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Escalating Ambiguity: The 2020 Election

“We need some air, we need to figure this out,” Jordan Cozby ’20 remembers saying as the results of the 2016 presidential election became clear. Walking out of a suite filled with his friends, Cozby—then a first-year and future 2018 president of the Yale College Democrats—was in tears, along with many others. 

“These issues are really personal and affect people we love and care about dearly,” said Cozby. “The litany of things that Trump had run on—the Muslim ban to immigration crackdowns and the wall—a lot of people in the room instantly realized this was going to be a terrible next four years.”  

The 2016 election has left Democrats at Yale University and around the country both thoroughly traumatized and anxious to avoid a repeat in 2020. Yet President Trump has maintained strikingly constant favorability ratings throughout his term, despite scandals from every possible end: inappropriate actions toward women, the Trump Organization’s business dealings, and more recently, the scandal involving attempts to extract personal favors from Volodymyr Zelensky, the new president of Ukraine. Now, with the impeachment inquiry looming, he may have hit a breaking point. Democrats are optimistic about their chances, but the race will ultimately come down to voters’ perception of the economy, their views on impeachment, and their excitement about the Democratic candidate. 

To analyze these factors, most pundits search for precedents and patterns. Yet beyond the 2016 election, historical parallels to 2020 are hard to find. Ed Goeas—the president and CEO of the Republican polling firm Tarrance Group—admitted to The Politic that the 2016 election broke from typical election patterns. 2016 was the first election since 1964 in which the nominee of either major party had a favorability rating under fifty percent. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, last carried this title. “Goldwater got totally wiped out,” said Goeas, but Trump won.  

Hillary Clinton broke yet another historical pattern. Her favorability ratings were also below fifty percent, marking one of the few presidential races in which both candidates were statistically unpopular, added Goeas. With two broadly disliked candidates, cynicism among voters increases dramatically. “The more cynical a voter is, the more likely they are to elect a demagogue.” Hence, Donald Trump.  

Goeas further cited three main factors that tipped the election in Trump’s favor. First, there was a large cohort of incumbent senators running for reelection in key states—Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania—who largely feared that Trump would depress the vote. “They had come to the conclusion that Trump wasn’t going to turn out the vote, so they put in very intense voter registration efforts,” Goeas recalled. 

Second was then-FBI Director James Comey’s release of the report regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email for classified communication. Comey’s actions further weakened her favorability and served as a tipping point for many undecided, “post-Labor-Day” voters.

Third was Trump’s surprisingly contained handling of the FBI report. According to Goeas, Trump largely limited his attacks on Clinton, fearing a big loss as the election neared. “He did very little tweeting before the election,” observed Goeas. That silence, in turn, served to Trump’s benefit. “He’s like a boxer with a glass jaw,” Goeas added, indicating that every punch Trump would have taken would have harmed him.  

These three factors created a “perfect storm” for Trump that paved a path to victory.

Yet this “perfect storm” will not be around to aid Trump in 2020. Instead, he will be entering amidst the tempest of his long list of scandals. Questions remain if these scandals will impact the president, however. As Goeas conceded, “there has been no life to his unfavorable ratings.”  Instead, Trump has managed to come out relatively unscathed. According to Real Clear Politics, Trump’s favorability since his inauguration has remained constant, ranging from thirty-nine to forty-four percent. 

Celinda Lake, a Democratic political strategist and president of Lake Research Partners, a polling firm currently working for presidential candidate Joe Biden, told The Politic that this is likely due to Trump’s uniquely motivated supporters. “He has an uncanny ability to mobilize his base,” said Lake.  

Furthermore, Lake added, Trump is largely unlike most incumbents. “Usually, the election of an incumbent is based on the job he’s done, but Trump has introduced a new style of politics.” This new style consists of blatant pandering to his base while largely ignoring and criticizing those who do not openly support his presidency. 

“He has come to the presidency with significantly high negatives and certainly has done nothing to assuage the folks who had concerns about those negatives,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told The Politic. As a consequence, Trump has made very few inroads within the electorate, almost solely relying on the support of his base. That, in turn, has translated to the stabilized public sentiment toward the president and his job performance.

Public opinion regarding Trump’s economic performance has also remained notably static. In fact, voter optimism in Trump’s performance has only slightly decreased after recent talk of an upcoming recession. According to a September CNN poll, the approval for Trump’s economic job performance slightly decreased to forty-nine percent, with disapproval at forty-four percent. Though this is a modest decrease from his earlier approval, there has been no significant alteration in Trump’s economic ratings. 

Though the majority of political models are predicting a Trump loss, economic models forecast a victory.  Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, has created twelve economic election models, all of which predict a Trump victory.  

“Even if you have a mediocre but not great economy—and that’s more or less [the] consensus for between now and the election—that has a Trump victory and by a not-trivial margin,” Yale economist Ray Fair told POLITICO.

A major factor behind economic models like Zandi’s is that a large number of independent voters approve of Trump’s economic performance. “People do attribute the economy to him and they still think he will do a better job on the economy than a Democrat,” Lake admitted.

And even if a recession is only a couple months away, it would take another few months to actually impact Trump’s chances of reelection. “The economy would have to be bad for six months,” noted Goeas.

If the economy is Trump’s greatest strength, then impeachment is undoubtedly the crux of his weakness. After the House of Representatives officially opened an impeachment inquiry following the Ukraine scandal, the likelihood of a Trump impeachment has increased drastically. “The scandals are catching up with him,” Howard Dean ‘71 told The Politic. Dean is a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute, a former DNC chairman, and a former governor of Vermont. “Every day, a new revelation comes out about a guy who’s been a crook his entire life.” 

And the public’s attitude toward impeachment is also shifting. According to FiveThirtyEight’s preliminary impeachment tracker—which accounts for “each poll’s quality, recency, sample size and partisan lean”—the majority of Americans support impeachment.  

Dean is optimistic about the possible impacts of the impeachment inquiry and a potential vote to impeach the president. 

“First, there’s a significant portion of Americans who don’t want a crook in the White House, and second, people are just tired of this,” Dean said, “this is like reality television.” 

Yet Dean conceded that impeachment remains risky. “We could blow it,” he said. “How this gets handled in Congress makes a big difference.”  

Specifically, the effect of the inquiry on independent voters—who are likely to decide the election—is highly ambiguous. 

“It’s really up in the air. I think it could go either way,” said Lake. 

Miringoff agreed, insisting that a key group of voters—suburban, white, college-educated women—is a likely “trigger point” in the next election. He argued that “how they react to the next few months of impeachment is still an open proposition.”

Most pundits agree that Trump’s odds of winning the popular vote are relatively slim. Yet his prospects in the Electoral College look far more hopeful. 

“Changing demographics and Trump have blown up the electoral map that has dominated American politics since 1992,” Doug Sosnik, a Democratic political strategist and former political director to President Bill Clinton, told Axios last November.

Making his predictions after the 2018 midterms, Sosnik identified states in the Midwest—Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylyvania, and Wisconsin—as well as in the Southeast and Southwest—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—as potential tossups in 2020. With the Sosnik map, even if Pennsylvania and Michigan vote Democratic in 2020, the overall Electoral College vote will be close to tied. It is likely, therefore, that the election will come down to the aforementioned states, particularly Arizona, Wisconsin, and possibly Florida. In all three states, polling has shown tight numbers between potential Democratic nominees and Trump.

Given Trump’s apparent advantage in the Electoral College, his victory would be no surprise, especially to his hopeful rivals. 

“Whether we knock off Trump or not, I don’t know,” conceded Dean. Yet Dean remains confident, insisting that it will ultimately come down to the Democrats nominating a candidate who can drive passion and excitement in voters.

“This is our election to lose. What really matters is the emotional connection. What we have to do is make sure that turnout is enormous among young people, among people of color, and among women,” Dean said. “And if it is, we’re gonna win and it doesn’t matter what the hell Trump does or how much money he has. And if we don’t, we’re gonna lose.”