It’s one-term presidents who act as though their opponents don’t matter.
With the midterm elections now out of the way, people are beginning to turn their attention to the 2020 presidential election. It is still early days in the new cycle, to be sure, but what can we make of the upcoming contest?
Far be it from me to make anything approaching a prediction, but I do wish to point out a weakness that President Donald Trump is facing — one that he could address to increase his chances of victory, though, so far, he has neglected it. Simply put, he is a “minority president” and cannot expect victory merely by winning the voters he carried in 2016. He needs to persuade Americans who voted for somebody else two years ago. He has not done this.
One of the best things about presidential elections is that no two results look alike. Sometimes the differences are due to slow shifts in the electoral alignments that characterize the country. We have certainly seen this lately in Colorado and Nevada, which have transformed from solid Republican states into lean-Democratic states. But other times, the differences are due to the quirks of the presidential candidates on the ballot. For instance, the only western state that Jimmy Carter won in 1976 was Hawaii — go figure. First-time presidential victories are a lot like start-up companies; their successes are almost always surprising.
The same goes for Donald Trump in 2016. If you had told me in 2015 that the Republican nominee was going to lose Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, I would have said that the Democrat was on track to win more than 300 electoral votes. But as we all know, that didn’t happen. Trump dominated the industrial Midwest and very nearly carried Minnesota — historically one of the most Democratic states in the post-war era.
Still, Trump won only 46 percent of the popular vote, less than Hillary Clinton, which makes him one of just a handful of presidents since the Civil War who won the electoral-college vote while winning fewer popular votes than their opponent: Rutherford Hayes (who won the 1876 election thanks to irregularities and fraud in the South, especially Louisiana), Benjamin Harrison in 1888, John F. Kennedy in 1960 (often overlooked, but Richard Nixon probably won the popular vote), and George W. Bush in 2000. We might also include in this list Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Bill Clinton in 1992, both of whom won plurality victories in their presidential contests, though they received much less than 50 percent of the vote in multi-candidate fields.
Of course, defenders of President Trump will note that the presidency is not determined by a nationwide popular vote. Indeed, that is true. I am not contesting the legitimacy of the Trump election in 2016. Rather, I am pointing out that the anti-Trump vote was substantially larger than the pro-Trump vote — 54 percent to 46 percent. And even though the entirety of Clinton’s 3-million popular-vote victory came from California (which went for her by a margin of 4.3 million votes), Trump’s share of the vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin was less than what George W. Bush won in those states in 2004, when he lost all three states to John Kerry.
The implication is that Trump won because the anti-Trump vote was scattered across multiple candidates, mainly Hillary Clinton and Gary Johnson. The political danger for Trump in 2020 is that this vote, previously scattered, could come together around a single alternative to Trump.
This is the main threat that minority and plurality presidents face. Hayes was not renominated in 1880. Wilson, Clinton, and Bush constructed their political programs in their first term specifically to persuade voters who had backed somebody else in the prior contest, and all succeeded (although only Bush won more than half the vote, and just barely so). After reaching the White House, Harrison, on the other hand, acted as if he’d won a huge victory, governing as though his Democratic opponents were no longer a threat. In 1892, he lost his reelection campaign to Grover Cleveland, the same person he had defeated four years earlier.
To date, Trump has behaved much more like Harrison than Bush or Wilson. His attitude seems to be that he represents a majority coalition within the electorate and that he need not worry about persuading anti-Trump voters to back him. This is simply untrue. He should worry. It may be the case that the anti-Trump vote will remain divided across multiple candidates, enabling him to win reelection in 2020. And the Democrats could nominate somebody so far outside the mainstream that Trump will win virtually by default. But this is leaving his fate in the hands of others, when instead he should be expanding his coalition.
No doubt, Trump will always be Trump. His unique and unconventional approach to politics and public relations is what made him stand out in a field of multiple Republican candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination. And, to his credit, his policy priorities — especially on tax cuts, the state of Israel, and judicial nominations — have won him the support of many policy-oriented conservatives who were skeptical about his approach to governance. But in two years he has done nothing to win over that critical 4 or 5 percent of voters who will be necessary to secure his reelection. If anything, his prevarications and his needling of his critics on Twitter are probably continuing to alienate Trump doubters. Can he ever win them over, or will he at least try?
If not, then his reelection hopes will depend entirely on what the Democrats do. It will come down to whether they nominate somebody who, unlike Clinton, can attract a critical mass of the anti-Trump vote.