Larry J. Sabato is director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Kyle Kondik manages the center’s Washington office. They are co-editors of the center’s newsletter, “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”
President Trump thrives on chaos, much of it his own creation. But it would be a mistake to assume that the reelection campaign of this most untraditional president will mirror the tumult of his 2016 effort. It’s too early to handicap 2020, but Trump may try to capitalize on some of the same factors that helped three modern Republican presidents, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, win reelection.
The reelections of all three men were not always certain. Around this time in the 1972 election cycle, Nixon held only a modest lead over the early Democratic front-runner, Edmund Muskie, who in 1968 had been the vice-presidential running mate of Hubert Humphrey. In late January 1983, pollster Lou Harris found former vice president Walter Mondale leading Reagan 53 percent to 44 percent. John Kerry’s challenge to Bush was nip-and-tuck throughout 2004. Fast-forward to 2019, and Trump often trails some Democrats in presidential trial heats, but with his large, solid base and a continuing good economy, it isn’t hard to see how Trump could win again.
That is not to suggest that Trump is destined to win, much less that he would rebound to a gigantic victory like Nixon’s and Reagan’s. For one thing, the landslides that one finds at regular intervals throughout much of the 20th century don’t even seem possible in this highly partisan, polarized era. America is in a stretch of eight consecutive presidential elections where neither side has won the popular vote by double digits, the longest such streak of close, competitive elections in U.S. history.
Another caveat: Trump’s approval rating has been upside down for essentially his entire presidency, and he has shown no inclination to broaden his base of support by changing his policies or softening his sharp rhetoric. From that perspective, even matching Bush’s 50.7 percent in 2004 seems like a major reach. Yet Trump could again win the presidency without winning the popular vote because of the strength of his coalition in the crucial Midwest battlegrounds.
Trump is in the process of jumping one major hurdle: He lacks a major primary challenger. (Bill Weld, the 2016 Libertarian vice-presidential candidate who recently declared a GOP primary challenge, does not count as “major.”) With approval ratings among Republicans usually exceeding 80 percent, and with his allies firmly in control of the party apparatus almost everywhere, Trump has thus far boxed out major intraparty opposition. The last three reelected GOP presidents all waltzed to renomination.
Trump is also going to be in a much better financial position than he was in 2016, when Hillary Clinton vastly outspent him. Trump already has $40 million in the bank for his reelection bid, and he should be able to raise hundreds of millions more now that his party is more completely behind him than in 2016. Money is not everything, as Trump himself showed in 2016, but any campaign would prefer having more, not less.
The Internet will be a campaign wild card again. Trump will probably reprise his 2016 digital advertising strategy to dissuade specific demographic groups, such as African Americans and young women, from voting for the Democratic candidate. His army of domestic online trolls no doubt will also turn out in force, and foreign actors, particularly Russians tied to the Kremlin, will almost certainly try to influence the election. Don’t expect the Trump administration to devote a lot of energy to frustrating those efforts.
The Democratic Party may inadvertently boost Trump if it gets carried away with an impeachment frenzy that prompts a voter backlash. Opposition to Trump will help unify the Democrats and fund the eventual nominee after a standard-bearer emerges from what is a giant and growing field of about 20 candidates. But one or more factions of the Democratic Party may emerge from the primary season disappointed and angry. Trump’s well-funded digital strategy will work to widen these fissures.
Ultimately, Trump may turn out to be at the mercy of conventional factors. In 2016, academic predictive models based on fundamentals such as the state of the economy suggested that Trump, or any other Republican candidate, was in position to win the election or come very close. This time, such models (once they become operative next year) could make Trump the early favorite despite his poor approval ratings.
Credit the powers of incumbency and a strong economy, the state of which may matter more to Trump’s odds than nearly anything else. Incumbency and the economy, among other matters, ended up being more than enough for Nixon, Reagan and Bush. Despite Trump’s unprecedented outlandishness, that same combination might work for him, too.