The recent Democratic takeover of the House is a clear sign to many that President Donald Trump is significantly weakened going into 2020. After all, the Democrats won the greatest number of seats since the 1974 midterms. But reading too much into the midterm tea leaves is a dangerous practice. In truth, these midterms say very little about the next presidential election, and as attention shifts to 2020, Trump still remains the favorite.
This prediction comes from our analysis of more than 500 elections, which indicates that a typical incumbent president with approval ratings at or above 40 percent should be the favorite to win re-election. With Trump’s current 44 percent approval rating, he should have about a 70 percent chance of winning in 2020. Furthermore, even with an approval rating at 40 percent, Trump would still have better than a 50/50 chance of winning.
There is, however, one major variable that can upend these statistical likelihoods: Is Trump just too different from past presidents? After all, he only has the support of his base; he spurns all norms of behavior for a president; he is besieged by multiple scandals; his relationship with the truth is malleable; he only won by razor-thin margins in many swing states; and so on. Put differently, should Trump’s real chances of victory be discounted relative to “what is typical” based on his atypical behavior?
There are some indicators that suggest he may underperform the models in 2020.
1. Trump’s approval ratings could decline.
If fewer than 40 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, that shifts his advantage to a tossup. Trump’s approval could take hits from any number of sources, including an economic downturn or external events, such as the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Today, Trump’s numbers are being buoyed by the strong economy. Yet with predictions of a weakening global economy and higher interest rates, these numbers could be in jeopardy—a point of increase in unemployment levels corresponds with a 2 point decline in approval ratings, for instance. But absent a major economic crash, the effect on Trump’s job approval is likely to be small.
Beyond the economy, Trump’s history of suboptimal leadership decisions, questionable personal conduct, and corruption scandals have had negative impacts on his approval ratings. However, these dips typically have a short half-life with his numbers reverting back to the status quo ante.
The open question will be: Do the Mueller report or Democratic investigations lead to a more prolonged dip? If Trump loses 4 to 5 percentage points heading into 2020, that could be enough to potentially sink re-election.
2. Turnout will be key in 2020.
With Democrats holding a 5 percentage point advantage in the total number of voters, strong turnout in the Republican base is vital for Republican chances. In 2016, Republican voters were more engaged than Democrats on the whole. Under Trump, polling in the lead-up to the 2018 election signaled that Democratic and Republican enthusiasm was roughly tied, and indeed more Democrats voted than Republicans in the recent election. If this Democratic enthusiasm can hold through 2020, Trump could be in trouble.
Further, with the 2020 nomination battle wide-open, Democrats could nominate a charismatic figure able to run a more popular effort than Hillary Clinton was able to muster in 2016. That would further energize the Democratic base and persuade undecided voters and independents.
3. The Future of White Identity Politics is complicated.
Trump won in 2016 with explicit appeals to white identity politics. He needs to again win the majority of white voters in 2020. However, there are signs that he does not have this portion of the electorate locked down.
College-educated white women, in particular, are the Republican Achilles' heel. In 2016, Trump won white voters overall but lost college-educated white women by 7 points. In 2018, congressional Republicans lost college-educated white women by 20 points. With these women representing one-sixth of the electorate, Trump needs to break even here while rolling up large margins with other white voters in order to win.
4. Whither 2020?
With all things being equal, the Republicans should be in a strong position going into 2020. With approval ratings in the low 40s, a typical incumbent has a 70 percent chance of winning reelection. But this projection assumes all things are equal, and with Donald Trump, one should never make such strong assumptions.
At this moment in time, evidence indicates that Trump will be at the lower end of historical range. While he still has the advantages of incumbency and an unmatched ability to control the news cycle, he has limited his ceiling of support and nurtured fervor on the other side. As a starting point, some 23 months before the election, we say his odds of reelection are 55/45. Still the favorite, but it can be anyone’s game.