Trump's Approval Ratings Don't Need to Improve to Win the 2020 Election

The experience of presidential candidates from Massachusetts in the last generation—Michael Dukakis in 1988; John Kerry in 2004—doesn’t really augur well for the prospects of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s nascent campaign. But past experience is not necessarily indicative of future performance. President Trump presumably has the Republican nomination sewn up if he chooses to run again. Just how big the “if” depends on whom one asks.

Assuming Trump does choose to run again, Warren is just the first in what will likely be a chaotic free-for-all for the Democratic nomination. Establishment candidates (maybe Joe Biden or even Hillary Clinton again) versus socialist candidates (Bernie Sanders, again) versus a welter in between (Warren, possibly Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and others).

While one should never rule out the power of the establishment, whether Democratic or Republican, the excitement is clearly with putative socialists and other candidates outside the mainstream. Democrats, and Republicans, should not forget Hillary in fact put together a winning national electoral coalition, both in the primary election and in the general election. Her campaign’s unforgivable failure was neglecting the fact that the Electoral College also requires putting together winning electoral coalitions on a sufficiently large state-by-state basis.

The likely chaos in the Democratic race offers an opportunity for the Democrats, but also a risk.

First, critically, elections are about voters’ views of the relative position of the candidates vis-à-vis the other candidate(s) and the voters’ preferences. Trump’s approval ratings range in the neighborhood of 43 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval. But Trump doesn’t need to increase his approval ratings to win the election. If Trump can persuade just seven percent of the 52 percent disapproving or non-responding voters to disapprove of the Democratic candidate more than they disapprove of Trump (distributed appropriately at the state level), then Trump can win despite his low approval numbers.

Trump’s campaign in 2020 may remind voters of the old saw about the two missionaries being chased by a lion: One stops and start to pulls out running shoes from his backpack. The other looks back and says, “What are you doing, running shoes won’t help you outrun the lion!” To which the first responds, “I don’t need to outrun the lion, I need only to outrun you.”

The critical issue for both parties is to balance the need to appeal to the middle without losing too many of the enthusiastic, true-believing extremes. Miscalculating this trade-off is the risk for the Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.

Candidates with a desire to win an election face conflicting electoral forces. One of these pulls candidates toward the middle voter, the other pushes nominees away from the median voter toward the extremes.

First, there’s the need to win the median, or middle, voter. This pulls candidates toward the middle of the ideological spectrum. After all, you can’t win an election without winning one vote over 50 percent. (Let’s ignore for now both state plurality rules when more than two candidates run in an election as well as the Electoral College.)

If voters on the ideological extremes always participated no matter what, then campaigns could focus on the median voter alone. But this isn’t what happens: voters at the respective tails of the distribution, if insufficiently motivated by the major-party candidate closest to their views, can vote for a third-party candidate or even abstain from voting altogether. The need to keep the tails engaged often implies the need to keep a respectable distance from the median. This pushes candidates away from the median voter. After all, why turn out to vote if each candidate from the different parties announces the same policy positions?

Candidates in competitive races face this implicit optimization problem in crafting their message: What are the marginal trade-offs in votes gained by moving toward the middle relative to votes lost at the tail, and vice-versa?

Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016—the loss of the establishment candidate—entices Democrats like nothing else to go for the gamble. “If only we run a principled candidate,” the siren song goes, “we can shift the voter distribution in our direction and change the entire political calculus going forward.”

It might even justify losing one election if a shift in the distribution of voters occurs. The poster boy for this possibility is the Goldwater debacle in 1964. While it was a drubbing in 1964, that losing election arguably created the conservative infrastructure that ultimately ushered in the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

On the other hand, the cautionary tale is the McGovern debacle of 1972. While similarly debilitating, this loss ushered in . . . the great Democratic moderation, Carter, Clinton and, arguably, even Obama (who, while governing to the left on some domestic issues, campaigned as a moderate). Progressive Democrats, let alone socialists, are tired of being told the best they can hope for is the half loaves offered by the moderates. Indeed, the Progressives and socialists aren’t sure they’re getting any of the policy loaf they want from the moderates.

My guess is that the Democrats have more to lose than gain by going principled in 2020. Democrats absolutely need a large chunk of middle-class suburbanites to be competitive. These voters aren’t radicalized, they’re concerned and a good chunk even scared. They don’t like the radicalness of Trump. But in 2020, Trump will be a known quantity, even if he’s disliked. It’s easy to imagine these suburbanites, even large numbers of women, preferring the Trump they know to the socialist they don’t.