough support from independent voters. That would leave him unable to recreate his Electoral College victory in 2016, when he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent each and by 77,744 votes combined.
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Trump is relying on the Silent Plurality who showed up to vote for him over Hillary Clinton, not a Vocal Majority, which could make him the first one-term president in nearly 30 years. For that to happen, Democrats who took the 2016 race for granted but turned out two years later to flip the House majority would have to return in 2020.
Democrats face a divisive primary, but the prospect of four more years of Trump could be a powerful unifier. Clinton received support from 89 percent of Democratic voters in 2016, but the 2020 nominee who gets closer to the 92 percent President Barack Obama received in 2012 and the 95 percent Democratic House and Senate candidates received in 2018 will be able to make inauguration plans. That solidification (and fewer Democrats voting for third-party candidates) would be enough to swing Trump’s closest 2016 states and pull another handful of states into the Democratic column as well.
Trump has a reputation for defying historical norms because of his initial victory, but he’s up against a heavy burden of precedent this time. Every incumbent with an approval rating of 49 percent or higher won re-election, while every candidate with a rating of 48 percent or lower lost, according to FiveThirtyEight. In his first four years in office, Trump’s job approval rating has not consistently risen above 45 percent.
Keeping the economy growing and out of recession helps Trump, but for that to seal the deal with independent voters, he will have to keep the campaign focused on the economy and not on other issues. A year out, that looks unlikely.
“Trump’s current job rating falls well below the number at which any incumbent has ever been retained,” says Democratic pollster Jill Normington of Normington Petts.
In the Senate, Republicans stand to benefit from a map in which eight of the 10 most competitive races take place in states Trump carried in 2016.
“What holds the Senate is geography,” says GOP pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies.
Narrow victories for Trump in Arizona and North Carolina in 2020 would not be enough to reelect GOP Sens. Martha McSally and Thom Tillis. And if Colorado were to go against him by double digits, it would be too much for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to overcome. But Republicans’ likely recapture of the Alabama Senate seat now held by Democrat Doug Jones could be enough for the GOP to maintain a 51-49 majority heading into a Democratic presidency, when a Supreme Court seat or two could become vacant.
In the House, Republicans and Democrats could swap a handful of seats while Democrats maintain their majority.
This would happen despite the Democrats overcoming their early reluctance to move forward with an impeachment inquiry (largely to avoid a voter backlash similar to what Republicans experienced after impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998) and formally impeaching the president.
A Senate acquittal would keep Trump on the ballot, but the backlash would be minimized if voters see it as a continuation of Washington infighting rather than a “constitutional crisis” or vindication of Trump.
In this scenario, Democrats won’t lose any districts specifically because of impeachment, but a few seats that they probably shouldn’t have won in 2018, such as Oklahoma’s 5th District captured by Kendra Horn and South Carolina’s 1st District won by Joe Cunningham, would come back to their partisan roots. Most vulnerable Republicans were purged in the midterm elections, but the GOP would be unable to recapture enough of the few suburban districts that continue to voice disapproval of Trump.
With little partisan change in the next Congress, significant legislation would depend on the new Democratic president’s appetite for compromise.
This result requires a surge in Democratic voters and continued revolt by independent voters against Trump as seen in the 2018 midterm elections.
There are signs it could happen.
“There’s no evidence of dissipation in Democratic anger and frustration,” says Republican pollster Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group.
Trump would be the catalyst to unify and energize the Democratic Party,
causing him to lose some of the states he won by the closest margins in 2016, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while also turning Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia blue on Election Night. Iowa, which backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, would also return to the Democrats’ column.
“The trade war accelerates and family farmers have had enough,” says Democratic consultant Normington, explaining how the Hawkeye State could turn on Trump. The cash-flush Republican National Committee could even be forced to spend money defending the president in Texas, where a Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t won since 1976.
Independent voters help tip the scales by putting more focus on the president’s conduct than their personal bottom lines after four years of overlooking presidential tweets and tirades.
“The economy is where conservative and swing voters are giving him a lot of credit and consider giving him another term,” says Democratic pollster Molly Murphy of ALG Research.
Were the economy to slow and veer closer toward a recession, however, the president would lose his trump card. Trump won independent voters by 4 points in 2016 (46-42 percent), according to the exit polls, but he could lose them by a dozen points (54-42 percent) in 2020, similar to the Democratic performance in the midterm elections. The president’s unwavering base of GOP voters would stay with him, but not be enough to win in enough states.
For this outcome, a vote by House Democrats to impeach the president would have to have little electoral consequence. That means the party would need to have managed the investigation effectively and simultaneously focused on other issues, including health care and wage inequality. The process also might have drawn support from some Republicans wary of defending the president after countless allegations of abuse of power.
In the Senate, Trump’s weakness at the top of the ticket could create a perfect storm for a Democratic majority, with the president losing Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Iowa by margins too large for GOP incumbents (who had no choice but to tie themselves to Trump) to overcome.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins would also fall in Maine as voters continued to disregard personal brands and prioritize partisan purity and control of the chamber.
Kansas could also be a pickup for Democrats if Republicans nominate former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, despite his loss in a statewide race in 2018.
All this would mean that even if the Senate seat held by Jones in Alabama flips to the GOP, Democrats would still gain enough seats that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III isn’t the deciding vote on every issue.
In the House, this climate would mean Democrats add to their majority, picking off two of the last three GOP incumbents to represent Clinton districts as well as a handful of suburban districts that have been trending Democratic in response to Trump. They would include some of the 16 seats in 12 states the GOP won by fewer than 4 percentage points in 2018. Iowa Rep. Steve King’s renomination by Republican voters would also give an otherwise solid Republican seat to Democrats.
Such a sweep would have Democrats riding high and the media pronouncing the end of the Republican Party. While the election would be more of a repudiation of Trump, Democrats could declare a legislative mandate for their most polarizing policies, including Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and more restrictions on gun ownership. That would set up a potential backlash election in 2022 allowing the GOP to bounce back.
Some $6 billion in ad spending and countless hours of media coverage and activism could keep today’s government in place after the 2020 elections, as has happened in 17 out of 30 presidential election cycles since 1900.
Trump would nearly replicate his Electoral College victory from 2016, except 2020 would see him losing Pennsylvania. Democratic turnout would exceed 2016’s, giving the party’s nominee a greater popular vote victory than Clinton in 2016. But the increased Democratic turnout would come largely from urban areas that don’t affect the Electoral College result.
Impeachment, meanwhile, worked to galvanize Republicans and ignite GOP turnout, similar to the backlash against Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings ahead of the midterm elections.
“Impeachment is a Kavanaugh effect on turnout. We still lost in 2018, but we would have lost by more,” according to GOP pollster Bolger.
Even with Trump’s job approval rating slowly climbing close to 50 percent on the strength of the economy, he’d remain the most unpopular president ever to have been reelected in at least 50 years, according to Gallup. But were Trump to stay focused enough on the economy, instead of veering back into the dire warnings about migrant caravans he embraced toward the end of 2018, he would maintain strong enough support with independent voters to win four more years.
Trump would also benefit from facing a Democratic nominee easily portrayed as out of the mainstream.
“The secret sauce of success is having the right contrast,” says GOP pollster Brock McCleary of Harper Polling.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s nomination would help Republicans fundamentally reframe the election from a referendum on Trump to a contrast between ideologies. Trump’s near shameless ability to shift gears and attack things he himself supported days or even hours earlier makes him impossible to pin down. Warren’s specific plans, assets in the primary battle against other Democrats, would become liabilities in the general election by giving Republicans details to attack. And endless ads warning of a socialist takeover would allow the Trump campaign to squeeze more votes from rural areas, where Democrats thought they had reached their electoral floor.
Impeachment would be the whipped cream on top, not only driving wavering voters to Trump but hurting Democrats down-ballot. An acquittal in the Senate would leave voters fatigued — and Democrats disappointed — as the public decided that pressuring Ukraine deserved no more weight than the Mueller report. Impeachment would also leave little oxygen for Democratic incumbents and strategists to communicate their work on other kitchen table issues.
“Democrats must show they are both handling the inquiry and doing work on day-to-day issues voters face,” says Democratic pollster Mike Bocian of consulting firm GBAO.
In the Senate, the president’s performance would contribute to a largely status quo result. Democrats could knock off Gardner in Colorado (where Trump could do worse than in 2016) and McSally in Arizona (where Democrats have a strong candidate), but a loss in Alabama would mean they are little closer to the four-seat flip necessary for a majority. Collins in Maine would benefit from representing a small state where she’s cultivated relationships during four terms in the Senate. And Democratic candidates in lower-tier races failed to develop into top-tier challengers.
In the House, Democrats would maintain their majority even though the president’s reelection was a boost for the GOP’s prospects in the final weeks. Republicans could take back a third of the 31 districts represented by Democrats that Trump carried in 2016, but still be left short of the 19 seats they needed to gain a majority. Strong fundraising by Democratic incumbents and Trump’s decision to focus on competitive seats in the West, South and Midwest instead of areas such as traditionally red suburbs in the Northeast and California would insulate the Democrats from larger losses in the House.
With a polarizing president impeached by the House, this is the most realistic best-case scenario for Republicans.
But unencumbered by another reelection to worry about, Trump in a second term is difficult to predict. He could push traditionally Republican or nationalist policies. But he also could prioritize deal-making and legacy building by working with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and forcing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to go along with it.
Everything that could go wrong for Democrats would have to go wrong in this scenario. And, for a second time, everything would have to break Trump’s way, including the nomination of a Democratic opponent viewed as too ideologically extreme. Democrats’ pursuit of impeachment would also galvanize Republicans and turn off independent voters, and the ultimate acquittal would depress Democrats.
A year out from the 2020 elections, full Republican control of Washington is the least likely outcome, but a culmination of events could produce significant change in trajectory of a political environment that had appeared immovable.
“It’s very hard to see,” says Murphy, the Democratic consultant, about the likelihood of the scenario and conditions for it to become reality. For it to happen, she says Democrats would have to have “lost total control of the narrative.”
Nominating a candidate far outside the political mainstream, however, could not only inspire rural Republicans but also push suburban voters who punished the GOP in 2018 back into the Republican fold in 2020. Trump’s job approval rating slowly ticking up to 50 percent, in large part because of the strength of a growing economy, would also help him improve on his 4-point margin of victory among independents in 2016.
A divisive primary all the way to the national convention in Milwaukee would leave Democrats entering the fall depressed as they watch Trump’s reelection prospects, once seen as remote, steadily improve.
In the Senate, Republicans would defy the map, which had them defending twice as many seats as Democrats, by gaining seats. Not only would vulnerable GOP incumbents win reelection and Alabama return to the party’s side with the defeat of Jones, but the GOP would pick up the seat of Michigan’s Gary Peters. Trump recreated his 2016 Electoral College map while adding victories in three states with large white populations he narrowly lost last time: Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine.
In the House, Republicans would gain more than 20 seats to retake the majority just two years after losing it. That hasn’t happened since the 1950s, and it has been more than 25 years since Republicans gained that many seats in a presidential cycle. Trump’s performance at the top of the ballot, however, would carry multiple GOP challengers across the finish line in races where they were vastly outspent by well-financed Democratic incumbents.
Democrats, after losing to Trump for a second time, would react with a mix of terror, nightmare, panic and apocalypse. Losing to a polarizing President George W. Bush in 2004 was nothing compared to the backbiting and told-ya-so’s that would result. The complete repudiation of the liberal direction of the party at a time when the progressive wing was becoming stronger and more emboldened would leave the party directionless.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.