Yes, despite our national majorities and the encouraging results of the 2018 midterms, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Trump and the GOP in 2020.
But over the past few days, the pundit class has been aggressively pushing the alarming notion that if Democrats don’t nominate Joe Biden whilst renouncing everything liberals and progressives stand for, the evil political mastermind in the White House is going to win in a landslide.
There’s a lot of nonsense in the air, so I’m just going to address it in list format, because who has the time?
First, the legitimate reasons to worry about Trump and the GOP:
1. They will cheat;
2. They will lie, a lot;
3. They will stretch the law to suppress minority and young voter turnout;
4. They will learn the lessons from Russia’s 2016 social media interference (which was largely focused on targeting voter suppression messages at African Americans and Bernie Sanders voters) and apply them domestically;
5. They will court that Russian interference again;
6. Trump has a bunch of money to spend on his reelection;
7. Trump has the power of the Presidency behind him, not to mention the more than 100 federal judges he’s appointed.
8. While it has nothing to do with Trump per se, the Republican gerrymander in the House will always require us to over-perform in order to gain and hold majorities there.
Now, the reasons why you should refuse to participate in the collective nervous-liberal freakout currently being stoked by establishment pundits like Thomas Friedman, Never Trump conservatives like Charlie Sykes, and everyone else in the Beltway Neo-Liberal Status Quo Club.
1. Hillary Clinton is not running for President, and no Democratic candidate even comes close to her unfavorable polling average. Clinton was essentially as popular in November 2016 as Trump is today, and still out-polled him by 2.9 million votes. Clinton’s favorability average on Real Clear Politics in 2016 was 10 points below her 54 percent unfavorable average. The current Democratic contender with the highest unfavorability is Sanders, whose 47.7 percent unfavorable average is less than 4 points above his favorable number.
2. James Comey is no longer our FBI Director. Set aside everything else about Trump’s surprise win and remember this: If Comey doesn’t announce that the FBI is looking into “new Clinton emails” just 11 days before the election, Trump loses. Yes, Trump controls government now, and can use his minions to engineer new October surprises against us. But it’s hard to imagine anything Trump might do having the effect of Comey’s historic blunder.
3. Trump won the Electoral College by winning the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a combined total of 77,744 votes. That margin of victory represents 0.0056 of the 13,791,377 votes cast in those three swing states. And Trump didn’t win those states because white moderates surged his way. He won because millions of Democratic voters stayed home across the country. That’s the kind of razor’s edge margin that makes you go “Hmm,” because without it, Clinton wins the Electoral College 273-258. In short, Trump needed a historically unpopular opponent, an unprecedented October Surprise, AND micro-targeted Russian interference (if not outright electronic ballot stuffing) in the battleground states to win the Electoral College by the tiniest of margins.
4. It’s also worth noting that in each of the three decisive states, the number of votes cast for Green Party candidate Jill Stein was larger than Trump’s margin of victory. But that’s not the full picture, because Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, beat Stein in each of those swing states while out-polling Stein by 3-to-1 nationally. Johnson got 3.3 percent of the popular vote — the first time a Libertarian has ever received more than 1 percent. And the only Libertarian who ever got 1 percent of the vote was — you guessed it — Johnson, in 2012. The additional 3.2 million votes Johnson picked up in his second run represent Republican voters who refused to back Trump. Given Trump’s ongoing destruction of traditional Republican norms, there’s no reason to expect that number of Never Trump Libertarian votes to decline in 2020 — particularly if former GOP U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan announces himself as a Libertarian candidate. Amash left the Republican Party on July 4th in protest of Trump’s actions.
5. Those top three items describe a Black Swan Event. Item No. 4 describes center-right resistance to Trump outpacing left-wing resistance to Clinton by a 3-to-1 ratio. And that’s just describing the state of the American electorate BEFORE his inauguration.
6. The demographics of the changing American electorate also work against Trump. His EC win was based on support from 57 percent of white voters, who made up 70 percent of the 2016 electorate. That’s down from 77 percent in 2004, 74 percent in 2008, and 72 percent in 2012. Since white people tend to vote at higher rates than most other groups, they’re expected to represent 68 to 69 percent of voters in 2020 — even though they’ll be less than 67 percent of the population.
7. That matters because two-thirds of Latino voters — who made up 11 percent of the electorate in both 2016 and last year’s midterms (an important signal because Latino participation typically plunges in non-Presidential elections) — now vote Democratic. Not only that, but Hispanics are expected to overtake or equal African Americans (the most reliable Democratic bloc at roughly 90 percent) as the largest minority segment of the 2020 electorate at about 12 percent. Asian Americans, a smaller group, vote Democratic at about the same rate as Hispanic Americans. So whatever else happens, Trump — who lost the popular vote by 2.1 percent last time — will have to eke out an Electoral College win with fewer white voters and more minority Democrats.
8. Here’s a secret to Trump’s success: Old people are the most reliable voters in America. In 2016, Baby Boomers and older generations made up 43 percent of the electorate, yet cast 49 percent of the votes. That’s less than half — because 2016 was the first time Generations X and younger made up a majority — but that over-participation by older voters was decisive. To put this in context, more than half the Fox News audience is age 65 or older. Like the conservative news channel, Trump’s success depends on white senior citizens — and there are simply fewer of them this time.
9. And it gets even worse for Trump and the GOP. Voters over the age of 75 lean strongly to the right, but Baby Boomers lean only slightly Republican. Gen X leans Democratic, and Millennials (who will be age 24-39 in 2020 and comprise the largest generational cohort in America) identify or lean Democrat at almost 60 percent. And THEY’RE to the right of Gen Z (Americans who will be age 18 to 23 next year). Gen Z is the most politically liberal cohort ever measured, and they’re expected to cast 10 percent of the nation’s ballots, up from just 4 percent in 2016.
10. Items Nos. 6-9 describe a changing electorate that generically favors Democratic and progressive candidates. But beyond the strangeness of the events that led to his surprise win in 2016 and the nation’s ongoing generational shift toward the left, we have to consider everything that’s taken place since Trump took office.
11. Trump’s highest recorded aggregate approval rating is 45.5 percent, which was 4.4 percent above his disapproval rate at the time… the week of his inauguration in January 2017. Trump’s approval rating slipped below his disapproval rating in February 2017 and has never recovered. Since April 2017, his aggregate All Polls average on FiveThirtyEight has never climbed above 43 percent, and he has spent most of his presidency 10 points or more underwater. According to the Gallup Poll, which has been measuring Presidential popularity since the Great Depression, Trump is by far the most unpopular President since the dawn of polling. His average approval rating at Gallup is 39 percent. The previous least-popular President, Democrat Jimmy Carter, had 45 percent approval. George W. Bush and Barack Obama won reelection with approval rates in the upper 40s, but no incumbent has ever won reelection with numbers like the ones Trump has consistently posted ever since firing Comey in May 2017.
12. Not only is Trump’s popularity underwater in key battleground states, but new polling shows him losing in head-to-head match-ups with Democratic candidates. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Biden beats him 51-42, Elizabeth Warren (the No. 2 ranked Democrat in the poll) beats him 48-43, Sanders beats him 50-43, and Kamala Harris edges him out 45-44. What’s truly remarkable is the consistency of the Trump support, even against candidates like Warren and Harris, who still have relatively low name-recognition in 2019. And this pattern is consistent across polls. If most people have heard of a Democratic candidate, that candidate beats Trump’s low-40s support.
13. Perhaps that consistent low-40s number is related to this one from other polls: Roughly 57 percent of Americans now say they definitely will not vote for Trump (just 32 percent say they’re definitely on board).
14. People don’t like his new racist Tweets — and that’s important because Trump seems to think that playing the white nationalist card — only more aggressively — will be a winning strategy. Sixty-eight percent called them offensive — and yet majorities of Republicans agreed with Trump’s racism. Doubling down on this approach will not only polarize the electorate, but isolate Republicans as the party of explicit racism — potentially reducing its already low support among minority groups.
15. Nos. 11-14 describe the current state of popular opinion. But they don’t address the pundits’ central critique of the progressive agenda: White moderates won’t like it, and Trump will somehow leverage that into another bitter win. This next section explains why that’s a dubious and cherry-picked prediction.
16. In Charlie Sykes’ June 25th column (published in Politico), the conservative-talk-radio-personality-turned-Never-Trumper told Democratic candidates how to beat Trump: Don’t talk about anything substantive, don’t propose fixing anything, and for God’s sake, don’t say anything that Trump and Fox and the rest of the conservative swamp will turn against you. The problem? Trump, Fox and the rest of the conservative swamp don’t need Democrats to do or say anything. Just this week Trump called “The Squad” communists (they’re not). He said a Muslim congresswoman “loves Al Qaeda” (she doesn’t). Remember: Republicans labeled Bill Clinton, who was to the right of Richard Nixon on policy, a “socialist,” and kept talking about how he was killing the economy straight through an economic boom. They said Obama was a “secret Muslim” who was born in Kenya. It literally doesn’t matter what Democrats say or do. Republicans are going to go negative full time, all the time, in 2020.
17. Sykes reprised his message on July 16th, this time tying his “concern trolling” to the 1972 election, which Nixon won in a landslide. Here’s Sykes: “It’s possible that Nixon would have beaten any Democrat, but what happened in 1972 was not inevitable. It was, however, a choice. Democrats chose to move sharply left – to indulge their ideological id. Nixon ran against the party of ‘Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.’ The result was a massive landslide for a vulnerable incumbent.” He goes on to cite various left/center-left pundits — Richard Cohen, Ruy Teixiera, Kevin Drum, Jonathan Chait — and recycles his “Embrace the Weird” critique from June.
18. But what Sykes probably knows — though he won’t tell you — is that in a polarized electorate, elections aren’t won by swaying “undecided” centrist moderates. They’re won by mobilizing your base to get out and vote (if you’re a Democrat) or by doing everything possible, regardless of legality, to convince liberal voters to stay home (if you’re a Republican). When we talk about swing voters now, we’re not just talking about centrists who could vote for Trump or some Democrat, but young leftists who abandoned Clinton for Stein, and “principled conservatives” who would rather vote for a Libertarian than Trump or a Democrat. Here’s our new political reality: Running toward some imaginary middle in 2020 makes about as much sense as building a static Maginot Line to stop the air-mobile, mechanized blitzkreig of France in 1940..
19. Sykes talks about “the Myth of the Pivot,” but he doesn’t acknowledge that Republicans stopped moving towards the center for general elections in 2010. Modern Republicans don’t pivot: They go full crazy in the primaries, and they stay there. That’s important, because it gives them a mandate to stay crazy once they win. Democrats — particularly Elizabeth Warren — are starting to understand that if you actually want to govern after the election, you have to run on actual ideas before the election.
20. As for those in the pundit class who keep referring to Biden as “the frontrunner,” a few reminders. In current national polling, Biden generally hovers around the low 20 percent range with Democratic primary voters. With the Democratic field down to four serious contenders, call 20 to 25 percent the width of the party’s “traditional centrist” lane. But its depth is shallow. Even most Biden supporters say they’re interested in alternatives. He is, as one wag put it, “the placeholder candidate.”
21. Warren and Sanders, on the other hand, share the party’s progressive lane. Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. Warren is a progressive who makes a point of saying that “she believes in markets.” Trump will call either one a communist once we get to the general election.
22. Between them, the two progressive candidates constitute roughly 40 percent support of Democratic voters. Whichever one takes the lead will eventually win the support of the party’s left wing. I think that person is likely to be Warren, whose campaign has been the pleasant surprise of 2019. And despite his generally healthy poll numbers, I suspect even 4th place candidate Harris has a better chance of winning the nomination than Sanders. His floor is high, but his ceiling is low.
23. If I’m right, the nominee will be either Biden, Warren or Harris, and not one of them is a liberal loon. Trump and the GOP will make this the most negative presidential campaign of all time no matter who we nominate, and the fractious nature of our party means we’ll produce no shortage of fodder for Fox News’ “opinion hosts.”
24. Can we lose? Absolutely! In fact, Democrats must work to win by a large margin in order to prevent the Republicans from stealing the election. But going into a defense crouch, as Sykes and others suggest, is probably the worst thing we can do. Battles aren’t won by defending. Victory depends on taking the fight to the enemy, and that requires guts, smarts, aggression and initiative.
25. This campaign is going to be about two competing stories about America. Theirs will be a lie. We won’t win by lying a little bit less, but by holding Donald Trump’s failures in stark contrast to the values and solutions we represent.
Don’t go meekly, Democrats. Be brave. Be bold. But for God’s sake: Be united.