The night before the 2016 presidential election, I thought Hillary Clinton would win and Donald Trump would go down to a convincing defeat. I was wrong.
Since then, I’ve tried to be humble about my ability to forecast events, which also means taking the other side of a prediction as seriously as the one I’m inclined to believe. I’m inclined to believe that Trump is on the path to defeat.
He trails his most well-known rivals. He’s down nearly 9 points against Joe Biden, 6 points against Bernie Sanders, and roughly 3 points for Elizabeth Warren.
These matchups, in which he rarely lands above the low 40s, reflect Trump’s job approval. More than 53 per cent of Americans disapprove of his job performance; 42.5 per cent of Americans give him good marks. Political elites are also acting as if Trump won’t glide into a second term. As they debate the future of their movement, many conservatives seem to think that Trump won’t last long or leave a permanent mark on conservative politics. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would rather face the president in an election than try to impeach him, it’s because she — and other more Democratic leaders — believe they’re likely to win.
If virtually every Democrat under the sun is running for president, it’s because all 23 candidates think they stand a chance against a vulnerable president. They might be fighting over their “electability,” but no one has actually attacked a rival as unelectable.
But before running with this assumption, let’s think about the past. Reagan rode an economic rebound, while Bush stumbled after a slump sent unemployment up to nearly 8 per cent the summer before the election. Clinton had rapid economic growth, and Obama could claim a slow and steady recovery from the Great Recession. Run with the growth side of a business cycle and you have a path to reelection; hit a downturn and your chances shrink accordingly.
Trump is on the growth side of a business cycle. It’s not as robust as past expansions, but unemployment is low and, crucially, wages have increased, however slightly. About 70 per cent of Americans say the economy is either “excellent” or “good,” although only 41 per cent say he deserves credit. Pollsters may have missed key signs of a Trump victory like his late surge in the Rust Belt, but most political science forecasts of the 2016 presidential election were close to the mark. Of 10 forecasts made between late June and early September, all but two came within 2 points of the final two-party national popular vote.
Under a significant slowdown, where the economy does not grow in the first half of next year, Trump loses even if he pulls the impossible (for him) and shrinks the gap between his approval and disapproval ratings. Under a modest slowdown, where the economy is growing at about 1 per cent, he loses unless he eliminates that gap. But if the economy continues on its path — if there’s 2 per cent or 3 per cent growth in the first half of next year — then a Trump win is possible.
Donald Trump confounds the conventional wisdom about politics. But he’s also been subject to the typical rules of politics. When he does unpopular things, he becomes unpopular. Political gravity exists, and it has kept him at a disadvantage.
But the problem with making predictions — or just trying to think through the next few years of American life — is that most unpopular presidents don’t have a strong economy behind them. Will voters remove the president they dislike, or reward him with a second term despite their personal misgivings?
It’s worth saying that seems to think he’s vulnerable, bravado notwithstanding. (“If I didn’t have the Phoney Witch Hunt going on for 3 years,” he said on Twitter, “I would be way up in the Polls right now.” But, he continued, “I’m winning anyway!”) His internal polling from earlier this year shows him far behind Joe Biden in four hugely critical swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida — as well as behind in Republican-leaning states like Georgia and North Carolina. Embarrassed by the disclosure, Trump said it was “incorrect polling” and subsequently fired the pollsters.
In the same way, you can also understand the language of someone who isn’t confident he can win of his own volition.
But if that’s true, Trump, like his opposition, may be underestimating his ability to win. If the economy continues to grow and his approval stays steady — if the future looks and feels like the present — then Trump will be on his way to a second term. He’ll have four more years to ‘Make America Great Again’ — or ‘Keep America Great’ — with all that means for the fate of the US democracy.
Jamelle Bouie is an American journalist, columnist and political commentator.