ANALYSIS — More than 14 months ago, I wrote a column in this space suggesting that the 2020 presidential contest was a toss-up, but one that tilted toward the Democrats. I offered caveats about the economy and the Democratic nomination, acknowledging that there was “no way of knowing what events will draw America’s attention 18 or 20 months from now.” Now, the landscape has changed.
Democrats are likely to be united in the fall, and President Donald Trump’s standing is stuck where it has been for many months. There are also more questions about presidential leadership and the economy, which the president has been relying on to help him win a second term.
The president is an underdog now in his bid for a second term. That doesn’t mean he can’t win. It simply means that he is in a more difficult place than he was before, in part because Democrats have united behind a consensus candidate who has potentially broad appeal.
In my Jan. 3, 2019 column, I noted that my “Tilts Democratic” rating was based “on a combination of Trump’s current standing, his electoral performance in 2016, his party’s performance in 2018, questions about the Democratic Party’s ability to unite behind a broadly appealing nominee next year, and assumptions about the economy and state of the nation a year and a half from now.”
No, I didn’t anticipate impeachment or the coronavirus pandemic or the news about Trump’s effort to manipulate Ukraine. But my assessment of the race’s fundamentals, my reading of the president’s standing in the polls and my general assessment of the race remain little changed.
Moreover, most, if not all, of the changes appear to benefit the Democrats, enhancing their prospects for 2020.
The song remains the same
The fundamentals remain the same as they were January 2019.
In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. Two years later, Democrats gained a net of 40 House seats and a House majority, building that by winning suburban congressional districts.
The electoral map for 2020 remains the same as it was 14 months ago — with Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, plus Minnesota, New Hampshire, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — offering clear indications as to where the presidential race is headed. Nevada and Maine are also worth watching, considering how close they were in 2016.
The Trump coalition is little changed from 2016. White evangelicals, rural voters, conservatives and self-identified Republicans remain loyal, as do non-college-educated white men.
But both the midterm elections and polling since then have shown whites with a college education (especially white women with a college degree) flipping from the GOP to the Democrats. The president has not added any groups to his electoral coalition.
National and key state polling show Trump’s reputation and job approval largely unchanged. His approval remains between 42 percent and 46 percent, depending on the pollster and the poll.
That isn’t surprising, even after the news of the coronavirus and plunging stock market, which has wiped out most of the gains during the Trump presidency.
Trump’s supporters watch Fox News, listen to conservative talk radio and generally believe the explanations coming out of the White House or from the president’s defenders on Capitol Hill, making them resistant to change.
Still, the longer the health emergency and negative economic fallout last, the greater the likelihood that there will be some defections from the Trump coalition. Any leakage of these voters would be a problem for the president’s campaign, given the narrowness of his win in 2016.
A new opponent
The biggest change in the environment since early January 2019 involves Trump’s opponent. As I wrote back then:
“Democrats will have a potentially nasty primary fight in 2020, which could easily produce a flawed nominee who, like Clinton, cannot unite anti-Trump voters.
“And the eventual Democratic nominee may have to tack so far left to win the nomination that swing voters will not be comfortable supporting a progressive who calls for higher taxes and ‘Medicare for All’ (single-payer health care).”
In fact, former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged surprisingly quickly as the consensus Democratic nominee.
His message of pragmatism and broadly acceptable change — on health care, climate change, guns and economic fairness — should maximize his appeal to Democrats and swing voters.
Supporters of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose message of socialism and revolutionary change resonated with some voters, particularly the young, will be saddened, and in some cases angry, at the outcome of the Democratic presidential contest.
But most will eventually support Biden, given both Sanders’ support for him and the alternative: the incumbent president.
Biden has vulnerabilities, of course, but they are nothing like Sanders’.
Still, it’s not difficult to imagine a scorched-earth Trump reelection effort that portrays Biden as corrupt (citing Ukrainian gas company Burisma and his son’s role) and senile.
The key states are still where you want to look for 2020, since Biden could have a large popular vote victory and still lose the Electoral College. But the early head-to-head polls offer Democrats reason for optimism.
Plenty of unknowns remain about the 2020 election, especially in a race between two men in their 70s. Each time I note that something crazy can happen, something even crazier than I could have contemplated occurs. I’m not sure why we should expect the craziness to end now.
Polls in the middle of a health and economic crisis are of little use when looking more than seven months ahead. But Biden’s emergence as the likely Democratic nominee, along with the virus and impending recession, present new problems for a president who seemed slow to appreciate the threat to the nation.
If my 2019 assessment essentially put a pinkie on the scale to give the Democrats an edge in the 2020 race, that evaluation no longer holds. The Democratic nominee –— Joe Biden — now deserves to be a clear favorite in November’s presidential contest.