Don’t Believe the Washington CW: Trump is no Shoo-In for Reelection

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Some commentators are beginning to look at Donald Trump as a strong favorite for a second term.

— These projections are generally based on the power of incumbency and the strength of the economy.

— However, it may be that the president won’t benefit from these advantages as much as previous incumbents, particularly as his approval rating remains weak.

Is Trump a favorite?

In less than 10 months, Americans will be heading to the polls to decide whether Donald Trump deserves a second term in the White House — assuming that he survives an impeachment trial in the Senate, as appears likely to be the case. Despite his chronically low approval ratings and his status as only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, Trump is being touted as a solid favorite to win a second term in the White House by commentators ranging from Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker to economic forecaster Mark Zandi.

The reasons basically boil down to two factors — the advantage of incumbency and a strong economy. But will these be enough to overcome the president’s other liabilities?

There are reasons to be skeptical. Since the end of World War II, three incumbent presidents have lost their bids for reelection — Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Carter and Bush suffered from approval ratings that were well under water and Ford, while personally popular, was damaged by his association with his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon. All eight successful incumbents had net approval ratings that were either positive or, in the cases of Harry Truman (-4) and George W. Bush (-1), only slightly negative, in the months preceding their elections. In contrast, Donald Trump’s approval rating has remained mired in negative territory from the beginning of his presidency. As of Wednesday, his net approval rating stood at -10.8% (approval 42.2%, disapproval 53.0%), according to the FiveThirtyEight weighted average of recent polls. Moreover, polls measuring the intensity of these opinions have consistently found that those strongly disapproving of Trump’s performance outnumber those strongly approving by a fairly wide margin. In a Jan. 7-9 YouGov poll, for example, 45% of Americans strongly disapproved of Trump’s job performance compared with 26% who strongly approved.

What about that advantage of incumbency? Since World War II, only one incumbent, Jimmy Carter in 1980, has lost his bid for a second term when his party had reclaimed the White House four years earlier. According to my own “Time for Change” forecasting model, first-term incumbents like Trump enjoy a significant advantage beyond what their approval ratings and economic conditions would predict. However, there are strong reasons to suspect that Donald Trump may not benefit from the same incumbency advantage that previous first-term presidents have enjoyed.

According to recent research on congressional elections, the advantage of incumbency has declined sharply in recent years as a result of growing partisan polarization. Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego has shown that voters have become increasingly reluctant to cross party lines to support incumbents based on their voting records or constituency service.  The same logic may well apply at the presidential level, especially with an incumbent like Trump whose electoral strategy is based on reinforcing partisan divisions among the public. Indeed, Trump’s presidency has produced the sharpest partisan divisions in job approval ratings in the history of public opinion polling. In a December Quinnipiac poll, for example, 91% of Republican identifiers approved of Trump’s performance with 79% strongly approving. In contrast, 94% of Democratic identifiers disapproved of Trump’s performance with 89% strongly disapproving.

Rather than trying to expand his electoral coalition by appealing to Democrats and independents, Trump’s strategy for 2020 appears to be based almost entirely on energizing and mobilizing the Republican base. The problem with this approach, however, is that efforts to energize and mobilize the Republican base also energize and mobilize the Democratic base. Thus, the 2018 election produced the highest turnout for any midterm election in over a century and big gains for Democrats, and recent polls have found that voter interest in the 2020 election is very high among Democrats as well as Republicans.

The other key advantage that President Trump enjoys, according to some election forecasters, is the strong U.S. economy. The first three years of Trump’s presidency have produced solid job growth, declining unemployment, and a booming stock market.

Despite the solid economic numbers, however, there are good reasons to believe that the economy may not be as big an advantage for Trump as some analysts, and the president himself, believe. For one thing, the rate of economic growth under Trump has actually been fairly modest and consistent with that under his predecessor, Barack Obama. Economic forecasts generally have the U.S. economy expanding a rate of about 2% during the first half of 2020. The average growth rate of GDP for incumbent presidents since World War II is 3.9%. And while unemployment is near record low levels, gains from the growing economy have been concentrated heavily among the wealthiest Americans.

Another reason why the president may not receive much political benefit from a growing economy is partisan polarization. John Sides of George Washington University has recently shown that public opinion about the state of the U.S. economy is now far more divided along party lines than in the past. Republicans generally have very favorable opinions about economic conditions and credit the president for producing those results. Democrats, on the other hand, are far less sanguine about the economy and give the president far less credit for any positive results. As a result, Sides argues, Trump may receive less benefit from positive economic trends than earlier presidents who presided over growing economies.

Table 1: A simple forecasting model for U.S. presidential elections with running incumbents

Source: Data compiled by author

Table 1 shows the results of a simple two-factor forecasting model based on 11 elections since World War II with an incumbent running for a second term. The dependent variable in this model is the number of electoral votes won by the incumbent. I am forecasting the electoral vote here because, in the aftermath of the 2000 and 2016 elections, we cannot assume that the winner of the popular vote will also win the electoral vote. However, in these 11 elections there were no Electoral College “misfires,” and the correlation between the incumbent’s popular vote share and electoral vote was an extremely strong .975. The two predictors in this model are the incumbent president’s net approval rating (approval-disapproval) in late June or early July of the election year and the growth rate of real GDP in the second quarter of the election year. The second quarter results generally have the strongest effect on election results of those for any other time period.

The model is based on elections with a running incumbent because both presidential approval and real GDP growth have much stronger effects on the outcomes of these elections than on open seat elections. (This is a different model than one I wrote about last year.)

The results in Table 1 show that this simple model works quite well. Both predictors have strong and statistically significant effects with mid-year presidential approval having a somewhat larger effect than second quarter GDP growth. According to these estimates, for every one-point increase in real GDP growth, the incumbent can expect to gain an average of 15.4 electoral votes. Likewise, for every one-point increase in net approval, the incumbent can expect to gain an average of 3.6 electoral votes.

So where does this leave President Trump in 2020? Based on his current net approval rating of approximately -10 and the expected growth rate of real GDP during the second quarter of 2020, Trump would be expected to win approximately 237 electoral votes — well short of the 270 needed to win. Given the fairly large standard error of this estimate, a reflection of the small number of elections it is based on, the prediction of a Trump defeat is far from certain — he would still have about a 30% chance of winning. But these results suggest that Trump begins 2020 as a clear underdog.

Of course, Trump’s chances of winning a second term would improve considerably if the economy grows more rapidly than expected and, especially, if he can raise his net approval rating into positive territory. Sides, mentioned earlier, also recently observed that the approval rating for incumbent presidents often improves as they seek reelection. If that happens, it would bolster Trump’s odds in this model. For example, the model predicts that Trump would win 272 electoral votes — just over the 270 minimum needed for victory — if he can raise his net approval rating to zero, meaning equal approval and disapproval. However, this is something he has not accomplished at any time since his first few weeks in office based on the FiveThirtyEight average.

Conclusions

Claims that President Trump should be viewed as a clear favorite to win a second term in the White House based on the normal advantage of incumbency and a growing economy in 2020 may be overstating his advantages. The advantage of incumbency in all U.S. elections has been diminishing due to growing partisan polarization and the modest expected growth rate of the economy may not be enough to overcome Trump’s persistently low job ratings.

This doesn’t mean that Trump can’t win the election, of course. For one thing, the Trump campaign and its political allies will probably be able to outspend the opposition by a wide margin. Nor can we rule out the possibility that Russia will again conduct a stealth social media campaign to discredit the Democratic nominee — just this week, news emerged that Russian operatives hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, served as a board member. It seems possible that they were hunting for dirt that could be used against Biden.

The biggest unknown about the upcoming election is the identity of President Trump’s Democratic opponent. While a presidential election with a running incumbent is largely a referendum on the incumbent’s performance, the political appeal and campaign ability of the challenger also matters. The more the campaign and the election revolve around the president’s record and performance, the better the chance that he will be defeated. And while Trump and his allies will undoubtedly try to portray any Democratic challenger as a radical socialist whose extreme policies would destroy the economy and embolden America’s adversaries, some potential Democratic candidates might make that task easier than others.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. His latest book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, was released in 2018 by Yale University Press.