In four top 2020 battlegrounds, it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s Donald Trump

Our new polls show the star of the 2020 election will be Donald Trump. No matter who they nominate, Democrats would be wise to keep him center stage.

by Robert Alexander and Lauren Copeland

President Donald Trump recently tweeted: “ ‘It’s about the Economy, stupid’, except when it comes to Trump. The fact is, the Fake News Media hates talking about the Economy, and how incredible it is!”

One of the great paradoxes of the Trump presidency is that positive views of the economy have not translated into positive views of Trump. Confidence in the economy is as high as it has been in two decades. Generally, such positive assessments of the economy suggest a much clearer path to a second term for an incumbent president, but Trump’s approval rating is the lowest among any incumbent president since Gerald Ford in 1976.

Trump has never been very popular — registering a 36% approval rating on the eve of the 2016 election and averaging just 40% approval in his first three years as president. He even failed to win the popular vote. Instead, he earned an Electoral College victory thanks to razor-thin wins in the “Blue Wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He won all three by less than 1 percentage point, for a total of 46 electoral votes

Trump flipped these states and Ohio from blue to red, reversing Obama victories in 2008 and 2012. If he keeps up the trend, he could very well lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College — again. 

Trump is vulnerable in swing states

We will be tracking voter attitudes in these critical states through our Great Lakes Poll during the 2020 race. The first of these polls reveals that Trump has a lot of work to do if he is to repeat his success. While respondents give Trump high marks for the economy, they do not seem to think it’s enough to award him a second term.

For many, the 2020 election might more accurately center around: “It’s Trump, stupid.” Prospective voters in these states have not embraced Trump and are not fond of the polarization that has defined his presidency. For all the talk of policy differences among Democrats, ultimately their eventual nominee will be best served by keeping the focus on Trump and promoting a message of unity to capture those who have been frustrated by the dysfunction evidenced through last year’s government shutdown and this year’s impeachment battle.

Pluralities in each of these states indicate they would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate over Trump in November. These margins vary slightly by state, but in each instance, Trump appears to be in trouble. In fact, between 45% (in Ohio) and 49% (in Michigan) indicate that they are “almost certain to vote against Donald Trump no matter whom the Democrats nominate for president.”

Further clues regarding Trump’s woes in these states can be found when it comes to impeachment. Majorities in three of these four key battlegrounds — all but Ohio — supported the House impeachment. Perhaps more surprising is that half of respondents support Trump’s removal by the Senate in Wisconsin and Michigan, and a near majority supports his removal in Pennsylvania (49%). These numbers reflect a significant rise in support for the impeachment process compared with polls last fall. 

On issues, Trump shows weaknesses when it comes to national security and health care. Pluralities believe that Trump’s foreign policy has made the United States less safe and less respected in the world. Likewise, majorities of respondents in Wisconsin (56%), Michigan (53%) and Pennsylvania (51%) do not approve of how Trump has handled health care policy.

Biden and Sanders do best

When it comes to Trump’s prospective opponent, we find strong support among Democrats for former Vice President Joe Biden in these states. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also fares well, even polling as the top choice in Wisconsin. Surprisingly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts registers a distant third, while former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is solidly the fourth choice among Democrats — outpacing another former mayor who has received a lot of media attention, Pete Buttigieg.

Although Bloomberg has not been active in the debates or the campaign trail, the Great Lakes states have been blitzed with his advertisements on television, radio and social media

This strategy appears to be having some effect. Many of his ads tout that he can work across the aisle to get things done. This tracks well with the finding that many prospective voters in these states believe that Democrats have become too liberal and that Republicans have become too conservative. Bloomberg’s plan to devote his attention to the Super Tuesday states is risky, but these findings suggest there may be more of an appetite for a Bloomberg candidacy than what has been reported.

Regardless of who the Democrats ultimately nominate, one thing is certain. The star of the 2020 election will be Donald Trump. As it stands, Democrats would be well served to have him take center stage.

His inability to convert Americans’ economic optimism to optimism for his candidacy should be worrisome to his supporters. Prospective voters in the Great Lakes have yet to warm to Trump and appear open to change in spite of their positive views of the economy.

Robert Alexander, director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University, is author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” Lauren Copeland is an assistant professor and associate director of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University. Follow them on Twitter: @onuprof and @laurencopeland0

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