3 Ways Trump Could Win Bigly in 2020
These scenarios keep Democratic strategists awake long into the night.
Donald Trump has never been a broadly popular President: FiveThirtyEight maintains a visualization of his aggregated polling, and the results are, well, not fantastic. For much of his tenure, his net approval rating has lagged behind that of his predecessors (although he recently pulled roughly even with Reagan and Carter; or rather, they dipped down to him).
In light of that, it’s tempting to suggest that Trump is toast come 2020, provided the Democrats can field a candidate who doesn’t commit unforgiveable gaffes (and a third-party candidate doesn’t disrupt everything in favor of the incumbency). But not so fast: There are a few factors that could guarantee a Trump victory, and not in a single-state squeaker; there are scenarios, in fact, in which he wins big.
We Get into a Shooting War
In political science, it’s called the “Rally ‘Round the Flag Effect”: The popularity of the U.S. President usually spikes in event of a big war or significant “international incident.” For a good example of this effect, look at the presidency of George W. Bush, who enjoyed three big “jumps” in his popularity: right after 9/11, right when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and right when U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein.
Granted, those “jumps” offered diminishing returns, and the overall decline in Bush’s post-9/11 popularity was pretty steady, but they were very measurable. As coldly realpolitik as it sounds, if you’re a President facing soft approval numbers, the best thing you can do is get into a dramatic international incident that involves U.S. troops firing massive amounts of metal at extremely high velocity (you don’t even need a war; Obama enjoyed the perks of Seal Team Six wiping out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan).
I’m not suggesting that Trump will deliberately instigate a war, but he could benefit from one that happens to explode right around the 2020 election. However, this might prove one of the worst scenarios for Trump himself: With any modern shooting engagement, there’s always the chance that the situation will escalate — and the last thing any President wants are massive American casualties.
The Economy Stays Strong
“It’s the economy, stupid” is one of political operative James Carville’s most-remembered slogans, and it’s true: Come election time, Presidents surf the benefits of a solid economy. In 2020, if jobs are still plentiful (and pay well) and inflation stays tamped down, Trump will have an easier time cruising to electoral victory. The cost of a gallon of gas factors in here, too, which is probably one of the reasons why Trump likes to scream-Tweet about keeping gas prices low.
“Even if you have a mediocre but not great economy — and that’s more or less consensus for between now and the election — that has a Trump victory and by a not-trivial margin,” Yale economist Ray Fair recently told Politico.
If the economy falters, though, it can easily wreck a President’s hopes of a second term (just ask George H.W. Bush). And as the 2008 election demonstrated, economic calamities have a way of blowing up quickly and unexpectedly.
Democratic Primary Becomes a Circular Firing Squad
This is the sort of thing that keeps strategists at the DNC awake late into the night. There are a lot of candidates fighting for the Democratic nomination, and it’s a long time until the Convention. If the battle descends into utter viciousness, whoever emerges as the eventual nominee could end up hobbled in the wake of massive negative attacks, unearthed oppo research, and so on.
Depending on the nature of the damage, the candidate could have trouble recovering in time for the general election. Imagine if they have to spend their last few months on the campaign trail constantly pushing back against allegations of corruption, assault, or something equally seamy.
Although Trump has his own scandals — and who knows what the Mueller Report will eventually reveal — he’s capable of holding his own against a damaged opponent. Trump may be a lot of things, but he’s particularly skilled at developing quick, pithy attacks that define opponents in negative ways; Jeb Bush never overcame the “Low Energy” moniker that Trump bestowed upon him, for instance.
The Future is Unwritten
Any of these factors — or none of them — could come into play over the next two years. The only certainty is that 2020 is going to be an absolutely wild election, with quite a bit (predictably) at stake.