America is one year away from the most consequential and negative campaign most have seen. So important and virulent, it is worth taking stock of now. Both sides have great weaknesses, which present the other great opportunities. However, the greater opportunity is Donald Trump’s, so despite his seemingly perilous position, the election remains his to lose.
Next year’s race is important simply because it is a presidential one. Already the nation’s most powerful office, presidents of both parties are rapidly increasing its authority. The coming clash between divergent approaches over how a powerful presidency should be used heightens the election’s importance even more.
The ideological contrast will also further increase the campaign’s virulence. Fresh from a divisive impeachment fight, the country will face an unusual contest in which both parties run toward their bases, rather than the center. It will accentuate stark differences between ideologies, economics, and policies.
On Trump’s ledger, his resume is only so-so. Likely to be only the third president impeached in American history, he is at his lowest point between now and November 2020. His job approval hovers in the 40s — usually underwater. The economy is good, but no longer spectacular, and is hindered by multiple trade conflicts — which Trump has championed. He has recent foreign policy successes — notably the killing of ISIS’ top two leaders. Finally, America is divided, with much of it centered on him.
Perhaps absent at first glance, there are positives here. Trump’s job approval is about where President Barack Obama’s was at the same point in his presidency — despite Obama’s being unaffected by impeachment — and Obama handily won reelection. According to Rasmussen’s Nov. 15 daily tracking poll, Trump had a 50% job approval, while Obama’s was 49% on Nov. 15, 2011. Expect Trump’s approval to rise — especially following Senate acquittal.
Further, Obama’s economy lagged Trump’s — even without the drag of trade conflicts. Trump’s is fundamentally strong and he can unilaterally diminish the trade disputes encumbering it and bolster it further. Like Trump, Obama had Osama bin Laden’s killing, but also had a divided country — much centered on him, due to Obamacare and higher taxes.
Trump’s biggest advantage compared to Obama will be in his reelection opponent. Mitt Romney in 2012 was an uninspiring, but status quo, Republican. In 2020, Democrats probably will nominate an iconoclastic candidate, who will challenge America’s ideological, political, and economic standards.
After almost five months, the Democrat field remains fragmented. Front-runner Joe Biden commands support only from approximately a quarter of Democrats. Almost two-thirds of Democrats support a group of candidates on the left.
It is difficult to see the Democrats’ nominee not coming from this now predominant left. It is still harder to see how that candidate will not have to go “hard left” to win Democrat supporters. Running that direction means challenging America’s status quo, and violating candidates’ traditional shift to the center in the general election. It will also make Trump the de facto defender of America’s status quo, helping increase his appeal — even if only by default — with important centrist voters.
There is a reason why elected incumbents over the last century have gone 11-3 seeking second terms. Trump will have an incumbency advantage, as well as the economy and campaign cash. However, no advantage is likely to be bigger than the one he will have in his adversary.
It is a given that Trump will be less appealing than Obama. However, his currently unknown opponent will be too — a candidate unable to break from the Democrat pack, let alone with the general electorate. Trump’s opponent will be far more threatening than Obama’s was in 2012.
This “opponent gap” favors Trump where he needs it most: The center. With his other advantages, Trump looks too much to overcome for an opponent who Democrats will require to run away from America’s center. If Trump won in 2016 due in large part to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings, his 2020 success will be due in even larger part to those of his still unknown opponent from the left.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.
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