Donald Trump’s presidency has thrust the United States into plenty of unprecedented territory and it could again if the brash, testosterone-fueled campaign he is sculpting becomes the first featuring an impeached incumbent chief executive.
Political insiders from both parties, echoed by nonpartisan experts, said all summer that forecasting the 2020 presidential race was almost impossible for a raft of reasons. Then came Sept. 24.
That’s the day Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry over Trump’s request — which he and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney have both since admitted, then walked back in their own ways — that Ukraine’s new government investigate Democrats. Public polling showed voters quickly moved from mostly opposing Trump’s possible impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate to mostly being in support.
Political professionals and academics basically threw up their hands at that point, saying there was no precedent for gaming out how a president who had just been hit with the harshest constitutional rebuke possible by one — or maybe both — chambers of Congress might fare in a reelection bid.
Much less against a to-be-determined Democratic opponent from a wide-open primary fight featuring a handful of front-runners that each, due to unique political ideologies and policy prescriptions, would present very different general election dynamics — and challenges for Trump.
“There is no precedent whatsoever about what these events mean for a president seeking reelection, or what events might be ahead,” says Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s just not clear how we should evaluate these events.”
Precedent says that a president with a solid economy and an approval rating of 40-to-42 percent would have a good shot at reelection, he says. But Trump’s many controversies and the prospects of impeachment make his chances less predictable.
If House Democrats’ impeachment probe wasn’t enough to complicate 2020 forecasting, the commander in chief’s announcement last month that he would remove U.S. military forces from northern Syria added a new potential hurdle. Those Americans had served as a buffer between Turkish troops and Kurds living there — the only thing preventing the former from wiping out the latter. Republican lawmakers and conservative evangelical voters reacted with disgust.
The president needs GOP senators to hold the party line to prevent his removal if the House, as expected, impeaches him. And he needs the religious right to remain a dependable part of his conservative voter base for any chance at a second term. The president caught a break when U.S. forces killed ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, but that only underscored the importance of U.S. on-the-ground engagement in the region.
What’s a political prognosticator, with no precedent or similar data to do?
“The problem with forecasting anything one year ahead is you cannot see around corners. And then you have the Donald Trump presidency,” says David Brady, a political science professor at Stanford University. “It seems this presidency has so many corners and so many possible things that might be around those corners. So what might happen literally changes by the day.”
“Chaos” is a word White House aides once chided reporters for using while describing Trump’s presidency. But as the impeachment inquiry ramped up, with developments sometimes happening rapidly, the president admitted of the even more chaotic environment: “I sort of thrive on it.”
For his part, the increasingly embattled president, has at times appeared confident — but at others erratic, frustrated and angry.
“We are going to keep on fighting, and we are going to keep on winning, winning, winning,” the confident version of Trump told supporters during a Sept. 16 campaign rally in New Mexico, a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. “We’re going to win like never before. … I’ll tell you what: We’re going to win the state of New Mexico.”
But juxtapose that to some of his actions and a portrait of a less-confident and exasperated Trump emerges.
The president showed this side, which political forecasters say makes it difficult to predict how his reelection bid will go, with an Oct. 22 tweet that sent shock waves around the country. It began with a warning that “if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights.”
Then, for reasons that remain unclear, he opted to poke at unhealed wounds from America’s difficult — and sometimes-bloody — racial history, writing: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
During the president’s recent campaign rallies, female supporters have been spotted on risers behind his lectern, many wearing “Women for Trump” T-shirts or holding signs with that slogan in all-capital, block lettering.
Multiple polls suggest Trump and his campaign have work to do with white women who live in suburban areas in the six or seven swing states strategists and White House officials say likely will decide whether he gets a second term. But statements like the “lynching” tweet only further frustrate that voting bloc, according to strategists who have gauged focus group reactions to Trump’s most brash declarations and attacks.
“Look, Republican voters didn’t ‘go home’ in 2018,” one GOP strategist said late last month, asking to remain anonymous to speak candidly. “And when it comes to those white voters in the suburbs, especially women, he hasn’t given them much reason to vote for him since then.”
Polling data on white college educated voters and white women has been trending negative for the Trump campaign for months — with no signs of turning positive. Sixty-one percent of white women disapprove of the president’s job performance; 35 percent approve, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Oct. 23. Among all whites with a college degree, the president also is underwater, with 58 percent saying they disapprove of his performance against 39 percent that approve.
Political pollsters say they pay close attention to so-called intensity indicators, such as how voters answer when asked whether they “strongly” approve or disapprove of an officials’ job performance. The same survey suggests more trouble for the president with those same blocs: 62 percent of white women strongly disapprove (23 percent strongly approve), and 53 percent of white college-educated voters strongly disapprove (28 percent strongly approve).
Both categories are heading in the wrong direction for Trump. In May, the percentage of those strongly disapproving of his performance was at 46 percent, according to Quinnipiac. That rose to 53 percent in the Oct. 23 version of the survey. Those who strongly approve shrank, from 30 percent in May to 28 percent late last month.
‘Calibrated for white men’
The president’s slide among white women should trouble the president and his reelection team, political strategists and observers say. In 2016, 53 percent of all white women voted for him over Democratic nominee Clinton, who would have become the first female U.S. president.
On an Oct. 15 call on background with reporters, a Trump campaign official described the organization’s strategy for defeating a still-undetermined Democratic nominee next November. That official boasted that Trump’s message of a strong economy, low unemployment and his get-tough trade policies would resonate with voters. But, in a theme of the former reality television host’s presidency, the campaign official kept returning to efforts to fire up the base — and made clear the campaign intends to hammer the eventual Democratic nominee on the House Democrats’ impeachment probe, saying conservative voters “feel like Democrats [are] trying to cancel out their votes.”
At no point did he describe a strategy to get back any of those disenchanted white women. That leaves Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, nearly speechless.
“I just don’t see how they can do it without getting some of the white women who voted for the president in 2016. The math just isn’t there,” he says. “So far, the reelection campaign looks like it’s totally calibrated for white men. You just can’t win a national election by simply appealing to white men all of the time.”
Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, says his staff sees a Trump operation in the Gopher State that is trying to “change the electorate” in a state he lost by just around 45,000 votes three years ago. “They’re trying to change the electorate by registering people. There are 250,000 white males without college degrees in this state that aren’t registered to vote. That’s who they’re going after, and we’ve seen an uptick in those registrations.”
Part of the Trump campaign’s strategy is trying to hold onto the Rust Belt and battleground states it won in 2016, while attempting to flip one or more the president narrowly lost. He already has held campaign rallies in New Mexico (Clinton won by 8.3 percentage points), New Hampshire (Clinton won by just 0.3 percentage points) and Minnesota (she won by 1.5 percentage points).
“What we are seeing in our polling data is that independent voters are moving far away from Donald Trump, and that was one of his biggest blocs of support in Minnesota in 2016,” Martin says. “I don’t see the math for him to make up that 45,000 votes. … The only way they can win here is if they’re able to change the electorate. That’s what they’re trying to do.”
And as the president heads to more battleground states — he told Fox News personality Sean Hannity on Oct. 21 he’s not yet ready to begin campaigning full-time — he will try flipping a few states and holding others by railing against the impeachment probe.
The Trump-Pence 2020 campaign organization has seen “more and more people” using its website or other Republican Party online portals to register to vote since Pelosi’s Sept. 24 announcement, the campaign official said, adding “we picked up, in the last couple of weeks, 50,000 new donors — that’s unheard of. I just think, if I were on the other side, that would be a loud message coming from people outside of D.C. They are just tired of these witch hunts.”
A few weeks after Pelosi’s announcement, Trump himself sent a warning to the speaker and Democrats during his afternoon interview with Hannity on the White House colonnade outside the Oval Office.
“So everybody tells me it’s going to be great for us as a Republican Party if they actually impeach me,” he said, going on to suggest he’s seen evidence that voters in as many as 45 competitive House districts would punish Democratic incumbents for it. “Those people are going to get hammered.” As he often does, Trump opted against disclosing any polling data or other evidence.
And while he claimed in the interview his poll numbers were “the highest,” more Americans now support his impeachment than did a few months ago and his approval rating remains around 40 percent, as it has his entire term.
Political observers contacted for this piece and others over the course of Trump’s presidency have long said his focus on his conservative base won’t be enough to get to the requisite 270 Electoral College votes. That’s doubly true if white women really don’t plan to vote for him.
Greenberg notes that while Trump won white women voters by 27 points in 2016, the 2018 midterms saw a 13-point swing among those votes toward Democrats running for Congress. And while polling in battleground states earlier this year had former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren losing to Trump in a general election by about 10 points, his latest polling there shows they’re now tied with the president.
“He’s driving the women away. In focus groups that we’ve done, they shake their heads and say he’s just too divisive. And they believe he isn’t fighting for them — they think he’s just fighting for men.”
Whether those men will be enough to secure reelection remains to be seen.