April 10, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” the political adage goes. However, Democrats are best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in 2020 when nobody is on the ballot. For Trump, it’s somebody who could be his saving grace. Herein lies the crux of the 2020 election: Whether voters view 2020 as a referendum or a choice will go a long way in determining either four more years for 45 or the inauguration of America’s 46th president.
A referendum on Trump currently leaves the president in a hole. When a Quinnipiac University poll asked prospective 2020 voters if they would vote for Donald Trump if he were the Republican candidate, 30% would definitely vote for him, 13 percent would consider voting for him, and 53 percent would definitely not vote for him.
Polls on Trump this far from election day are liable to change (though his range of job approval is the narrowest among past presidents), and more than 50 percent opposition is not a dealbreaker for this president, who defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite 53.9 percent of voters choosing someone else. But Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Al Gore, and, well, Hillary Clinton all received a higher share of the popular vote in their losing election endeavors than Trump received in his win. If 53 percent of voters are already definitely not voting for Trump, there’s little chance he matches his 2016 voting levels, which is insufficient in 2020 if a Democratic can coalesce the opposition.
The 2018 midterms also showed how Trump brought out the opposition in a way candidate Trump in 2016 didn’t. Last November saw the highest midterm turnout rate in over 100 years. Winning the national popular vote by 8.6 percentage points, Democrats did even better when the midterms were seen as a referendum on Trump, beating the GOP by 16 points among voters who saw their ballot as a proxy to support or oppose Trump.
But it’s hardly time for the #Resistance to rejoice over Trump’s coming defeat. When an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll gave a choice between voting for Trump and one of the Democrats running, 34 percent of voters chose Trump while just 29 percent chose the Democrat, regardless of who it is. Seventeen percent said their votes depend on whom the Democratic nominee turns out to be, 4 percent chose a third-party candidate, and 15 percent were undecided. While Trump’s base of support is around one-third of the electorate, it’s the framing of a choice between Trump and someone else that creates uncertainty in 2020.
It was this choice where Trump thrived in 2016. In a race of Not Being Trump vs. Not Being Clinton, the candidates boasted the two worst favorability ratings for nominees in modern history. Fortunately for Trump, despite having lower net favorability rating, the anti-Clinton fervor was just as strong. Of the 18 percent of voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton, Trump won this group by 17 points.
This leads to 2020. Trump is no longer the outsider force who drew support beyond the traditional Republican coalition. Despite his unorthodox style, Trump governs as a traditional Republican in many ways (e.g., Obamacare repeal-and-replace, tax cuts, deregulation, conservative judges). This endears himself to the Republican base, but that alone is insufficient to win states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Democrats outnumber Republicans and Trump won in 2016 by less than 1 percent. The more Trump focuses on a renewed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare and other conservative boilerplate issues, the more he loses his political dexterity to attract voters he needs to win outside of his base. This is particularly true of the independent vote, which Trump won by double digits in the Rust Belt 2016 but the GOP then lost in 2018.
At the same time, Democrats don’t have a clear image of what best represents the Not Being Trump candidate. Is it Joe Biden’s experience, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ideology or a candidate representing a different identity than a white male septuagenarian?
The question of whether Trump can effectively run as the Not Being [Insert Democratic nominee] remains the biggest unknown for 2020. Whomever the Democrats nominate will not be a generic Democrat, he/she will be somebody specific and definable. With the full weight of the Republican apparatus at his disposal, Trump’s political acumen in defining his opponent cannot be underestimated. If a Democratic nominee ends up with favorability ratings closely mirroring Trump’s approval ratings, 2020 is sure to be a nasty nail-biter of an election.
Ben Koltun is Senior Research Analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington.
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