Politicians are the worst (but most important) political analysts

What happens in the 2020 elections matters less than what politicians and party strategists will think happened

Regardless of what happens in this year's elections, listen to what politicians and strategists say afterward because their perception of what happened will become their reality.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Regardless of what happens in this year's elections, listen to what politicians and strategists say afterward because their perception of what happened will become their reality. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 24, 2020 at 6:00am

ANALYSISThe 2020 elections are still three months away, but I’ve got one piece of advice for when they’re complete: Listen carefully.

Specifically, listen carefully to the politicians and party strategists, because what happened in the elections matters less than what the politicians think happened in the elections. Because what politicians think happened in the elections will drive future behavior.

In 2018, Republicans lost a net of 41 seats and the House majority. It was the largest GOP loss of House seats in a cycle since 1974. But instead of coming to grips with the reality of the midterms as a referendum on Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency, Republicans dismissed the losses as a historical guarantee when a party controls the White House and blamed ballot harvesting by Democrats.

If GOP elected officials had come to a different conclusion, closer to reality, more of them (or even some of them) would have treated their relationship with Trump differently. And while Republicans spent months explaining away the 2018 results as a Democratic high-water mark and looking ahead to brighter days when Trump would top the ballot and draw base GOP voters out to the polls, they now find themselves cozied up to the slumping party leader atop their ticket.

The perceived lessons from past elections are also likely affecting the president’s behavior. 

In the run-up to the 2018 elections, Trump focused on a caravan of future criminals from Central America bearing down on the United States’ southern border, and Republicans netted two seats in the Senate.

It doesn’t matter that Republicans should have gained more Senate seats last cycle because of a favorable map and that they were stymied by the president’s actions — there’s the perception that the law-and-order messaging led to a positive outcome for the GOP. That has to be part of Trump’s mindset as he sends federal troops across the street from the White House and around the country to muscle unruly Americans.

Lessons from past elections don’t stop there. 

I was talking to a veteran GOP strategist about the potential path forward for Trump and the likelihood of him changing course and improving his standing. He reminded me of the obvious, that four years ago everyone told Trump he couldn’t win or wasn’t going to win. He ran the campaign he wanted to run, and he won. So why would the president distrust his instincts now in the face of people telling him he’s behind in the race?

Even though the Trump campaign has technically changed managers, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner told The New York Times in early July who was really running the show.

“He’s really the campaign manager at the end of the day,” Kushner said of his father-in-law, adding, “Our job is to present him with data, give him ideas, help him structure. And then when he makes decisions on where he wants to go, the campaign was designed to be like a custom suit for him.”

That means when the dust settles on this most recent new tone, we’re likely to see the same president and same campaign we’ve seen for the last four years.

If Republicans lose in November, they will be faced with a choice once again. 

They could choose to acknowledge Trump’s role in torpedoing the party’s standing in the suburbs and attempt to make a course correction. Or they can blame any losses on fraudulent mail-in ballots, the Communist Party of China, ActBlue, Russia or anything else except their party’s actions over the past four years.

Even if they win, Democrats are also at risk of learning the wrong lessons.

If Joe Biden wins the White House, and particularly if they also gain control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House, Democrats will be tempted to (and progressives will likely) claim a mandate. They might believe that voters love them and all the liberal policies they’ve been talking about lately.

In reality, Democratic victories this fall will likely happen because enough voters are fed up with Trump’s first four years in office and are tired of Republicans making excuses for him or ignoring his most polarizing actions.

That means if Democrats in Washington next year push forward with legislation akin to the Green New Deal or a single-payer health care system, they risk a backlash from voters who never wanted the party (or the country) to go that far to the left. They had just reached their limit with Trump. And that means Republicans would have an opportunity to immediately rebound in the 2022 midterms.

While I’m all for analyzing election results to try to discern what happened, the reality is that the more important analysis in projecting future behavior will likely be flawed and will come from the politicians.

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