Good reasons why Donald Trump is not a shoo-in for 2020
US Politics: The president is on a roll, but he has done little to woo swing voters
US president Donald Trump remains unpopular after the longest economic expansion in US history. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In the distant, half-forgotten yesteryear of January 2019, Donald Trump was bound to lose the next election. There was no money forthcoming for his wall against Mexico. There was, come to think of it, no federal government at all, bar the workers who toiled without pay during a shutdown of his own choosing.
He had lost a defence secretary and a chief of staff within weeks of each other. Pressed to name Washington’s most commanding septuagenarian, most would have cited speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
Even at the time, the Trump slump struck some of us as rather routine for midterm. Once he had presidential rivals to define himself against, ones with names and faces, not just the “generic Democrat” of polling fame, his genius for invective was always going to tell. It has. The reluctance of special counsel Robert Mueller to indict him was another boost. The economy’s impertinent refusal to slow down as much as some had forecast also helped. Trump is now stronger than at any point in his presidency.
There is a faint line, however, between correction and overcorrection. As Washington depopulates for the summer, that line is being crossed. There is exuberance on the right, the beginnings of despondency on the left and, among foreign observers in business and diplomacy, a sighing resignation to a second term of president Trump.
Some of this is “recency bias”: he is on a roll of little victories. Some of it is post-2016 trauma: having failed to see that result coming, no one wants to be caught out again. Either way, it is hopelessly premature.
After the longest economic expansion in US history, Trump remains unpopular. It does not follow that a recession in 2020 would finish him off. If the relationship between economics and politics were as clockwork as that, the incumbent Democrats would not have lost amid a boom in 2016. All the same, a president supervising 4 per cent unemployment should expect to go into an election year with a cushion of goodwill.
Instead, according to FiveThirtyEight, Jimmy Carter is the only postwar president with a worse net approval rating at this stage. Trump either trails or barely leads the main Democratic candidates in head-to-head polls. He has no buffer against adverse events.
The best hedge against the vagaries of the economic cycle is broad political appeal. It is hard to think of a president who has done less to recruit voters outside his natural following. Other than some enlightened reforms to criminal justice, the administration has been tonally and substantively all of a piece.
Triangulation – the pursuit of swing voters – was pronounced dead after 2016. In partisan times, the spoils supposedly go to the candidate who mobilises their half of a perfectly cleaved electorate. But just last year, the Democrats won the House by luring older voters and suburban women, many of whom had either voted the other way in 2016 or abstained in despair at the options.
The idea of a “50-50” nation denies the existence of these millions who are neither fish nor fowl. What, beyond an economy that was doing well enough without him, has Trump given them? What has he given anyone who was not already committed?
The president is right that he could gun people down on Fifth Avenue without losing voters. But he can also sustain peace and prosperity without gaining new ones. Such are the costs of over-rewarding one’s own tribe. As noble as it is to dance with the one who bring him, alienating all others makes for the riskiest of re-election strategies.
Those who are fatalistic about 2020 cite the weakness of the Democratic field. But it includes a twice-elected vice-president, no one as polarising as Hillary Clinton and a few candidates from the hinge region of the electoral map. Michigan, where the hopefuls debate each other this week, is just one of the Midwestern states that Trump won by less than one percentage point. On such narrow margins has he built his overblown reputation as the John Mellencamp of politics, attuned as if by telepathy to the longings and idiom of the heartland. His hold is more tenuous than that.
He should still be the marginal favourite. He can time a truce on trade with China for mid-2020, spurring the economy for long enough to see him through November. The Democrats risk being defined in the public mind by a few Congressional leftists. But just as he was never done for in January, the president is not a sure thing now. 2020 will pit a very stoppable force against an entirely moveable object. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019