When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, two major questions arose: 1. How did it happen? And 2. Could he win again in 2020? Trump’s campaign strategy in 2016 was simple and straightforward, and easily summed up by the ubiquitous red hats he and his supporters wear: “Make America Great Again”. His rationale was that the United States had lost its way, and that for too many Americans the American Dream was out of reach. They had played by the rules and followed what they had been told was the path to success, only to find that wasn’t the case. And then he began to assign blame for this, along with plans to fix the problem. Non-citizens were entering the country illegally, taking jobs away from Americans, putting a drain on programs like Social Security and Medicare, and even (he claimed) voting in our elections and skewing the results. The solution? Build a wall on our southern border to keep them out. Other countries were taking advantage of bad trade deals to manufacture goods cheaper than we could in the US, taking away jobs that had previously employed thousands of Americans. The solution? Slap tariffs on goods made in other countries until those nations “played fair” with the US, and force those jobs to return to American soil. This “America First” rationale has also extended to foreign policy, where Trump has claimed that America’s allies have been taking advantage of the US by not paying their fair share when it comes to common defense, especially members of NATO. All of these actions have an attractiveness to part of the public.
Everything Donald Trump has done since he was sworn in as president in 2017 has been an appeal to this segment of the population, which is his base of voters. Pollsters and pundits disagree somewhat over how big of a segment this is, but the general consensus is that it represents about 35-40% of the voting public. And this is where the possibly fatal flaw of Trump’s re-election strategy comes into play. Unless a candidate happens to be one of the lucky ones blessed with a district that skews heavily to their ideology (think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district in New York), it is always necessary to expand your reach beyond your base of voters. Having a solid 35-40% that you know is going to vote for you no matter what is a great place to start, but even in a system like the electoral college, in a two-way race, 40% is not enough. But, everything Donald Trump has done since announcing his candidacy in 2015 has only played to his base. Every order he has issued, every speech he has given, every tweet he has sent – it’s all been red meat to keep his core supporters happy and engaged. Nothing has been an attempt to broaden his appeal to a wider audience. And yet, he still won in 2016.
So, how did Donald Trump expand his base enough to win? Two main factors came into play. The first was the idea of change. Especially when it comes to presidential politics, Americans are enthralled with change. We love the idea of an outsider swooping into the highest office in the land to shake things up. In fact, six of the last seven men elected president have been outsiders promising to “change Washington” and “make it work again”. Jimmy Carter promised change from the scandal of Watergate during the Nixon Administration. Ronald Reagan promised change from the malaise and perceived ineptitude of Carter. George H.W. Bush was without a doubt a Washington insider, having served in congress, as director of the CIA, and eight years as vice president, but much of the criticism leveled at him during the latter part of his term in office was that he was out of touch and too beholden to the Washington establishment. After four years he was voted out in favor of Bill Clinton, once again promising change. George W. Bush promised change from what many perceived as the scandalous years of the Clinton White House, and Barack Obama promised change from the economic problems and seeming ineffectiveness of the Bush years. And of course, Donald Trump represented the ultimate outsider, a businessman who had never held elected office before. Prior to their elections as president, these six men had a total of three and a half years serving in Washington, all of it represented by the time Obama served in the U.S. Senate.
The second factor in Trump’s win was his opponent. By the time the 2016 election came around, Hillary Clinton had been in the public spotlight for 25 years. While “First Lady” may not be an “official” government post, there’s an argument to be made that no first lady played a more prominent role in shaping policy during her husband’s administration than Hillary, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt. And of course, when the Clinton administration ended, Hillary served as a senator for eight years, and then as secretary of state for four. This played to the idea of “change” in Donald Trump’s campaign. But more importantly, there was the perception of Hillary Clinton herself. I want to state right off that I am a Hillary Clinton fan, but I understand that many people feel the exact opposite of that, and intensely dislike her. There is, of course, a debate to be had (and that has been raging for about as long as Hillary has been in the public eye) about whether this dislike is justified or not, but a fact is a fact. There is a large segment of the population that just does not like Hillary Clinton. And obviously, this played to Donald Trump’s advantage. In any election, there is going to be a portion of the voters who vote “against” a candidate, rather than “for” the other candidate. How many Trump voters were not really enamored of him, but couldn’t stomach the idea of a Hillary presidency?
Of course, this point plays into the argument that many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters made in the wake of the 2016 election – and that many of them continue to make to this day: If Bernie had been the nominee, those voters who voted against Hillary rather than for Trump would have come over to Sanders, because now their rationale for begrudgingly supporting Trump would be gone. But, there is a flaw in this argument and one that could prove to be a potential disaster for Democrats in 2020. When either party has enjoyed their greatest success on the national stage, it has been when their nominee has been able to depict themselves as fighting for “average Americans”, while all their opponent cares about is “special interests”. There is, of course, no actual definition for what makes up an “average American” as opposed to a “special interest”, but one of the surest ways to achieve this distinction is to portray your opponent as being too far out of the mainstream, someone who’s out of touch because they are so far to the left or the right. Part of Ronald Reagan’s appeal in 1980, in addition to being the change candidate, was his ability to position himself as caring about the plight of “
This is not to say that Democrats need to nominate a candidate who is moderate in order to win. They do not. There are recent examples of candidates from both parties who were not moderates who won. Ronald Reagan had some very conservative views when he ran in 1980, and Barack Obama had some very liberal ones when he ran in 2008, and obviously, both men won in decisive fashion. The key for both was not that their views came from the center, but rather that they successfully resisted attempts by their opponents to paint them as being extremists – politicians who only cared about some small, special interest subset, rather than being dedicated to working for the country as a whole. No matter if the Democratic nominee is someone from the more liberal Bernie Sanders wing of the party, or from the more moderate Joe Biden wing – if they’re able to convince voters that they’re the best choice to represent “average Americans” and battle against “special interests”, their chances of victory will dramatically increase. But, if Donald Trump and the Republicans are able to portray the eventual Democratic nominee – whoever that may be – as a far left-wing ideologue whose views are out of touch with most voters and who isn’t in it to help all Americans, that will make unseating him that much tougher.
So, can Donald Trump win in 2020? Yes, but he does face an uphill climb. Since the day he took office, Trump’s job approval rating has never been above 50%, and most of the time has been in the low 40’s, even dipping into the upper 30’s. They are lower at this point in his first term than any president since World War II, except Jimmy Carter. Virtually every action he has taken as president seems to be designed to appeal only to his base, and in some cases, he seems to go out of his way to anger and alienate his detractors. It is, of course, possible that he will change his tune over the last year before the election, and attempt to broaden his appeal with voters who are not among his hard-core supporters, but at best that possibility seems very slim. There are of course other factors which will come into play. With over a year until the election, we don’t know what the state of the economy will be by the fall of 2020. There is always the possibility of an international crisis or, God forbid, another traumatic event like 9/11 that will dramatically shape the outlook of the electorate. And obviously, there is now the 900-pound gorilla in the room – the recently begun impeachment inquiry by Congress.
If Donald Trump survives and is still in the White House by election day, how will the inquiry help or hurt his chances? Will he come out stronger, much as Bill Clinton did in 1998? Will the voters have decided that they’ve had enough and want another chance? Or will it be status quo ante Bellum, with hardcore Democrats disgusted that he was not removed from office, hardcore Republicans disgusted that the inquiry took place at all, and the rest of the voting public just overall disgusted, viewing this as yet another example of an out-of-control and broken government that’s too divided and hyper-partisan? Judging just by the current numbers, the 2020 presidential election should seem to be shaping up as a wave election for Democrats, much like 1980 did for Republicans. But if the Democrats are not careful, if they give Donald Trump the opening he needs by nominating a candidate who is incapable of defending themselves against the attacks and labels that will surely be coming, the Democratic Party may look back on 2020 as one of the great missed opportunities in electoral history.
Dan O’Hara is a 13 year veteran of Democratic political campaigns, having managed races in Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, and New York.