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History Suggests Double Trouble for Incumbent Trump

This is part one of a back-and-forth between Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik and veteran reporter and presidential historian Paul Brandus assessing President Donald Trump’s reelection odds in 2020. See the piece from Kondik here.

The Editors


— President Trump’s weak approval rating is a bad sign for his reelection prospects in 2020.

— His standing is reminiscent of previous presidents who have faced stiff opposition not just in a general election, but also in a primary.

Less than a year and a half in, Trump is in deep trouble for 2020

President Donald Trump talks of winning reelection in 2020, and he filed papers to run again back on Inauguration Day. But history suggests the person taking the oath of office 33 months from now will be someone else.

If the past is any guide — it often is, of course — it means not just trouble for Trump in 2020, but double trouble. It suggests the president, one of the weakest incumbents in decades, will attract a challenger from his own party. It also suggests that even if he holds off that challenger and wins the nomination, he will go down to defeat in November.

This is the part where Trumpsters scoff and point out that the president thrashed all 16 of his rivals in 2016 and that no one would dare take him on again.

But it’s different now. Trump swept into office a year and a half ago on a smoke-and-mirrors campaign powered by blarney and billions in free TV time. But in 2020 he’ll be an incumbent with a record — and a display of recklessness and instability that has turned off, if not frightened, tens of millions of Americans.

According to the RealClearPolitics average of all polls, Trump’s overall approval peaked in January 2017 at 46% and has gradually slipped since, hovering in a 37% to 44% band for the past year. As of Wednesday, his average approval was 41.9%. Fake news? I don’t think so.

What does this suggest about Trump’s reelection prospects? In the last half-century, there have been four times when a weak presidential incumbent invited a primary challenger from within his own party. None of these weak incumbents — Lyndon Johnson (1968), Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), or George H.W. Bush (1992) — was re-elected (or in Ford’s case, elected, given that he became president when Richard Nixon resigned). Let’s take a closer look:

— 1968: Growing opposition to the Vietnam War took Lyndon Johnson’s approval (Gallup) from 79% in early 1964 to 41% four years later. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) challenged him for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly upsetting the president in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson’s arch-enemy Robert F. Kennedy then declared his candidacy. LBJ, seeing the writing on the wall, announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination.

— 1976: Gerald Ford was a weak incumbent for two reasons: his pardon of Richard Nixon and a terrible recession. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) took him on in the Republican presidential nomination contest. After a tooth-and-nail fight that went all the way to the GOP national convention, Ford won his party’s nomination. But Ford was badly weakened, and he lost to Jimmy Carter that fall.

— 1980: Thanks to a recession and a hostage crisis with Iran, it was Carter’s turn to earn an intraparty challenge, this time by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Carter vowed to “whip his ass,” and did — only to be crushed by Reagan in a November landslide.

— 1992: After winning the Gulf War in a rout, George H.W. Bush’s approval soared to 89%. A shoo-in for reelection, right? But Bush, backing away from a major 1988 campaign pledge, supported a tax hike to lower the deficit. That, along with a mild recession, caused his approval to collapse. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged him for the GOP presidential nomination and won nearly a quarter of all primary votes. A weakened Bush survived to make the general election, but lost in a three-way race that November to Bill Clinton.

If that’s not ominous enough for Trump, consider this: He’s at or below the approval of all four of those unsuccessful incumbents at this stage (Trump is at 39% approval in Gallup right now). Gallup approval 15 months in:

  • Johnson (Feb. 1965): 68%
  • Ford (Nov. 1975): 44%
  • Carter (April 1978): 40%
  • Bush (April 1990): 67%

History is also against Trump in another big way: he’s the fifth president to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. So what happened to the other four when they sought re-election? Only one was successful.

  • John Quincy Adams (1828): crushed by Andrew Jackson
  • Rutherford Hayes (1880): declined to run again
  • Benjamin Harrison (1892): lost to Grover Cleveland
  • George W. Bush (2004): won reelection

And Bush’s 2004 win wasn’t exactly a landslide. He got 50.7% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Had the United States not been in two wars in 2004 — Afghanistan and Iraq — voters might have been more willing to change horses in midstream.

To recap: Trump faces a double historical whammy: He’s a weak incumbent and a popular vote loser to boot. Predecessors in similar situations have largely failed to overcome such hurdles.

And while Trump’s antics, Twitter rants, and unprecedented behavior in office win cheers among his base, it has largely turned off millions of potential converts elsewhere. His constant bending of the truth (also known as lying)   and gratuitous insults of voters — like those in New Hampshire, a state he trashed as a “drug-infested den” don’t help, either. Trump lost the Granite State’s four electoral votes in 2016; if he keeps shooting his mouth off, good luck there in 2020.

Speaking of New Hampshire, a very early Republican primary poll just out from American Research Group found Trump at 48% and Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) at 42% in the Granite State. Guess what? That’s almost exactly what happened there 50 years ago: LBJ won 50% and McCarthy won 42%. It’s still early, but history could repeat itself and potentially teach President Trump an embarrassing lesson.

Paul Brandus, a frequent speaker at presidential libraries and the author of the acclaimed Under This Roof: A History of the White House and Presidency (Lyons Press, 2015) and This Day in Presidential History (Bernan Press, 2017), is an award-winning independent member of the White House press corps. He founded West Wing Reports in 2009 (Twitter @WestWingReport) and reports for television and radio clients across the United States and overseas. He is also a contributing columnist for USA Today and a financial columnist for MarketWatch and Dow Jones. He previously spent five years as a journalist in Moscow and several years as a New York-based network television producer and writer.