BY LARA M. BROWN
Although many financial analysts and political forecasters contend that President Donald Trump is likely to be reelected in November because incumbents typically win reelection when the economy is strong, Trump is not a typical incumbent. These are not typical times.
At the outset, Trump will be the only impeached president to have run for reelection. Given that nearly 47 percent of the public believes he should be removed by the Senate, he seems to be starting his campaign from an unusually weak position. By way of comparison, it is helpful to recall that at the outset of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate, only about one-third of Americans wanted Clinton removed from office.
And while the Republican majority in the Senate may reject removing Trump from office, they cannot remove the still-metastasizing scandal that surrounds his actions with regard to Ukraine. The Senate can ignore, but it cannot remove, the damning facts and testimony from the public record, which show that Trump asked a foreign leader to investigate a potential 2020 rival and illegally withheld military assistance in an effort to gain leverage.
High disaproval rating
Aside from Trump’s approval rating being the lowest of any president to run for reelection since Gerald Ford (who lost), according to my analysis of Gallup’s approval data, Trump’s third year net approval rating of -11.6 percent (mean approval minus mean disapproval) was nearly identical to Jimmy Carter’s net approval rating of -11.5 percent (he also lost). The only other president since Carter to have a negative net approval rating for his third year in office was Barack Obama — and Obama’s net approval rating was just -2.9, more than 8.5 percentage points higher than either Carter or Trump.
Trump’s mean disapproval rating for his third year also was terrible: 53.9 percent. He is the only president to have a mean disapproval rating above 50 percent. The two presidents who were closest were Carter (48.9) and Obama (47.4). Making matters worse, political scientists Peter Enns and Jonathon Schuldt have suggested that Trump may be even less popularthan these standard Gallup approval and disapproval numbers suggest.
Although some Trump supporters may be hopeful since Obama’s numbers were not strong and he still won reelection, it should be recalled that Obama earned about 3.5 million fewer popular votes in 2012 than in 2008. Obama also was the first president since Woodrow Wilson to win reelection with fewer electoral votes than in his first election. Trump cannot afford to lose another 3.5 million votes. He was down in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes already.
And while some have suggested that Trump may be able to lose up to 5 million votes and still win an electoral vote majority, they are overlooking how the Electoral College has worked in the past. Popular vote inversions rarely occur when one candidate earns a majority of the popular vote. Since 1860, there have been 26 presidential elections in which a candidate earned a majority of the popular vote. In 25 of these elections, the candidate who earned the popular vote majority also won the Electoral College. There was only one inversion. In 1876, Samuel Tilden earned 50.92 percent of the popular vote, but lost the election to Rutherford Hayes.
It is also the case that since 1860 there have been 14 presidential elections where no candidate earned a majority of the popular vote because third-party and independent candidates did relatively well. Among this smaller set of elections, there have been three inversions: 1888, 2000 and 2016. In each of these three elections, the plurality winner earned about 48 percent of the popular vote. In 1888, Grover Cleveland won 48.63 percent; in 2000, Al Gore won 48.38 percent; and in 2016, Hillary Clinton won 48.02 percent.
Given this history, it would appear that ever since Republicans and Democrats have been competing for the presidency, the real key to winning the Electoral College is winning a popular vote majority — not a popular vote plurality (48 percent), a significant margin over one’s main opponent (millions of votes) or a majority of the two-party popular vote (which omits third-party and independent candidates to compare across elections).
Returning to Trump, it seems highly unlikely that third-party and independent candidates will be able to attract as many votes in 2020 as they did in 2016. No matter what happens between now and November, it is difficult to imagine voters being willing to “waste their votes” to send a message. This was part of the election dynamic in 2016. Even though both candidates were broadly disliked, most believed that Hillary Clinton would win.
Voters on both sides of the aisle believed that their votes were not likely to change the outcome and that by voting for a third party, they could send a message to the parties that they should “do better.” More than 6 percent of the vote went for candidates other than Clinton or Trump. That will not be the case in 2020. Partisans are highly engaged and seem unlikely to stray from their respective party nominees. Independents and occasional voters also are likely to believe their votes may make the difference between one side winning or losing.
In this circumstance, one candidate probably will earn a majority of the popular vote and likely win the Electoral College.
And if you think this election will favor Trump, ask yourself this question: When was the last time his approval rating was above 45 percent and his disapproval was below 45 percent? Answer: not since his inauguration. Simply put, this fact does not bode well for this incumbent — no matter how strong the economy or his campaign’s success in turning out his voters. Trump is not a majority president. It’s unlikely he can be a majority candidate.
Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.