The Biggest Obstacle to Trump’s Victory in 2020

There may be an unprecedented level of discontent with the president among voters satisfied with the economy.

Donald Trump standing at a podium
Evan Vucci / AP

In his campaign kickoff this week, President Donald Trump demonstrated once again that he is determined to solve a problem he doesn’t have—even at the expense of exacerbating the greatest obstacle to his reelection.

With its extended litany of grievances, dark warnings on immigration, and extravagant attacks on Democrats (“The Democrat Party has become more radical, more dangerous, and more unhinged than at any point in the modern history of our country”), Trump’s speech left no doubt that his top electoral priority remains energizing his base of ardent supporters. He sent the same message a few hours before he took the stage with a tweet promising massive deportation raids to remove “the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

Even this far from the election, it’s clear that mobilizing his hard-core backers isn’t likely to be a heavy lift. In the most recent national Quinnipiac University poll, 80 percent of Republicans said they were paying “a lot” or “some” attention to the campaign. That’s the sort of elevated number pollsters usually find during an election year itself, and it slightly exceeded the level of interest even among self-identified Democrats.

But Trump’s unrelenting emphasis on stoking that base—both in his rhetoric and through his policies—creates two distinct but interrelated problems for his reelection. One is that he’s providing the fuel for Democrats to mobilize their own core constituencies, particularly young people and nonwhite voters. The second problem is even more formidable and may represent the biggest obstacle to winning a second term: His polarizing approach to the presidency is alienating an unusually large number of voters satisfied with the economy.

That dynamic clearly wasn’t on his mind at his Tuesday rally in Orlando. He did dutifully tick off a list of economic accomplishments in his speech, but only after an hour of splenetic reliving of old grievances about the Robert Mueller investigation, the media, and Hillary Clinton. He demonized immigrants with sweeping condemnations. He raged, blustered, and summoned his supporters to a battle for survival against Democratic opponents, whom he portrayed as not only misguided on policy but as fundamentally un-American in their aims. “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it,” he thundered.

In all these ways, Trump attempted to pump up his base by acting in exactly the manner that pushes away so many voters who are content with the economy but disenchanted with his behavior.

Trump’s tenure is straining one of the most enduring rules in presidential politics: the conviction that a strong economy benefits the party holding the White House. James Carville, the chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s first campaign, in 1992, condensed that belief into a four-word aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Given the low unemployment, strong stock market, and steady growth in total economic output the country is experiencing, some election-forecasting models, specifically those that emphasize the economy’s performance, predict an easy reelection in 2020 for Trump.

But polling throughout Trump’s presidency has consistently shown that economic improvement hasn’t lifted him as much as earlier presidents. Across many of the key groups in the electorate, from young people to white college graduates, Trump’s job-approval rating consistently runs at least 25 points below the share of voters who hold positive views about either the national economy or their personal financial situation.

The result is that Trump attracts much less support than his predecessors did—in terms of approval rating and potential support for reelection—among voters who say they are satisfied with the economy.

Long-term comparisons from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll quantify the shortfall. In a 2006 survey, then-President George W. Bush drew positive job-approval ratings from 71 percent of Americans who said they were satisfied with the economy, according to figures provided by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that co-directs the survey with the Democratic firm Hart Research Associates. Likewise, in 2013 and 2015, just over 75 percent of economically satisfied voters said they approved of Barack Obama’s performance as president.

But in an NBC/WSJ poll last September, only 55 percent of voters in that category said they approved of Trump’s performance. Among those voters, fully 41 percent disapproved. The latest national Quinnipiac survey produced identical results: Among those who called the economy “excellent” or “good,” 55 percent approved of Trump’s performance, while 41 percent disapproved. That’s a huge, possibly unprecedented level of discontent for the president among voters happy with the economy. In the Bush- and Obama-era surveys, no more than about one in four voters who expressed economic satisfaction said they disapproved of the president’s job performance.

Lagging job approval among these Americans translates into their lagging support for Trump in early 2020 tests. In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, the seven in 10 voters who call the economy “excellent” or “good” gave Trump just a meager 51 to 43 percent advantage over former Vice President Joe Biden. By contrast, when Obama won reelection in 2012, with the economy still recovering from the financial crash of 2008, he won about 90 percent of voters who described the national economy as “good,” as well as about 85 percent of those who said their family’s financial situation had improved since his election, according to exit polls at the time. Bush, in his 2004 reelection, also won nearly 90 percent of voters who called the economy “excellent” or “good,” and 80 percent of voters who said their family’s financial situation had improved since he took office.

Similar lagging results for Trump are emerging in state polls. Another Quinnipiac poll released this week asked voters in Florida how their personal financial situation had changed since 2016. Among those who saw improvement, Biden still drew more than one-fourth of the vote, compared with just under two-thirds for Trump. In the 2012 Florida exit poll, Obama carried almost nine in 10 voters who said their financial situation had improved. That year, Obama also won almost two-thirds of Florida voters who said their economic situation hadn’t changed; in the Quinnipiac survey, Trump won just one-fifth of those voters, compared with about seven in 10 for Biden.

Even in Republican-leaning Texas, Trump is underperforming. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released this week, a commanding 86 percent of those who said the national economy is “a lot” better off than it was last year said they intended to support Trump for reelection, according to figures provided by Joshua Blank, the manager of polling and research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project. But among those who said the economy was “somewhat better off,” roughly three in 10 said they intended to vote for someone else. Big majorities of those who consider the economy worse off or unchanged said they plan to vote against Trump.

Why is a strong economy, usually an incumbent’s greatest asset, failing to lift Trump more? One reason, strategists in both parties say, may be that many voters who see positive signs in national indicators, such as the unemployment rate and the stock-market averages, still say they are struggling to keep pace with their expenses. Another reason is that public opinion remains equivocal to negative on the most visible elements of Trump’s economic agenda: the tax cuts he signed in 2017, his tariff offensive against China and other countries, and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In the latest national Quinnipiac survey, only about 60 percent of the voters who consider the economy strong said Trump deserved credit for it.

Most important, many voters satisfied with the economy recoil from his polarizing style and volatile behavior as president. That problem is most visibly manifest in his unusually weak showings among white voters holding at least a four-year college degree. These are among the Americans at the top of the economic pyramid: Fully 89 percent of them in the latest Quinnipiac poll described their personal financial situation as “excellent” or “good.” (That’s significantly more than the share of non-college-educated whites, African Americans, and Latinos who expressed similar optimism.)

Yet in the same survey, less than half of those white college graduates say they approve of Trump’s job performance. And the share who strongly disapprove (45 percent) far exceeds the share who strongly approve (30 percent.) Matched against Biden in that poll, Trump drew support from only about two in five white college graduates—less than half the share that described their finances as strong. Even in Texas, where Democrats have never matched the inroads they have made elsewhere among college-educated whites, the University of Texas poll found that half of them say they are now inclined to vote against Trump for reelection. Those findings reinforce the 2018 election results that saw Democrats notch big gains in white-collar suburbs around Texas’s major cities, including in House contests and in Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s unexpectedly narrow Senate loss to Republican Ted Cruz.

“A lot of people wrongly characterized the Texas outcome [in 2018] being the result of Beto O’Rourke running against Ted Cruz,” Blank says. “That definitely had something to do with it. But … at least among Democrats, the results in Texas, like everywhere else, were a reaction against Donald Trump.”

Trump’s underperformance among economically satisfied voters represents both a vulnerability and an opportunity for him. Even Republican strategists generally unsympathetic to Trump believe that those voters may be open to supporting him in 2020 if he can focus the election on the economic results they like, not the personal characteristics they don’t. Democratic strategists, such as those plotting the campaign for Priorities USA, a leading Democratic super PAC, also consider it essential to shift the economic debate away from the positive national numbers to the sense of financial insecurity that many families across the income ladder still feel.

And yet, as the Orlando rally demonstrated again, Trump is most comfortable framing the election as a cultural confrontation in which he alone can protect his supporters against all the forces he portrays as arrayed against them: immigrants, “socialist” Democrats, the media, Washington insiders, duplicitous foreign trading partners, contemptuous domestic elites. In 2020, as in 2016, the nation is less likely to divide along lines of class than of culture, with Trump rallying voters uneasy about the nation’s demographic and cultural changes and with Democrats mobilizing those who largely welcome them.

Democrats aren’t guaranteed to win an election between these competing coalitions of restoration and transformation. But surely they like their 2020 odds better in a campaign that divides along that axis than one that turns on Ronald Reagan’s famous question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?