As I’ve argued before, Donald Trump can be beaten in 2020.
“Can” and “will” are two very different things, however.
If there’s one lesson we should all learn from 2016, it’s modesty. Anyone claiming certainty about political predictions should forfeit their license to prognosticate.
But it’s more than attitude. There’s a factual basis for asserting Trump could win.
Americans exhibit a strong tendency to give parties at least eight years in the White House. Since 1980, only two presidents have been defeated running for a second term — the first, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the second, George H.W. Bush in 1992.
When Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid, he was saddled with an approval rating around 33 percent. Trump’s approval rating is about 9 points higher than that today.
The economy is always an important element in presidential elections, and today, over 51 percent approve of the way Trump is handling the economy.
Bill Clinton was reelected by an 8-point margin when his rating for handling the economy was just a few points higher than Trump’s is now.
When President Obama was reelected, just 45 percent approved of the way he was dealing with the economy, half a dozen points below where Trump is now.
George W. Bush was reelected when 47 percent approved of his handling of the economy.
So Trump meets, or exceeds, the economic approval ratings of other reelection winners.
What about perceptions of the economy itself?
The University Of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index provides one of the longest running surveys of these matters.
When Carter lost, the index stood at 64.5, the lowest on record for any year. Today it’s at 100.
Ronald Regan won 49 states in 1984, in large measure on the strength of the economy, when the Michigan index was slightly lower than it is now, and it was a bit below that when the economy helped propel Clinton back into office in 1996.
Looked at differently, since the survey began in 1961, no incumbent has lost the White House with an index over 86. Trump would be the first if his 100 does not fall precipitously in the next 18 months.
Economists’ models at Yale, Moody’s and Trend Macrolytics all predict a Trump victory.
Of course, only economists think the economy is the only factor that matters in presidential elections.
However, at least one model that incorporates political information also predicts a Trump win, given current conditions.
That’s not so crazy when you unpack the polls.
Consider a series of inquiries Gallup has made about Presidents Trump, Obama and George W. Bush.
Forty-seven percent say they generally agree with Trump on the issues, while 53 percent disagree.
Seems like a weakness. However, going into Obama’s reelection, an identical 47 percent agreed with him and a very similar 49 percent agreed with Bush.
Thirty-nine percent say Trump is too conservative. But that’s less than said Bush was too conservative or that Obama was too liberal.
Character is the one dimension on which Trump falls far below the rest.
By an 18 point margin Americans say Trump does not have “the personality and leadership qualities a president should have.”
Going into their reelections Obama and Bush were nearly the mirror opposites, with voters saying they did possess those qualities by margins of about 17 points.
None of this is to say that Trump is invincible.
It is to say that he could win, and Democrats would be silly to discount that possibility.
It’s also to suggest that candidates who hope to win by smothering Trump, and the country, in economic plans, won’t be taking advantage of the president’s greatest weakness.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to add George H.W. Bush to the list of presidents who lost a bid for reelection.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.