by Doug Sosnik
Conventional wisdom says that the winner of the 2020 presidential race will be the candidate who best turns out his or her base voters. Sounds utterly sensible and, to my ear, utterly wrong. Just remember the outcome of the 2016 election, when swing voters — many of whom had voted for Barack Obama — helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
Swing voters hold the key in 2020. Which is surprising, in a way, because Trump is now the defining figure in American politics, and most voters decided a long time ago to either love him or hate him.
Most voters. But not all. And those few Americans who are still ambivalent about the president are likely to be the ones who will pick the winner.
So, who are these folks? Who, after nearly three years with Trump on the national scene, day after day, still isn’t sure how to vote?
First, they are mostly Republicans and independents. Second, they don’t particularly care for Democrats as a rule. Put another way, the swing voters in the upcoming election will be made up of two groups of people — conflicted Trump supporters who dislike Trump personally, but who approve of the job he is doing as president; and voters who currently have an unfavorable view of the president, but who could be persuaded to vote for him if they find the Democratic nominee unacceptable.
In a series of polls conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News since he became president, Trump’s personal favorability ratings have averaged only around 40 percent, with more than 50 percent of voters having an unfavorable view of him. For the vast majority of Trump supporters and detractors, the strong personal views of Trump are unlikely to change.
Nevertheless, Trump’s job approval ratings have remained consistently higher than his personal favorability. In May’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Trump had a job approval of 46 percent, seven points higher than his personal favorability.
That seven-point difference reflects voters who are ambivalent about Trump and might be reluctant to admit publicly that they support him. They tend to be disproportionately political independents or people who have voted for Republicans in the past, but who are more moderate than today’s GOP.
While these voters agree with Trump’s positions on trade policy, tax cuts and fewer government rules and regulations, their conditional support for the president rests largely on his stewardship of the economy. In fact, in May’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 51 percent of registered voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, up 10 points from September 2017.
In past elections, the best predictor of a president’s reelection was the public’s perception of the state of the economy, but that might not be the case in 2020. Despite 51 percent approval of Trump’s handling of the economy, a thin majority of Americans has consistently disapproved of the job that he has done as president, making it difficult for him to win in a two-person race.
That is why appealing to a second group of swing voters will become a central focus of Trump’s reelection.
While these voters don’t like Trump much, his campaign will view them as gettable if they can be convinced that the Democratic nominee will threaten their economic futures. In the all-time irony of ironies, Trump will try to make the Democratic nominee too risky to vote for, a socialist who will threaten the success the nation has had since he became president.
Trump has demonstrated an uncanny ability to create a negative narrative for his opponents that sticks with the public. This was central to his success in 2016, and it will be a core element to his 2020 reelection strategy. In his last race, Trump’s strategy was built on appealing to his base by demonizing his opponents, both in the primary as well as in the general election.
Despite a 38 percent personal favorability rating on Election Day in 2016 — which matches his current support in the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll — Trump won the presidency with 304 electoral votes.
Exit polls showed how effective that strategy was for Trump in 2016. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 Trump voterscited his or her opposition to Hillary Clinton as the primary reason for choosing Trump. These voters were disproportionately white, older, male, suburban and Republican.
Election Day exit polls showed that 18 percent of voters had a negative view of both candidates; nevertheless, Trump carried this group by an overwhelming margin of 47 percent to 30 percent.
Since taking office, Trump has continued his approach of demonizing his opposition, and his 2020 campaign will look like more of the same. Trump will continue to do and say whatever it takes to ensure that he supercharges his base to vote in 2020. But his reelection will turn on whether he can convince voters who currently oppose him that he is the better option than the Democratic alternative.
Trump’s expected strategy offers a clear road map for Democrats in their selection of their 2020 nominee for the presidency.
To avoid a repeat of 2016, the Democratic nominee will need to give the swing voters a reason to vote for him or her. If no such reason emerges, we are likely to endure four more years of Trump as commander in chief.
Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist, was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000.