The preparatory phase in the race for President in 2020 is coming to an end. The race is still centered on President Donald Trump: replace him or keep him. That’s dangerous for the challengers, if as I suspect, interesting celebrity story telling is now as valuable as any quality in a candidate.
We may elect as much to continue an interesting series of stories, and Trump has given those in droves, as to govern. When the Founders combined the ceremonial “head of state” with “head of government,” they did not anticipate such a change.
The rush from fear and loathing may be as addictive as that from the high from battling for truth, justice, and to save the American Way.
The President’s Opening Chances
Of course, millions have policy and philosophical differences with the President. Polls consistently show a small majority disapprove of the President. A majority in poll averages do not like the way the President does his job, yet the President won his first term the most disliked major candidate in American history.
Disapproval is a complicated proposition.
Millions approve of prosperity, judges appointed, and relative peace. The President is not well liked (relative to predecessors), but recent polling shows as many as fifty-two percent of Americans are willing to vote for him against particular Democrats. This is critical if accurate to assess the state of the race: a clear majority of Americans appear willing to vote to re-elect President Trump and in most recent polls forty-seven percent will against any candidate. This is before any opposition work from Team Trump on his opponent. He needs three percent or so to come his way if the election were held today.
The Mueller Report will come out in fuller form and much will be said. Nobody from the Trump administration will be indicted by what will be said. The Attorney General will investigate how we got here and this might (though almost certainly will not) lead to trouble for the Democrats.
We are near an election and both parties are going to let the American people judge the Russia mess.
Trump probably is a mild favorite for re-election. He needs to get people who do not like him personally to vote for him for President and this may be happening. For the GOP in this early phase watch two things:
- Does the President drop below 52% disapproval in RCP polling aggregate? Present head to head suggests a few percent of those who disapprove will vote for Trump. The GOP base in a two way race is 46/47 percent. Mr. Trump will win if he just has to move two percent off that disapproval.
- Does the President still draw the big crowds he got in 2016 that grew in 2018? Don’t forget that Trump focused on the Senate and he gained seats in raucous rallies. He lost the House, but gained in the Senate. Pundits were right to emphasize the first, but have taken to underestimating the second.
The Democratic field is (almost) as large as it will be: we might get a Biden, but other candidates will find it hard to keep going over the summer. Between now and the Fall is the pruning time as money, media attention, and the stamina of the candidates will force a few to leave and more than a few to become marginal.Forget specific predictions of who will survive. It’s too early. Instead watch to see who is making it taking the new lessons of 2016 into account. The World War II consensus about candidates changed over time with technology, television particularly, but endured intact overall until Trump. The President spent less, had less experience, had few endorsements. He won.
What changed in 2016 can guide in 2019 and into 2020 in assessing how the many Democratic candidates are doing:
- Watch the hours each candidate gets in free media. Celebrity surpasses everything. The more telegenic, media friendly candidate has had an advantage since Kennedy beat Nixon. Eisenhower versus Stevenson featured two candidates so not-telegenic no judgement could be made.
- Money matters, but watch “burn rate” more at this stage. Here at the start of the race: who is keeping cash on hand and who is throwing it at some Iowa event hoping to win and be relevant?
- Who develops a large group of true believers? Reagan always had his folks. Obama could count on record turnout in several different communities, but particularly African-Americans. Trump has the MAGA movement. Who has an army? Is there any Democratic candidate who excites a Democratic base group of voters so much they give money and volunteer? (Early winners: Sanders, Buttigieg, Yang)
- Watch who gets a Trump nickname. Want to know what the GOP is telling POTUS in private? See the candidate the recipient of the (often) fatal Trump nickname. Ask Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Clinton. Did Trump fatally bait Senator Warren to her own destruction by his nickname for her? Senator Sanders has a name. Trump is a counter-puncher, if he stops punching, the candidate has ceased to exist.
- Do you get a moment and after your moment passes do you keep going? Trump got his moment: “Look! Crazy! Trump! Ha! Ha! Ha!” after the laughter Trump kept drawing huge crowds, leading polls, and drawing attention after his “moment” had passed. Beto ran after a 2018 Senate race where he was given an extended moment. Can he survive now that his moment has passed? Winners must. Of course, if you never get a moment (looking at an Inslee), then you are doomed.
- Will anyone run for the half of the Democratic Party that is actually moderate or conservative? Is anyone looking for the Senator Joe Manchin vote? There are millions of Democrats that are pro-life. So called “moderates” so far cannot even oppose third term abortion. There is room in a twenty candidate race for some to tell socialism to go to the devil and run to the “right.” Trump’s chances go up if nobody gets this group used to voting Team Blue.
- Watch Biden. He is the candidate who always beats Trump in polls. Does he fade? If not, he wins the pre-game. Obviously, first he must run. He looks to do so. If he does not fade, then his ability to unite the whole party means he wins.
- Watch Obama. Who does he praise by name? The Clinton family is yesterday, but President Obama is still loved. He can move votes. Obama hinting at Biden or Harris could finish it.
Anyone running might win the Democratic nomination. The wrong candidate can lose the race (Clinton), but the right candidate can only make it close. This race will be won or lost by DJT and how he responds to that candidate.