November 2020 is still a long way away, but it already looks as if the next presidential election will be lost not won.
It is not a given that America’s economy will hold up, but if it does, Donald Trump, as the incumbent, would normally have a good chance of hanging onto his job. However, “normally” is not a word that applies to a president forever a tweet, a fiasco or a past, present or future scandal away from disaster.
Then there are the polls. Trump has had the lowest average approval ratings of any president since Gallup started measuring them in the 1930s, and he has yet to hit 50 per cent even once. He prevailed in 2016 with the smallest share of the popular vote (46.1 per cent) since a complicated four-way tussle in 1824. His victory in the Electoral College only came with the assistance of some very narrow wins (such as a margin of roughly ten thousand in Michigan) in a handful of mid-western states and Pennsylvania. Last year’s Midterm elections were a reminder of how sharp that knife-edge was. Midterms are a somewhat unreliable guide to the next presidential contest, but a remarkable surge in turnout may indicate that 2018 was more of a harbinger than is usually the case. If that is so, the Democrats’ recovery in not only Michigan, but also Wisconsin and Pennsylvania is an unhappy omen for the president.
But the fact that Trump’s polling numbers improved after the recent Democratic debates (his approval rating has now reached 47 per cent, an all-time high) says something. And so does the Emerson poll showing that he had slipped ahead of all the leading Democrats except for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (a different poll also had Kamala Harris beating the president). Those shifts not only increase the possibility that the election will resemble a rumble in an old peoples’ home, but also hint at a deep problem that the Democrats will have to face.
The strength of Bernie Sanders’ insurgency in 2016 was a sign that Democratic activists were moving leftwards, helped on their way by Clinton fatigue, generational change and memories of the financial crisis. That swing has accelerated since, boosted by elation over Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing and anger over Trump’s election as well as by the spread of a militant, identity-soaked leftism out of university campuses and into the broader culture. Where the activists lead, the more enthusiastic of the party faithful tend to follow – and they account for a disproportionate amount of the turnout in the primaries.
What’s more, it would not take much (an economic slowdown maybe) to drive many of 2016’s Trump ‘left behinds’ into the Sanders camp, should the Vermont senator be the nominee. The distance between populisms of right and left for such voters may not amount to much when the flagbearer of the latter is an elderly white man with little obvious affection for the identity politics of generation woke. It’s an extreme case, but take a look at West Virginia, traditionally coal country, overwhelmingly white and home to some of the poorest corners of Appalachia. In 2016, Trump took close to 70 per cent of the vote there, yet according to a 2017 poll, a slight majority of West Virginians would opt for Sanders over Trump in 2020. In 2018, Richard Ojeda, a Democrat running essentially as a left populist in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, reduced the GOP’s winning margin by some thirty percentage points in the Midterms. Two years before, he had voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary, but in a telling switch, for Trump in the general election. In November, he launched a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but ended it a few weeks later.
As a West Virginia State Senator (until his resignation in January), Ojeda had scant chance of securing his party’s nomination. Nevertheless, his failure was, even if only accidentally, a reminder that the Democrats will struggle to find a candidate who can satisfy their base and handle the crude binary of a presidential campaign and prevail in an electoral college where the heterogeneity of a vast nation quite literally counts for a great deal. There is no point in the Democrats piling up huge majorities in states such as New York and California only for their policies to sink them in, to take three familiar venues, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Many Americans are ready to turn some way to the left on issues from immigration to health care to climate change to higher taxes. But they are not ready to go nearly as far as many of the leading Democratic contenders, most of whom are currently taking positions that will appeal to their primary voters (and perhaps even to themselves), but may cost them dearly at the election—in the absence of a Trump meltdown.
In the end, the result may depend on which candidate alienates the fewer voters, the alienator-in-chief or a Democratic rival offering, say, too much on reparations (for slavery) or too little on border security. California Senator Kamala Harris, at this relatively early stage one of the more credible favourites to win the Democratic nomination, is already delicately walking back any suggestion that she would support federally mandated school bussing now (during the Democrats’ debate she had battered Joe Biden for his opposition to bussing back in the 1970s).
To rank the full Democratic field would be both premature, and—with over 20 aspirants crowded onto what is difficult to describe as a shortlist—a waste of screen. For now, the President would do well to keep a watchful eye on his fellow old-timers. Sanders would lose to almost any traditional Republican, but the combination of hatred of the decidedly non-traditional Trump in the Democratic heartlands and Sanders’ crossover appeal to Trump’s blue collar supporters could be enough to put the red in the White House. But if Biden has the stamina for the race (there is a reason why Trump, with his bully’s keen eye for a nickname, has referred to the former vice president as “exhausted”), his promise of a calmer Oval Office and a leftwards course correction that won’t terrify moderates could be the biggest danger to Trump of all.
Apart from Trump, that is.