Next summer, a group of political scientists will release their quadrennial Presidential election forecasts. The assumption behind this exercise is that U.S. Presidential contests are heavily shaped by background factors even before the fall campaign begins. Needless to say, this claim rankles those who cover and work on political campaigns for a living since it implies that what they do is not as important as many believe.
Pre-campaign forecasts can do surprisingly well in predicting the popular vote. In 2016, they were exceptionally accurate. The final 2016 result was 51.1 percent for Clinton versus 48.9 for Trump. The median forecast of the ten most prominent forecasting models was also 51.1, with 7 out of 10 predictions missing by one point or less. The Clinton emails and associated drama may have accounted for a small drop in her support at the end of the campaign, but it was not enough to cause her to lose the popular vote.
One reason it is possible to make pretty good popular vote predictions months before the ballots are cast is that most voters make up their minds well before the fall campaign even starts. A panel study of voters in 2016 by Dan Hopkins for the website 538 revealed that only 2 percent of those who supported either party’s nominee in January switched their support by October, and only 9 percent were undecided at the start of the campaign and ended up supporting either Clinton or Trump at the end.
Why is the electorate so stable? Partly, it is due to the inertia of long-standing party commitments. Even independent voters mostly lean toward one party or the other. In addition, election fundamentals such as the state of the economy, involvement in an unpopular war, or fatigue with an incumbent party essentially set the table before the autumn election contest kicks fully into gear.
However, the fatal shortcoming in these forecasts, or even the average polling numbers of Real Clear Politics the day before the election, is that they do not predict the Electoral College vote. This flaw could be critical in 2020, because, as I argued in a 2017 column, the President has formulated an entire strategy around winning the Electoral College and losing the popular vote, something that no other incumbent Democratic or Republican Presidential candidate has ever aimed for so early in a re-election cycle.
Given his circumstances, Trump’s strategy is understandable. Most candidates aim to win the Electoral College by winning the popular vote. But Donald Trump has a hard ceiling on his Presidential job approval, so far not yet exceeding 46%. Indeed, the gap between Trump’s highest and lowest job approval rating (approximately 11 points) is the smallest of any President from FDR on.
A hard ceiling below 50 percent would be bad news for most Presidential aspirants, but maybe not for President Trump. His victory in 2016 and projections by various experts like Sam Wang suggest that he does not need to win the popular vote to earn a second Presidential term, especially if he plays his Electoral College cards the right way and the Democrats don’t.
Trump revealed his base rallying strategy long ago, picking fights with nonwhite athletes and politicians throughout his term in office in order to stoke his core support. He also delivered just enough of a conservative agenda on tax cuts, regulatory relief, and federal court appointments to keep mainstream Republican voters from defecting. However badly Trump behaves, and whatever future reputational cost he has saddled the Republican Party with, a Trump re-election in 2020 serves Republican short-term interests more than a Democratic Presidency would.
But will the Democrats adjust to Trump’s Electoral College strategy? In 2018, the Democrats won the House with a big tent approach while President Trump won the Senate by stoking white male resentment. Trump has set his course for 2020 and will not change. The Democrats, on the other hand, are still determining their path.
A complicating factor for Democrats is that while it might be possible to win additional support by offering a more transformational progressive agenda, those votes might not be in the right places. More votes in solidly blue states will not get the job done. The Democrats need to compete for votes in swing states to counter Trump’s Electoral College strategy. That means a Democratic candidate who appeals across a wide enough ideological spectrum.
Could the Democrats win with a democratic socialist candidate? Maybe, if the economy crashes or the President mires us in an unpopular war. But at the moment, the underlying conditions seem to favor the Republicans: positive GDP growth, low unemployment, and a bull stock market. Plus, President Trump has not started any new unpopular wars yet and has only been in office 2 years. In other words, background factors tilt in a Republican direction.
Common sense favors applying Nancy Pelosi’s 2018 pragmatic platform over a “Green New Deal” approach. That of course is easier said than done. Ideological primary voters and small donors put a lot of pressure on Democrats to be policy pure just as similar primary pressures have empowered the tea party and conservative activists in the Republican ranks. Navigating the divergent pressures of the primary and general election stages of the American Presidential election process is no easy matter. Swing too far in one direction in the primary and you incur problems in the general election, and vice versa. This election raises difficult choices for the Democrats. It’s not all about Trump.
Throughout the 20th century, winning the popular vote meant winning the Electoral College vote as well. Three Presidential elections into the new century, no one should assume that. Many Democrats in 2016 could not imagine that a man so unpopular and unsuited to be President of the United States could be elected nonetheless. There is no excuse for making the same miscalculation again.