Forget the Democrat candidate, Trump is on course to lose 2020 whatever happens.
Trump’s overarching electoral strategy was doomed to fail from the start. Democrats, sit back and enjoy.
Underneath national consistency belies a rapidly falling Trump base. He has no where else to turn.
Energise the base. That was the message that Karl Rove orchestrated through George Bush’s campaign in 2000 and 2004. He knew that with the natural support the GOP had, he could use Bush’s first term popularity and carve out some neat messaging, get some good luck on the day, and re-election Bush to a second term.
The crux of that campaign strategy — energising the base — appears to have been essential to Trump’s election and subsequent attempt to get re-elected next year. A Republican president would of course be foolish to pin hopes on flipping the big Blue Wall (i.e. Cali, NY, Illinois), especially in deeply partisan times. But Trump seems to feed on that partisan agenda and he will relish a re-election campaign shaped around it. Quite ironic indeed for someone who has supported both parties in his life.
If the President maintains this course of action, and let’s face it, there has been absolutely zero sign he is willing, or politically capable, of change, then he will lose.
A quick glance at his approval ratings demonstrate either an inability or lack of desire to break from his base. For sake of ease I have compiled a simple table below which draws from the four or five major polls done on Trump during each month of his Presidency to date. I have chosen the average number, thus only having to handle 27 data sets as opposed to over 100. You can see a much more professional and detailed analysis: here.
What we see is a fairly consistent line. Never hitting over 45%, rarely going much north of 40, but rarely going much south of 38. For the record, his average is 39.6%. I think, therefore, there is compelling enough evidence to show Trump’s electoral strategy will be to focus on his base, as it always has been. Not least because it hardly appears to be going anywhere, at first glance anyway. If he can do it once, why can’t he do it again?
Firstly, it was never a solid strategy, he barely won in the first place. Energising the base worked so well for Bush partly because he was able to carry forward a first term approval rating of 62%. (hitting 90% three weeks after 9/11). To remind ourselves, Trump was able to win the electoral college with just 46.1% of the popular vote. You have to go back to 1992, where three candidates split the vote, to see a winning popular vote share less than what Trump achieved in 2016.
Moreover, the last time there was a discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college (Bush, 2000), he still managed to get 47.9% of the popular vote. What is even more remarkable is that not only did HRC gain a higher % vote share than Trump did, but three other 21st century losers did as well. Romney (47.2), Kerry (48.3), Gore (48.4).
Burrowing down into the key states, the strategy becomes even more precarious. According to conventional analysis, Trump’s ability to narrowly win the rust belt states secured him the White House. The statistical evidence backs up both of those assertions.
A) It was the rust belt states, especially, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
B) The win was narrow. Extremely narrow, in fact
Not since 1984 had all three aforementioned states voted as a block for a Republican candidate, and now, to win re-election under his current strategy, Trump would have to do it again, securing back to back wins in all three states.
To address point A, if Trump loses those three states and everything else stays the same (which is a big assertion, I am aware), then he loses the electoral college. Similarly, even if loses Florida (29 votes) and manages to hold onto Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, then he still wins a second term. Three maps below show what that looks like and in doing so demonstrates the importance the three states will play in 2020.
Addressing point number 2 requires drilling a little deeper and understanding just how close Trump was to losing not just one, but all three of those crucially important states. The headline figures are than if fewer than 1% of people changed their minds in three out of fifty states, Trump would not be President. Trump won 36 college votes on an average of 0.57% of the vote. In other words, he was able to carry those college votes with a total of 77,745 popular vote. That is the size of a moderate capacity sports stadium.
At this stage, we can assume a few things. Firstly, Trump’s election strategy was risky and relied on success across a small cohort of important states, but nonetheless got him over the line. Secondly, there has been no indication he is willing to change tact during a re-election campaign. The third assumption, which I will detail below, is that the strategy is failing.
Looking forward then, what are the chances Trump can — at the very bare minimum — repeat his performance?
Trump narrowly, and I mean narrowly, flipped Michigan from the Democrats in 2016. He won the state’s 16 electoral college votes with a little over 10,000 votes, or with a 0.23% vote margin. Credit to the fillet-o-freak Republican, this went against the grain. Despite having experienced economic turmoil in recent decades, they had voted Democrat since 1992 handing Obama big wins and supporting Kerry and Gore too.
However, the faith of Michigan Trump voters is being massively tested. Only 31% say they will definitely vote for Trump next time round, whereas 50% say they definitely will not. There is time for both sides to grow or shrink, but to already have half the electorate effectively out of play is highly damaging.
Another tenant of Trump’s success in 2016 was his ability to pull in women voters and independent voters; both have taken a dislike to him in Michigan. 44% of independents now say they will definitely vote for someone else and 57% of woman will definitely vote for someone else. What is perhaps the most damaging statistic from this, however, especially considering the ‘energising base’ strategy, is that one in three Republican voters say they will vote for someone else.
Although in the headline I claim that the Democrat candidate doesn’t matter — and with stats like the above, I might be right, Trump could simply just destroy himself. The Democrat candidate certainty did matter in 2016. Trump benefited hugely from being up against the second most disliked national candidate in history. Indeed, the two largest Democrat voting counties in the state gave HRC 76,000 fewer votes than they did Obama. Trump will not be so lucky next time around.
Travelling east, Trump managed to take Pennsylvania with 44,322 votes, or a 0.72% vote margin (massive compared to Michigan). Pennsylvania is currently worth 20 electoral college votes, but has experienced a hundred year history of their quantifiable impact decreasing, and it could go down to 19 for the 2020 election, adding an additional sub-plot to the whole saga. Similarly to Michigan, though, the state has voted fairly consistently Democrat since 1988 when it’s then 25 votes went to Bush Snr.
Herein lies a familiar story which Trump’s national polling hides all too well. When elected, Trump had a +8 approval rating in the Keystone State, but now has a -7 rating. In fact, it only took until May 2017 for his approval to reach zero, and it has fallen ever since. In total, he has lost 15 points since carrying their 20 votes by a thin 0.72% margin.
There have already been practical examples of the changing political weather in Pennsylvania that are again hidden by steady-state national polling. The state rejected Lou Barletta for Senate and Scott Wagner for Governor in 2018, two Trumpian candidates. Moreover, in the special election of the same year, the congressional seat in southwestern Penn — a former Trump victory — went to Democrat Conor Lamb.
On the national level too, Emerson College polling (March 2019) tested five lead Democrat potentials against Trump. He lost against them all.
Of all the states that the Democrats lost in, Wisconsin will give them the most nightmares. It was so preventable. It was so winnable. If only their candidate had actually decided to show up. Just like Trump won’t be able to rely Hilary’s weaknesses in 2020, neither will the GOP be able to take Wisconsin for granted. The Democrats will rightfully have it in their cross hairs.
Considering the poor show in the Badger State, it’s amazing to see Trump only managed to win with 22,748 votes, or 0.77% vote margin. Nonetheless, the 10 electoral votes went to the GOP. Following a similar pattern to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin too has experienced a reduction in its electoral votes and has also consistently vote Democrat recently — this time, going back to 1984 where it gave Reagan its 11 votes.
Looking at comparable data sources I have used above, Wisconsin makes grim reading for the GOP. Since being elected, Trump’s approval has fallen a massive 18 points, to -12%. This time, however, it only took until March 2017 for net approval to reach 0. In the last year, Trump’s rating have never been better than -9%. Emerson College have also done recent polling here, this time including Midwesterner, Amy Klobuchar. Trump does similarly badly across the board.
A further study in January 2019 asked the question ‘if 2020 elections were held today would you vote for Donald Trump?’
Just 27% said they would definitely vote to re-elect Trump, and just 12 % said they would .probably vote for him. Much like in Michigan, 49% of Wisconsinites said they would definitely vote for someone else — again, excluding nearly half the electorate. What is most worrying is that in that poll, only 58% of Republicans said they would definitely vote for Trump again. There are real life manifestations of this too, namely the defeat of incumbent Republican Scott Walker by Tony Evers in 2018.
If you break down the constituent parts of Trump’s narrow victory then it will be ringing alarm bells for anyone who knows anything about elections within the Republican party. Not only is Trump tanking across three absolutely crucial states, but his support amongst key demographics which partly carried him to victory is also slipping. Republican voters across swing states find him less and less appealing, and both women and independents are turning away from him nationally. A re-election bid will be further compounded by a Democrat candidate — whoever it is — that will perform and be perceived to be better than Hilary Clinton ever was. Indeed, several potentials are already polling better than him.
Energise the base was the key message. As strong a message in 2000 as it was in 2016. The problem is, Trump’s base was small and it is shrinking. Hiding behind consistent national polling that paints a picture of consistency is deeply misleading. The damage will inevitably be done by his stubbornness, his inability to diversify from a partisan, divisive message. A lack of political acumen and awareness that so many were attracted to in the first place.
It’s not as if Trump is flying too close to the sun. It is as if the sun has disappeared out the sky and the President has simply fallen back down to earth, consigned to history as a one-term man.