Monday, February 17, 2020

What It's All About

From MARA LIASSON, at NPR, "What The 2020 Election Is All About":

More than anything, this election is about President Trump.

For most incumbent presidents running for reelection, approval ratings really matter. With Trump, there are several different striking ways to look at those numbers. He's historically unpopular — the most unpopular incumbent ever to stand for reelection.

He has a very locked-in base, with sky-high approval in his own party. But those who strongly disapprove of Trump outnumber those who strongly approve. Likewise, no modern president has had such high numbers of people who say they will definitely vote against him for reelection.

There is tremendous intensity that motivates Trump's supporters and opponents. Despite the many advantages he has (more on that later), he is incapable of sticking to a message that highlights those benefits. For every tweet about the great economy, there's another that picks a fight with a movie star or retweets something offensive. Trump remains impulsive and undisciplined — something he thinks works great for him, even though many Republicans (privately) disagree.

Trump also enjoys particular structural advantages, starting with the Electoral College. He received 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016 and won only 46% of the popular vote, a smaller percentage than Mitt Romney received when he lost to Barack Obama in 2012.

But America picks its presidents in a state-by-state, winner-take-all system, and Trump's voters are more efficiently distributed among battleground states than Democrats'. So how big of an advantage does he have going into 2020? One way to think about it is that Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania but still win by holding on to all the other states he won in 2016.

Some estimates say he could lose the popular vote by as many as 5 million votes and still win the Electoral College.

Also, Trump has the advantage of incumbency. Only two incumbent presidents have lost in the last 40 years: George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — and they were facing a recession and a hostage crisis, respectively. All the tools of the presidency are at Trump's disposal, including an early start on fundraising, and he commands the bully pulpit — and dominates news coverage — like no other president.

Democrats' choice

While Democrats might hope that Trump is so unpopular that a ham sandwich could beat him, that is not the case. The Democrats' choice for a nominee matters, because an election is not just a referendum on the incumbent; it's a binary choice between two candidates.

Trump and others who want him reelected (foreign and domestic) will be putting tremendous time, effort and billions of dollars into demonizing the Democratic nominee. And the president encourages these efforts, including his open calls for Ukraine and China to investigate candidate Joe Biden.

This year, despite the Democrats' overwhelming enthusiasm for defeating Trump, no Democratic candidate currently running looks like a slam dunk against him. And that's why the Democratic primary race is so unsettled. The weaknesses of the Democratic candidates that Trump can exploit are already well known: from Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American ancestry and Bernie Sanders' socialism to Biden's age (and, yes, Ukraine) and Pete Buttigieg's inexperience.

Trump has megabucks to spend, but often overlooked is that the amount the Democratic candidates raised as a group in the last quarter was twice as much as Trump raised during that time. That shows how much grassroots enthusiasm Democrats could tap into if and when they unify behind one candidate. This year there's the rare possibility that the challenger will not be outspent by the incumbent. Another reason that might be the case this year is Mike Bloomberg...