The Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel recently tweeted his list of the top five most critical elections of the past decade. The top two, in his mind, were the midterm elections of 2014 and 2010. The infamous 2016 election came in third place, and 2018 and 2012, respectively, rounded out the bottom.
After giving it some thought, I think Weigel nailed it, ranking the elections in order of importance — and the lessons learned that we will carry forward into the new decade.
The 2014 elections, in which Republicans won the Senate from Harry Reid and Democrats, set up Mitch McConnell’s capacity to hold Democrats off from replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and also gave the GOP the margins necessary to nominate judges at a record clip. The 2010 election and the Tea Party movement energized the Republican base for the better part of a decade, bringing in fresh faces and ideas on the heels of Barack Obama’s hope and change makeover of the Democratic Party.
The crucial first lesson, looking back at those elections, is that approval rating polls matter. This point isn’t unique to this decade; approval ratings have always mattered. But it’s worth highlighting that even in a social media age, traditional measures of electability still hold some weight.
In 2008 and 2012, when Obama was on the ticket, he had solid approval ratings. In 2008, he started in the high 60% range. In 2012, his support fell below 50%, but he was able to push those numbers up into the high forties in crucial states.
Contrast that to the midterm election years of 2010 and 2014. In 2010, Obama’s numbers cratered during the Obamacare debates and matched President Donald Trump’s current numbers. In 2014, the same thing happened; Obama’s approval ratings were at the same level as Trump’s are now. Republicans won handily in both years.
Obama’s numbers improved as he was heading out the door, and people faced the prospect of voting for Trump or Hillary Clinton. What does that tell us now? Trump’s approval ratings in the polls matter, too.
Since January of 2019, the last time Trump’s disapproval numbers shot up noticeably, the president’s job approval ratings have remained mostly static — in the 42% range — except for recently. The impeachment news cycle has pushed Trump’s approval into the 44% range.
Of course, we have to remember one crucial caveat: these are all national polls on Trump’s approval ratings. Whatever the national numbers are, what matters more is where Trump stands in battleground states. But if Trump can get his national approval ratings up to around 45%, then he can bank on that number being stronger in swing states, which gives him an edge.
At this point, Trump’s improvement in his approval ratings is happening as Democrats push his impeachment. Indeed, the Dems’ partisan process is improving Trump’s standing nationally, and, as a result, improving his reputation in critical states like those in the upper Midwest, including Wisconsin, that are likely to be the “tipping points” in 2020.
That means that whoever wins them has the inside track at winning the White House.
A December Marquette poll of Wisconsin voters found that 52% opposed impeachment, with only 40% saying Trump should be removed from office. Of note in that poll: Trump’s approval rating in Wisconsin sits at 47%. That means Trump is outperforming his approval rating on the impeachment question by around five percentage points.
In 2016, Trump beat Clinton in Wisconsin with 47.22% of the vote to her 46.45%. If Trump hasn’t lost his base of support here — and can potentially add to it, judging by the opposition to impeachment — that would go a long way toward his re-election.
My thesis here is that if opposition to Trump’s impeachment is stronger than Trump’s approval rating, that shows some areas where the Trump campaign can potentially expand their coalition, not shrink it. Hillary Clinton won more overall votes than Donald Trump in 2016, but even she did not win a majority of the popular vote. Clinton ran up her total vote count in deep blue states like California and New York, which masked her weaknesses everywhere else.
Democrats seem to have not learned that lesson, as they’re actively pouring money into places like Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky in a bid to attack Trump and Mitch McConnell, when they should be trying to win over voters in the Midwest, traditional Democrats who voted for Obama but switched parties to join Trump.
Republicans misread the 2010 election, believing it gave them the upper hand against Obama in the 2012 race. And Mitt Romney was a lousy candidate who played into all the strengths of the Obama campaign. But Democrats seem poised to do the same thing.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both extremists who Trump can pummel as socialists. Joe Biden is old, slow, and embarrassingly gaffe-prone. Trump has his gaffes, too — but he’s shown the strength to move beyond his problems. There’s a reason Democrats never got behind Joe Biden in his previous presidential bids.
Given all those basic facts, my bold, way-too-early prediction is that Trump will win re-election in 2020. The media will try to drop another bombshell on him in October, but I suspect that even if they do, whoever wins the Democratic primary will have their issues to face too. Trump has room to grow in key states and constituencies, and if he’s smart, he’ll hone in on those areas.
The next major challenge for Republicans is maintaining their majority in the Senate and eating into the Democratic House majority. I don’t have any predictions there, but if Trump wins, things should go well for Republicans down-ballot.
In addition, if Trump does win re-election, there’s no doubt going to be considerable Democratic infighting over how impeachment harmed their cause. They may want to impeach Trump again after 2020 — but if it costs them an election, it won’t be a given.