Prologue To Election 2020
On November 3rd, 2020 an estimated sixty-plus percent of the voting eligible population will go to their polling stations and decide who will be in the White House for the following four years, who will control which of the two houses of Congress, and 11 gubernatorial seats that will likely be just as glanced over as much as last year’s were in the shadow of such big races atop the ticket. As we turn the calendar year from off-year governors’ races and parliamentary elections up north and across the pond, we have to look forward (With trepidation for some of us) to this monumental year for U.S politics. While I have a plethora of analysis to share on those various elections to be decided in November, it’s still not yet too late to take a look back at the prologue to this electoral cycle before I do, so before we begin months of poll watching let’s look back on how we got to this moment in history…
– Part 1: The Rise And Decline Of The Obama Age
In 2008, after back to back close and divisive presidential election victories for the GOP, a war-weary and hard economically hit country got behind a young black Democratic U.S senator calling for change in Barack Obama – making him the first African American to take residence at the White House. Under his historic eight year presidency, Obama passed the biggest transformation to healthcare in this country in a generation, grew into becoming a figurehead that pushed for more freedoms for the LGBTQ community, passed executive acts to help the children of undocumented immigrants, rallied the country in times of crisis such as super storm Sandy and vicious acts of domestic terrorism, made the order to take down 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden after he had eluded capture for a decade, looked over an economic recovery from the worst recession in a generation, became the first President since Eisenhower to win 51%+ of the popular vote in both of his election victories, and left office with pretty impressive and high approval ratings. All of these accomplishments lead to him debuting among historians’ lists of ranked Presidents as high as #12 and in political scientists’ lists as high as #8.
But that telling of his presidency is a version which leaves out the hardships and trigger points that helped lead to the rise of a controversial and loathed reality TV star to reach the White House. Because while Obama did get through historic bills such as the Affordable Care Act, the bill itself was unpopular throughout his presidency and would be hammered over the heads of his Democratic colleagues – costing them back to back midterms wave defeats to a resurgent GOP that in some respects they’re still struggling to come back from. While Obama did promote big progressive civil rights reforms, in doing so he lost some culturally conservative rural white non-college educated voters that had tended to back Democrats – causing the once previously defined “blue wall” of the rust belt to become more winnable for the opposition. While Obama did look over a recovering economy, it was the slowest and most mediocre growth since the depression and didn’t start to really hit its stride until he was leaving office – and some parts of the country did not see the growth other parts did. While Obama was finally able to take out Osama Bin Laden, his other foreign policy missteps such as abandoning some allies in need in the middle east and not taking the Russia threat more seriously came back to bite the country. While Obama did enjoy leaving office popular and won re-election, he also experienced long stretches of unpopularity in office and had to pull off a hard fought victory to earn re-election, going backwards from the kind of support he had gotten four years prior.
The rise and decline of the eight year Obama age in the White House is one that undoubtedly left a lasting positive legacy for him with historians that will probably only get better thanks to the current occupant of the oval office, but left his party having to pick up the pieces after taking many casualties in midterm elections, and bleeding support from rural and white working class voters that had once been behind them. It left parts of the country that felt left behind and ignored, and even among the left the strong engagement of youth, urban, and minority supporters had waned without Obama atop the ticket anymore. The perfect storm was building for a populist wave coming from the right to succeed.
– Part 2: The Election That Broke All The Rules
Needing to pull off the uphill climb of a third straight presidential election victory, Democrats tapped former U,S Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton as their nominee, as she enjoyed good leads in hypothetical general election matchups against every would be Republican candidate. However, a scandal of potentially compromised state e-mails and a more competitive than expected nomination battle led Clinton to come into the general election with high unfavorables and more competitive general election polling margins than before – albeit she remained the favorite.
Republicans meanwhile saw nearly twenty candidates jump into their nomination battle for the presidency which included all sorts of would be historic nominees and big names (Including another Bush). However, Donald Trump, a controversial real estate mogul turned womanizing tabloid star ended up getting the nomination regardless of his abhorrent personal behavior, his horrible favorables, and the party establishment’s resistance to him. With a message of identity grievance politics and a push to shakeup the establishment, he took the lead early and kept it for the rest of the primary. Trump’s nomination was seen as a modern day Goldwater and McGovern moment, with some forecasters predicting early on a Democratic landslide was going to likely happen.
However as the campaign went along, while she continued to lead in the polls, Clinton could not put Trump away. Even after getting bumps in polls from a better received convention, being seen as the clear winner of the debates, and whenever Trump kept putting his foot in his mouth or dealing with yet another scandal, Clinton’s email troubles and bad campaign moments like fainting on tape or the now infamous “deplorables” gaffe kept her from pulling away. Then came the October surprise, with Clinton leading in the polls in the final weeks “The Comey Letter” made its way to the campaign ending it on a bad note for her and with Trump surging ahead in some swing state polls in places like Florida and North Carolina. His team sensing a longshot chance for them, went all in on the Midwestern rust belt states where they thought they saw some strengths for Trump showing up.
But going into election night Clinton remained favored and according to all the behind the scenes reports we have, Trump himself thought he’d lose. His team even went as far as to basically concede as soon as polls started to close when Florida looked rough for them early on, and early exit polls teased a Clinton blowout. However as the results started streaming in for Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and he did as well as expected in other key swing states like Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio, it had become clear that the late break some pollsters and his team were catching for Trump was legit as he just barely got dragged across the finish line and won the electoral college. Donald Trump had pulled off the biggest electoral upset in U.S politics since Harry Truman’s famous 1948 shocker.
He had done it by not just dominating with the white rural working class types that had started to leave the Democratic party over differing and widening cultural differences, but by winning those felt left behind in the recovery they weren’t feeling, winning a competitive vote among Independents, and winning voters that didn’t like either candidate by landslide margins. In various key state exit polls last second voters went to Trump by massive numbers, confirming how late his surge had been. Clinton’s poor showing in getting high turnout among some key Democratic base voters who would have probably rather voted for Obama again also helped Trump. However Trump did not win the popular vote, losing it by the biggest margin an electoral college winner had lost it by since Rutherford B Haye’s controversial 1876 victory – an early sign of how polarizing this presidency was going to be.
– Part 3: A Drama Filled, Chaotic Circus Of A Presidency
The Trump presidency’s first day would basically set the stage for what was to come from this era of presidential politics. The President started off his time in office by getting into arguments over his abnormally low inauguration crowd size and began engaging in propaganda battles with the media that would see him and his team get to the point that in due time they’d even photoshop hurricane tracking images. He went about backing a controversial travel ban, attempting to push a healthcare bill unpopular enough to now make the previously unpopular Affordable Care Act popular, began trade wars with countries that in time would lead to a rise in tariffs, held rallies in which he doubled down on wild remarks that embarrassed his colleagues in Congress, and nominated to the Supreme Court a judge that got caught up in sexual assault allegations that polls showed the public thought were legit. Instead of having a honeymoon phase, the President ended up quickly becoming an unpopular President and has remained — up to this writing — the most consistent unpopularity polling for a new President in modern polling history.
The economy has been on its best streak in two decades and on paper that should have led to a pro-incumbent environment even for a midterm cycle, but the never-ending drama and controversies of the President’s unpopular policies and bad behavior (Plus the economy not being high on voter’s list of concerns anymore) helped fueled a 2018 Democratic wave election. Republicans lost control of the U.S House, more than a handful of gubernatorial seats, and ended up coming away with just a net gain of 2 when dealt the best Senate class map in history for a party in power. Worse yet, independents who had backed them under Obama had shifted left, as well as suburban college educated voters who were now doing what rural white working class types had done in reverse. This made 2018 a realignment election of sorts in which growing class, social, race, and gender gaps have messed around with both parties’ typical electoral coalitions.
Did that convince the President to start moderating his behavior and shift towards voters for his upcoming re-election? Get real, this is Donald Trump were talking about. The President has only been caught up in more scandal, more gaffes and over the line comments, more controversial and unpopular policies, and even a prolonged government shutdown that he got the blame for. And as if this ludicrous sideshow of a presidency didn’t need more drama going into a presidential year cycle, the President ended up getting caught potentially attempting to withhold aid to a foreign power unless they investigated a Democratic rival in former Vice President Joe Biden – leading to Trump becoming the third President ever to be impeached by the U.S House (Though it is extremely likely that he will be acquitted by the U.S Senate like the previous two impeached Presidents were). And unlike with the last impeachment which voters were not on board for, small plural support existed for the impeachment nationally per the Five Thirty Eight average of impeachment polls.
But even after all the drama, all the scandal, all the repugnant behavior, and the unpopularity, the President hasn’t completely fallen through the floor in public opinion support either. As of this writing his approvals are in the low to mid-forties, not good but not a recipe for being unable to pull off an extra close re-election victory. Thus putting him in a strange position where he’s vulnerable and beatable even though the economy says he shouldn’t be – but also showing he’s still within range of continuing on in the White House for yet another four years if an electoral college misfire plays into his hands once again. There’s even a very real low but still plausible situation where a 269/269 electoral college tie occurs and a minority Republican party in the U.S House uses its state delegation advantage to keep him in power. Talk about potential constitutional crises.
– Part 4: A Party Looks For A Leader
The Democrats for their own part have ended up with a historically big field of candidates for their nomination, with almost thirty men and women wanting to be the party’s next leader in a post-Obama age, showing that unlike past incumbent Presidents there’s plenty would be challengers who want a crack at Trump. But even with such a large field the nomination seems to be coming down to whether the party wants to go with four or five contenders. There’s frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden who seems like the toughest challenger to the President in hypothetical polling, but is also seen as an old guard at a time some on the left want radical change. Or they could take an electoral gamble with their own populist revolt by going with a more progressive ideologue like 2016 Democratic primary runner-up U.S Senator Bernie Sanders or “Billionaire tears” merchandise seller U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren. Or perhaps they could aim for history and youth with former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg who would be the first openly homosexual to become President. But whatever they decide, the nominee is going to have to not just overcome a sitting incumbent President during a good economy, but somehow get past Trump’s electoral college advantage which could end up being the key in helping him survive unpopularity and gain that second term.
Meanwhile, Democrats look poised to keep control of the U.S House with history and numbers on their side and Republicans retiring, though it’s no guarantee. The same could be said for the favored Republicans in the U,S Senate where the insurance from gaining seats in 2018 helps pad their lead, but a path for Democrats could be opened if things start to get really ugly for Trump.
There’s a possibility 2020 could end up a big year for the blue team in winning back the White House, adding to their House majority, and flipping the Senate. However the GOP finding a way to get a 2016 redo and for Trump to defy expectations again and get some major down-ballot wins for the red team is also a real possibility. There’s just so much we have yet to know about how these elections could play out at this early stage. The only thing we do know is that it’s going to get nasty, divisive, and potentially end up really close.
– Part 5: Big Implications, Regardless Of The Results
So as we begin this 2020 electoral cycle, we can say for sure that there will be big implications for how things play out come November regardless who ends up the big winner on election night. Trump could very well prove a deterrent to future impeachment inquires if he pulls off winning re-election after getting impeached, something no previously impeached President has even gotten to attempt after the House did so. He could also end up the first unpopular President post-Truman to win re-election which in itself would be a big outlier of historical trends, and the first to win back to back elections while losing the popular vote – even George W Bush won the popular vote the second time around. The GOP will likely have to brace for a rough 2022 if that’s the case and dark horse states like Arizona or Texas which are trending away from them could really get into play in an open seat 2024 race. But it would be a big short term political win for Trump’s defenders and supporters if he could pull off re-election, the long term trends be damned. A Trump win would also likely trigger the same sort of doubling down towards more radical politics for Democrats that the 2012 defeat may arguably have done to the GOP.
But it could also be a big year in Democrats’ favor. It could wind up showing us the recipe to how a good economy could end up being unable to help an incumbent President, shifting our views on how much to factor for it in future races. It could continue to show how important fundamentals like presidential approval still are. It could also be the first time since I was a toddler that a sitting President loses re-election which for many my age seems like an impossible task. It could trigger the start of a GOP that has to find a way to keep the disaffected former Democrats Trump won over, while dealing with their problems with the growing demographics in cities and suburbs – or one that will double down without Trump to anchor them anymore.
Whatever happens come November, it’ll provide a ripple effect for 2022, 2024, and beyond in the same way the Obama age lead to the Trump age. After more than a decade of watching the country transform and big electoral defining events occur, We just have to try and be patient and see what the next chapter’s going to look like.
But now that we’ve looked back to the past and reflected on how we got to this moment, it’s time to look towards the data, the polling, the historical trends, etc that will shape and mold the coming election. There’s a lot of races to cover, so in my next electoral piece I will start things off with the main event of 2020 – the Presidential election.