The Shutdown Is Hurting Trump’s Approval Rating. But Will It Hurt Him in 2020?

The partial government shutdown is beginning to drag on President Trump’s approval rating, which is at its lowest point in months. As of early Wednesday evening, his approval rating was 40.2 percent, according to our tracking of public polling, down from 42.2 percent on Dec. 21, the day before the shutdown began. It’s his lowest score since last September. And Trump’s disapproval rating was 54.8 percent, up from 52.7 percent before the shutdown. His net approval rating, -14.6 percent, was at its lowest point since February 2018.

There shouldn’t be much doubt that the shutdown is behind the negative turn in Trump’s numbers. While there have been other newsworthy events over the past few weeks, such as turnover among Trump’s senior staffers and a wobbly stock market, the shift is well-timed to the start of the shutdown on Dec. 22. Trump’s approval ratings had been steady at about 42 percent for several months before the shutdown. Since then, they’ve been declining at a fairly linear rate of about half a point for every week that the shutdown has been underway, while his disapproval rating has increased by half a point per week. Trump’s increasingly negative ratings match polling showing Americans growing concerned about the shutdown and disliking Trump’s handling of it. In a Marist College poll that was released this week, for example, 61 percent of respondents said the shutdown had given them a more negative view of Trump, while just 28 percent said they felt more positively toward him.

So all of that sounds pretty bad for Trump. But will any of it really matter to Trump’s political standing, in the long run?

The glib answer is “probably not.” We’re a loooong way from the presidential election. And presidential approval ratings, as well as those for congressional leaders, typically rebound within a couple of months of a shutdown ending. A shutdown in October 2013 that caused a steep decline in ratings for congressional Republicans didn’t prevent them from having a terrific midterm in 2014, for instance.

Also consider the insane velocity of the news cycle under President Trump. If the shutdown were to end on Feb. 15, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation were to drop the next day, would anyone still be talking about the shutdown?

Moreover, there hasn’t been that much of a shift, so far. In the context of the narrow historic range of President Trump’s approval ratings, which have rarely been higher than 43 percent or lower than 37 percent, a 2-point shift might seem relatively large. But it’s still just 2 points, when many past presidents saw there numbers gyrate up and down by 5 or 10 points at a time.

But I wonder if that answer isn’t a little too glib. There are some reasons for Trump and Republicans to worry that the shutdown could have both short- and long-term downsides.

For one thing, there’s no particular sign that the shutdown is set to end any time soon. And if the decline in Trump’s approval rating were to continue at the same rate that it has so far, it would take his political standing from bad to worse. By Jan. 29, for example, the day that Trump was originally set to deliver the State of the Union address before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disinvited him from addressing Congress, his approval rating would be 39.3 percent, and his disapproval rating would be 55.9 percent. By March 1, at which point funding for federal food stamps could run out, his approval rating and disapproval rating would be 36.9 percent and 58.4 percent, respectively, roughly matching the lowest point of his presidency so far.

In addition, because this is already the longest shutdown in U.S. history, past precedent for the political impact of shutdowns may not be fully informative. There’s the possibility that the shutdown ends not with a whimper (with Trump caving or with he and Pelosi anticlimactically reaching a compromise) but instead with a literal or proverbial bang, such as the government bungling a response to a natural or man-made disaster.

A prolonged shutdown could also materially affect the economy, although there could be some catch-up growth later. A temporary decline in GDP or consumer confidence probably wouldn’t affect Trump’s re-election, although a long-term decline obviously would.

Despite those possibilities, I’d still put a lot of weight toward our historical priors, which contain relatively good news for Trump. With almost 22 months to go until the election, it’s too early for either approval ratings or economic data to be highly predictive of a president’s re-election chances. Furthermore, approval ratings tend to rebound after shutdowns, and in any event, the decline in Trump’s numbers hasn’t been all that large, yet.

Nonetheless, if I were hoping for Trump’s re-election, there are two indirect reasons that the shutdown and its fallout would worry me. One has to do with his relationship with the congressional GOP; the other with his strategic posture toward his re-election bid.

The shutdown may have frayed Trump’s relationship with Republicans in Congress

Republican leaders in Congress didn’t want the shutdown in the first place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Majority Whip John Cornyn originally thought they’d talked Trump out of shutting down the government — “I don’t know anybody on the Hill that wants a shutdown, and I think all the president’s advisers are telling him this would not be good,” Cornyn told Politico on Dec. 18 — before Trump shifted strategies in response to right-wing pressure.

Meanwhile, two of the most vulnerable Republican senators — Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Maine’s Susan Collins — have called for an end to the shutdown. Another, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, has called for a compromise with Democrats on the border wall and DACA, a deal that the White House rejected last year.

So it isn’t entirely surprising that Republicans in both the House and the Senate have starkly and sometimes sarcastically critiqued Trump’s shutdown strategy.

Congressional Republicans are not a group Trump can easily afford to lose. They have a lot of power to check Trump’s presidency, from modest measures such as treating his Cabinet nominations with more scrutiny to extreme ones like supporting his impeachment and removal from office. Obviously that’s getting way, way ahead of ourselves, and Trump’s approval ratings remain very strong among Republicans for now. That may constrain how much members of Congress push back against the president. But the conventional wisdom is arguably too dismissive of the possibility of an inflection point. Richard Nixon’s approval ratings had been in the low-to-mid-80s among Republican voters for years, but they suddenly fell into the 50s over the course of a few months in 1973. He resigned in August 1974.

The shutdown has prompted Trump to double down on his all-base, all-the-time strategy

But if Trump wants to get re-elected, his biggest problem isn’t what Republicans think about him; it’s what the rest of the country does.

The lesson of the midterms, in my view, was fairly clear: Trump’s base isn’t enough. The 2018 midterms weren’t unique in the scale of Republican losses: losing 40 or 41 House seats is bad, but the president’s party usually does poorly at the midterms. Rather, it’s that these losses came on exceptionally high turnout of about 119 million voters, which is considerably closer to 2016’s presidential year turnout (139 million) than to the previous midterm in 2014 (83 million). Republicans did turn out in huge numbers for the midterms, but the Democratic base — which is larger than the Republican one — turned out also, and independent voters strongly backed Democratic candidates for the House.

Plenty of presidents, including Obama, Clinton and Reagan, recovered from poor midterms to get re-elected. But those presidents typically sought to pivot or “triangulate” toward the center; we don’t know if the political rebound occurs if the pivot doesn’t. Instead, Trump has moved in the opposite direction. Despite some initial attempts at reaching out to the center, such as in passing a criminal justice bill in December and issuing trial balloons about an infrastructure package, Trump’s strategy of shutting down the government to insist on a border wall was aimed at placating his critics on the right, such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Maybe Trump took some of the wrong lessons from 2016. Trump may mythologize 2016 as an election in which he was brought into the White House on the strength of his base, but that isn’t necessarily why he won. And even if it was, trying to duplicate the strategy might not work again:

Given that, perhaps 2018 is a better model for 2020 than 2016. In the midterms, voting closely tracked Trump’s approval ratings, and he paid the price for his unpopularity. According to the exit poll, midterm voters disapproved of Trump’s performance by a net of 9 percentage points. Not coincidentally, Republicans also lost the popular vote for the House by 9 percentage points.

There’s plenty of time for Trump’s numbers to improve, but for now, they’re getting worse. So while the shutdown’s consequences may not last into 2020, it has been another step in the wrong direction at a moment when presidents have usually pivoted to the center.

How 17 Long-Shot Presidential Contenders Could Build A Winning Coalition

It might seem obvious that having a wide-open field, as Democrats have for their 2020 presidential nomination, would make it easier for a relatively obscure candidate to surge to the top of the polls. But I’m not actually sure that’s true. Democrats might not have an “inevitable” frontrunner — the role that Hillary Clinton played in 2016 or Al Gore did in 2000. But that very lack of heavyweights has encouraged pretty much every plausible middleweight to join the field, or at least to seriously consider doing so. Take the top 10 or so candidates, who are a fairly diverse lot in terms of race, gender and age — pretty much every major Democratic constituency is spoken for by at least one of the contenders. After all, it was the lack of competition that helped Bernie Sanders gain ground in 2016; he was the only game in town other than Clinton.1

So as I cover some of the remaining candidates in this, the third and final installment of our “five corners” series on the Democratic field, you’re going to detect a hint of skepticism about most of their chances. (The “five corners” refers to what we claim are the the five major constituencies within the Democratic Party: Party Loyalists, The Left, Millennials and Friends, Black voters and Hispanic voters2; our thesis is that a politician must build a coalition consisting of at least three of these five groups to win the primary.) It’s not that some of them couldn’t hold their own if thrust into the spotlight against one or two other opponents. Instead, it’s that most of them will never get the opportunity to square off against the big names because the middleweights will monopolize most of the money, staff talent and media attention. Rather than pretend to be totally comprehensive, in fact, I’m instead going to list a few broad typologies of candidates that weren’t well-represented in the previous installments of this series.

This type of candidate has been popular in the minds of journalists ever since Gary Hart’s failed presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 — but it never seems to gain much momentum among actual Democratic voters. In this scenario, a Western governor or senator (e.g. Hart, Bruce Babbitt or Bill Richardson) runs on a platform that mixes environmentalism, slightly libertarianish views on other issues (legal weed but moderate taxes?) and a vague promise to shake things up and bring an outsider’s view to Washington.

This platform makes a lot of sense in the Mountain West, but I’m not sure how well it translates elsewhere in the country. In theory, the environmental focus should have some appeal among millennials. (That particularly holds for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who would heavily focus on climate change in his campaign as a means of differentiating himself.) And Party Loyalists might get behind an outsider if they were convinced that it would help beat President Trump, but “let’s bring in an outsider to shake things up” was one of the rationales that Trump himself used to get elected, so it doesn’t make for as good a contrast in 2020 as it might ordinarily. The Left isn’t likely to be on board with the Great Western Hope platform, which tends to be moderate on fiscal policy. And while the states of the Mountain West have quite a few Hispanic voters, they don’t have a lot of black ones. It’s not that Inslee or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper aren’t “serious” candidates — being a multi-term governor of medium-sized state is traditionally a good credential — but it’s also not clear where the demand for their candidacies would come from.

You might say something similar about the various mayors that are considering a presidential bid.What niche are the mayors hoping to fill, and are there actually any voters there?

Maybe in “The West Wing,” a hands-on problem solver from Anytown, USA, would make the perfect antidote to a Trumpian president. In the real world, Democrats think the country is in crisis under Trump, and there are a lot of candidates who have more experience dealing with national problems.

But Eric Garcetti and Bill de Blasio, the current mayors of Los Angeles and New York, respectively, have at least had to build complicated coalitions in big, complicated cities — and so they would probably be more viable than the mayors from smaller cities. De Blasio cruised to an easy re-election in New York in 2017 on the basis of support from black, Hispanic and leftist white voters, a coalition that could also be viable in the presidential primary. (De Blasio hasn’t taken concrete steps toward a 2020 bid, but he also hasn’t ruled one out.) Garcetti, who has what he describes as “Mexican-American-Jewish-Italian” ancestry, could find support for his bid among Hispanic voters.

Bloomberg might belong in a different group, as someone who’s not just a former mayor but also fits into the entrepreneur/celebrity/rich person category below and has some of the baggage that comes with that. And unlike de Blasio, Bloomberg wasn’t especially popular with nonwhite voters in New York.

This is a group of candidates I’m quite bullish about, by contrast — especially Stacey Abrams, if she runs. In defeating longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who is too young to run for president until next cycle) built a coalition of Hispanics, The Left and millennials. Not that everyone necessarily has Ocasio-Cortez’s political acumen, but the potency of this coalition seems rather obvious, in retrospect. Since The Left tends to be pretty white on its own, a Hispanic, black or Asian left-progressive candidate has more potential to build a broader coalition. And millennials, who are sympathetic to left-wing policy positions but also care a lot about diversity, might prefer a Latina or a black woman to an older white man.

In fact, it’s not clear why, other than for reasons having to do with her race and gender, Abrams isn’t getting more buzz as a potential candidate than Beto O’Rourke. (It’s true that Abrams might have designs on Georgia’s 2020 Senate race instead of the presidency; it’s also true that there wasn’t a “Draft Abrams” movement in the same way that influential Democrats almost immediately called on O’Rourke to run for president after his loss to Ted Cruz.) Both performed quite well relative to how Democrats usually do in their states, with Abrams losing to Brian Kemp by 1.4 percentage points in the Georgia governor’s race and O’Rourke losing to Cruz by 2.6 points in Texas’s Senate race. (Andrew Gillum, who barely lost Florida’s governor’s race, can’t make this claim, since Florida is much more purple than either Georgia or Texas.) Both became huge national stories. And both are lacking in the kind experience that traditionally sets the stage for a presidential run. It’s not that I’m down on O’Rourke’s chances; the opposite, really (see Part 2 of this series). But if O’Rourke can build a winning coalition from millennials, Hispanics and Party Loyalists, Abrams (or possibly Gillum) could create one from black voters, millennials and The Left.

I’m not going to spend too much on this category because, in practice, both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe are likely to have a lot of problems if they want to ascend to the presidential stage. Party nominations are not just about building coalitions but also creating consensus, and McAuliffe and Cuomo have probably picked one too many fights with liberals and spent too much time critiquing liberal policy proposals to be tolerable to a large enough share of Democrats to win the nomination. Of the two, Cuomo would probably be the more viable as he’s shifted toward his left recently, although he’d still have a lot of work to do to repair his relationship with progressives.

Were it not for their abrasive approaches, the Cuomo and McAuliffe coalitions might be a bit more viable than you might assume. In particular, those coalitions consist of minority voters plus relatively moderate Party Loyalists. Cuomo assembled a similar coalition last September and soundly defeated the more liberal Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary for governor before being elected to a third gubernatorial term in November thanks to a landslide 84-14 margin among nonwhite voters.

What about the various billionaires considering a presidential run? Count me as skeptical that a CEO title will impress Democrats. Money has never been terribly predictive of success in the primaries (see e.g. Steve Forbes or Jeb Bush) — and candidates such as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who last week decided that he wouldn’t run for president, have fared notably poorly in early surveys of Democrats. And that makes sense, because it’s not really clear what sort of Democratic voter they’re supposed to be appealing to. The Left is likely to regard the billionaires suspiciously, at best. Nor are rich white men who have never run for office before liable to have a lot of initial success in appealing to black or Hispanic voters. Finally, their timing is poor given that the president is Trump and that the last thing most Democrats will want is another billionaire with no political experience.

Want a billionaire whose chances I’d take seriously? How about Oprah. One three-pronged coalition we haven’t discussed yet is one consisting of Black voters, Hispanic voters and Millennials and Friends; a nonwhite celebrity who was able to engage voters that didn’t ordinarily participate in primaries3 could potentially win on that basis.

Finally, there are a few people running for president who don’t have anything resembling the traditional credentials for doing so, but who at least have pitches that are a little different than what voters will be hearing elsewhere. Tulsi Gabbard, the four-term representative from Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, was one of Sanders’s early endorsers last cycle, but she also has a heterodox set of positions, such as her frequent defenses of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and her former opposition to gay rights, that won’t win her fans among any of the traditional Democratic constituencies.

Richard Ojeda, a crew-cut Army veteran and former West Virginia legislator who says he voted for Trump in 2016 and looks the part of a (stereotypical) Trump voter, is presenting what’s essentially a left-wing set of economic policies in a very different package than voters would normally to get that message from. I’m not quite sure how the pitch would go over if, say, Ojeda makes it to a debate stage, which might never happen because the Democratic National Committee and the networks might consider him too obscure. But it’s worth bearing in mind that The Left is the whitest and most male of the Democratic constituencies, so a candidate who intentionally plays into that identity might not be the best one to build bridges to the rest of the party.

Then there’s John Delaney, who decided not to run for re-election to Congress so he could run for president instead — and in fact has already been running for president for well more than a year. He’s preaching a message of bipartisanship, which could win him plaudits from the pundits on the Sunday morning shows, but which it’s not clear that many actual Democrats are looking for. Instead, more Democrats are willing to identify as “liberal” than had been in the past and fewer say they want a candidate who compromises.


That’s all for now! As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, some things we’ve written here are surely going to seem laughably wrong in retrospect. It wouldn’t necessarily have been obvious at this point four years ago that Clinton would do so well with black voters, for example (a group she lost badly to Barack Obama in 2008), or that Sanders would become such a phenomenon among millennials. Fundamentally, however, the U.S. has “big tent” parties, consisting of groups that may not have all that much in common with one another. And so, the nomination process is a coalition-building process. Candidates such as Sanders and Joe Biden, who poll well among one or two groups, may lead in the polls initially. But ultimately the candidate who wins the nomination will be the one who can best bridge the divides between the different constituencies within the party.

 

Trump’s Base Isn’t Enough

There shouldn’t be much question about whether 2018 was a wave election. Of course it was a wave. You could endlessly debate the wave’s magnitude, depending on how much you focus on the number of votes versus the number of seats, the House versus the Senate versus governorships, and so forth. Personally, I’d rank the 2018 wave a tick behind both 1994, which represented a historic shift after years of Democratic dominance of the House, and 2010, which reflected an especially ferocious shift against then-President Barack Obama after he’d been elected in a landslide two years earlier. But I’d put 2018 a bit ahead of most other modern wave elections, such as 2006 and 1982. Your mileage may vary.

In another important respect, however, the 2018 wave was indisputably unlike any other in recent midterm history: It came with exceptionally high turnout. Turnout is currently estimated at 116 million voters, or 49.4 percent of the voting-eligible population. That’s an astounding number; only 83 million people voted in 2014, by contrast.

This high turnout makes for some rather unusual accomplishments. For instance, Democratic candidates for the House will receive almost as many votes this year as the 63 million that President Trump received in 2016, when he won the Electoral College (but lost the popular vote). As of Tuesday midday, Democratic House candidates had received 58.9 million votes, according to the latest tally by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. However, 1.6 million ballots remain to be counted in California, and those are likely to be extremely Democratic. Other states also have more ballots to count, and they’re often provisional ballots that tend to lean Democratic. In 2016, Democratic candidates for the House added about 4 million votes from this point in the vote count to their final numbers. So this year, an eventual total of anywhere between 60 million and 63 million Democratic votes wouldn’t be too surprising.

There isn’t really any precedent for the opposition party at the midterm coming so close to the president’s vote total. The closest thing to an exception is 1970, when Democratic candidates for the House got 92 percent of Richard Nixon’s vote total from 1968, when he was elected president with only 43 percent of the vote. Even in wave elections, the opposition party usually comes nowhere near to replicating the president’s vote from two years earlier. In 2010, for instance, Republican candidates received 44.8 million votes for the House — a then-record total for a midterm but far fewer than Barack Obama’s 69.5 million votes in 2008.

Democratic candidates for the House in 2018 received almost as many votes as President Trump in 2016

Opposition party’s total popular vote in midterm House elections as a share of the president’s popular vote in the previous election, 1938-2018

Popular vote
Election house opp. party For House Opp. party for President in prev. election Opp. party’s house vote as share of pres. vote
2018 D 60-63m 63.0m 95-100%
1970 D 29.1 31.8 92
1994 R 36.6 44.9 82
1950 R 19.7 24.2 81
1982 D 35.3 43.9 80
1958 D 25.6 35.6 72
1946 R 18.4 25.6 72
1962 R 24.2 34.2 71
2006 D 42.3 62.0 68
1998 R 32.2 47.4 68
2002 D 33.8 50.5 67
1990 D 32.5 48.9 66
1954 D 22.4 34.1 66
2010 R 44.8 69.5 64
1974 D 30.0 47.2 64
1938 R 17.3 27.7 62
2014 R 40.0 65.9 61
1978 R 24.5 40.8 60
1986 D 32.4 54.5 59
1966 R 25.5 43.1 59
1942 R 14.3 27.3 52

“The resistance” turned out voters in astonishing numbers, performing well in both traditional swing states in the Midwest — including the states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) that essentially lost Hillary Clinton the presidential election in 2016 — and new-fangled swing states such as Arizona and Texas. Turnout among young voters was high by the standards of a midterm, and voters aged 18 to 29 chose Democratic candidates for the House by 35 points, a record margin for the youth vote in the exit-poll era. The Hispanic share of the electorate increased to 11 percent from 8 percent in the previous midterm, according to exit polls. To some extent, these are stories the media missed when it was chasing down all those dispatches from Trump Country. In a descriptive sense, this was a really big story.

In a predictive sense, what it means is less clear. Sometimes — as was the case in 2006, 1974 and 1930 — midterm waves are followed by turnover in the presidency two years later. But most presidents win re-election, including those who endured rough midterms (such as Obama in 2010, Bill Clinton in 1994 and Ronald Reagan in 1982). Nor is there any obvious relationship between how high turnout was at the midterm and how the incumbent president performed two years later. Democrats’ high turnout in 1970 presaged a landslide loss in 1972, when they nominated George McGovern.

This year’s results do serve as a warning to Trump in one important sense, however: His base alone will not be enough to win a second term. Throughout the stretch run of the 2018 midterm campaign, Trump and Republicans highlighted highly charged partisan issues, from the Central American migrant caravan to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. And Republican voters did indeed turn out in very high numbers: GOP candidates for the House received more than 50 million votes, more than the roughly 45 million they got in 2010.

But it wasn’t enough, or even close to enough. Problem No. 1 is that Republicans lost among swing voters: Independent voters went for Democrats by a 12-point margin, and voters who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 went to Democrats by 13 points.

Trump and Republicans also have Problem No. 2, however: Their base is smaller than the Democratic one. This isn’t quite as much of a disadvantage as it might seem; the Democratic base is less cohesive and therefore harder to govern. Democratic voters are sometimes less likely to turn out, although that wasn’t a problem this year. And because Republican voters are concentrated in rural, agrarian states, the GOP has a big advantage in the Senate.7

Nonetheless, it does mean that Republicans can’t win the presidency by turning out their base alone, a strategy that sometimes is available to Democrats. (Obama won re-election in 2012 despite losing independents by 5 points because his base was larger.) In the exit polling era, Republicans have never once had an advantage in party identification among voters in presidential years. George W. Bush’s Republicans were able to fight Democrats to a draw in 2004, when party identification was even, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

There are usually more Democrats than Republicans

Share of respondents to presidential election exit polls who identify as a member of each party

Year Democrats Republicans Independents Advantage
2016 37% 33% 31% D+4
2012 38 32 29 D+6
2008 39 32 29 D+7
2004 37 37 26 EVEN
2000 39 35 26 D+4
1996 40 35 22 D+5
1992 38 35 27 D+3
1988 37 35 26 D+2
1984 38 35 26 D+3
1980 43 28 23 D+15
1976 37 22 41 D+15

Source: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

I don’t want to go too far out on a limb in terms of any sort of prediction for 2020. In fact, lest you think that the midterms were the first step toward an inevitable one-term Trump presidency, several facts bear repeating: Most incumbent presidents win re-election, and although Democrats had a strong midterm this year, midterm election results aren’t strongly correlated with what happens in the presidential election two years later. Moreover, presidential approval numbers can shift significantly over two years, so while Trump would probably lose an election today on the basis of his approval ratings, his ratings today aren’t strongly predictive of what they’ll be in November 2020.

But presidents such as Reagan, Clinton and Obama, who recovered to win re-election after difficult midterms, didn’t do it without making some adjustments. Both Reagan and Clinton took a more explicitly bipartisan approach after their midterm losses. Obama at least acknowledged the scope of his defeat, owning up to his “shellacking” after 2010, although an initially bipartisan tone in 2011 had given way to a more combative approach by 2012. All three presidents also benefited from recovering economies — and although the economy is very strong now, there is arguably more downside than upside for Trump (voters have high expectations, but growth is more likely than not to slow a bit).

Trump’s political instincts, as strong as they are in certain ways, may also be miscalibrated. Trump would hate to acknowledge it, but he got most of the breaks in the 2016 election. He ran against a highly unpopular opponent in Clinton and benefited from the Comey letter in the campaign’s final days. He won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote — an advantage that may or may not carry over to 2020, depending on whether voters in the Midwest are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt again. Meanwhile, this year’s midterms — as well as the various congressional special elections that were contested this year and last year — were fought largely on red turf, especially in the Senate, where Trump may well have helped Republican candidates in states such as Indiana and North Dakota. The Republican play-to-the-base strategy was a disaster in the elections in Virginia in 2017 and in most swing states and suburban congressional districts this year, however.

At the least, odds are that Trump needs a course-correction, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll be willing to take one. While there’s some speculation that Trump could move in a more bipartisan direction, that hasn’t really been apparent yet in his actions since the midterms, or at least not on a consistent basis. Instead, he’s spent the first fortnight after the midterms firing his attorney general, implying that Democrats were trying to steal elections in Florida, and bragging about how he’d give himself an A-plus rating as president. The next two years will less be a test of Trump’s willpower than one of his dexterity and even his humility — not qualities he’s been known to have in great measure.

Will The Midterms Decide Who Runs In 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): It is now 21 DAYS UNTIL THE MIDTERMS!! And while voters will mainly be deciding who controls Congress, they’ll also maybe be deciding what kind of Democrat should run in 2020. For instance, if Democrats don’t take back the House, does that mean a Joe Biden run in the 2020 Democratic primary is more likely? Or if there is a blue wave and Democrats gain 60+ seats, does that make the road easier for a more progressive Democrat like Sen. Kamala Harris?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Man, if the Democrats lose the House, I think there will be some straight-up PANIC.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): There would be, although one could ask whether it was warranted or not.

clare.malone: I don’t think Joe Biden needs them to lose the House to prove he’s a good candidate. He could just point to Democratic Senate losses, maybe?

Assuming that Democrats lose in a couple of red states, a candidate like Biden could say, “Look, I will make inroads in a place like that.”

But I’m interested in Nate’s House take.

natesilver: I mean, to a first approximation I think a lot of this stuff is silly.

Here’s why:

As David says, there isn’t much of a pattern for how midterms affect the next presidential election.

Certainly. it will affect Democrats’ attitude, but how much that attitudinal change affects 2020, and whether that is helpful or hurtful to Democrats, is pretty up in the air, IMO.

clare.malone: Right — I mean was just about to say, proof aside (proof! facts!), I think candidates and party apparatchiks always use a loss to motivate their constituents.

That attitudinal thing can be pretty powerful in a primary campaign. See: Bernie Sanders.

natesilver: I’m skeptical that Biden could use Senate losses to justify the need for more conservative candidates … if Democrats also win the House.

We’ll see, though. There are some pretty wacky scenarios that are within the realm of possibility, like Democrats winning 35 House seats but losing four Senate seats.

clare.malone: I think people’s minds are on the Senate right now, though. And the Republican majority there does lie in smaller states and regions that Democrats have gradually lost over the past couple of decades.

It’s not an absurd argument to make in 2019.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I think Biden has to decide if he wants to run or not. He was kind of confused about whether to run in 2016. And based on what he’s been saying, he doesn’t seem to know now either. I think a really strong push to draft him might encourage him to get in the running. And I think Democrats not winning the House (assuming that they lose the Senate too) will get more people to encourage him to run. Biden would be an important figure if he got in the race, in large part because others in this more “centrist” lane might not run if he is in.

clare.malone: I don’t think Biden is a Mario Cuomo: I think he’ll get in the race. I’m not sure how much he’ll toy with people up until the very end.

natesilver: Are people’s expectations that Democrats will win the Senate? If so, people aren’t paying much attention (certainly not paying much attention to our forecast).

clare.malone: I don’t know. I don’t think people expect that. I guess you hear “blue wave” bandied about and you could make assumptions.

sarahf: And it wasn’t always so dire in the Senate either — it wasn’t until early October that Democrats’ odds worsened dramatically.

But OK, let’s set aside what could happen in the Senate for a moment and assume that there is a huge blue wave in the House and even in some key gubernatorial races like Stacey Abrams’s, in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum’s, in Florida.

It doesn’t mean Democrats win in 2020, but doesn’t it change the playing field of candidates in the Democratic primary? Or would Sens. Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker run no matter what?

clare.malone: I think Gillum or Abrams wins would be huge. It would challenge some norms about what sorts of candidates win in states where you need to win over moderates or Republican-leaning independents.

natesilver: Gov. Scott Walker losing his re-election bid in Wisconsin might have some interesting narrative implications too, although not in the same way that Gillum and Abrams do.

perry: I’m interested in Abrams’s and Gillum’s gubernatorial bids and Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Texas Senate run because they are all making the case that it is a better strategy to try to amp up the base to get greater minority and youth turnout rather than trying to win over swing voters. If they do significantly better in their states than more moderate candidates from previous years, I think that would buttress Democrats like Warren and Harris, who are more likely to run more decidedly liberal campaigns.

But the Midwest is interesting, as Nate is hinting at. The Democrats are doing well in the Midwest with a bunch of candidates who are kind of bland and fairly centrist-friendly. The South and the Midwest are, of course, very different regions, too.

natesilver: I guess I’ve just never dealt with an election before where you’d get the sort of split verdict like the one we’re predicting, where Democrats win the House and do pretty darn well in gubernatorial races but fall short –– and possibly even lose seats –– in the Senate. And some of the high-profile toss-up races could also go in different directions. Maybe Gillum wins in Florida but Abrams loses in Georgia, for example.

In that case, there would be a sort of battle-of-narrative-interpretations over the midterms.

sarahf: As our colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote, the last time the Senate and House moved in opposite directions during a midterm was in 1982, during under Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Part of that was because Reagan had a pretty bad approval rating, in the low 40s … which isn’t too far off from where President Trump’s sits now.

natesilver: And I guess 1982 was interpreted as being pretty bad for Reagan? I was 4 years old then, so I don’t remember. 😉

sarahf: But we could get a really weird coalition of Democrats with competing priorities in 2019 if they do take back the House.

And that could make finding a general-election candidate that appeals to both the more moderate and more progressive wings of the party … challenging.

clare.malone: I guess this is why so many people in the post-2016 party were enamored of the Sanders economic message.

It gets to the progressive heart of things while trying to avoid the touchy culture stuff.

But, of course, Democrats have to figure out the Trump factor. Trump will inevitably drag culture wars stuff into a campaign.

perry: Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and Amy Klobuchar are likely to win in the Midwest, an important region of the country for Democrats electorally — and some of that group could win easily. Post-election, we will be able to see the counties in Minnesota where Trump won in 2016 but that Klobuchar carried in 2018 — and I think there may be a lot of them. Plus, that’s the kind of thing she could talk about if she decides to run for president.

clare.malone: Right. But none of those senators have the buzz factor in this shadow primary that we’re in right now.

Nor the fundraising.

But that could change post-November.

sarahf: Speaking of fundraising …

What do we make of all the 💰💰💰 pouring into O’Rourke’s campaign?

Why aren’t more Democratic supporters funding races where the Democratic candidate actually stands a chance of winning?

natesilver: Oh no, you’re going to trigger me, Sarah.

The O’Rourke fundraising narrative is so fucking dumb.

Democrats are raising huge amounts of money EVERYWHERE.

EVERYWHERE.

clare.malone: We spend a lot of time here on numbers, but I always think of people reacting to politicians they really like in almost pheromone-tinged ways. People are irrational actors when it comes to politics — it’s why they vote by party even when the party positions do a 180 (see, ahem, the post-2016 GOP on trade, Russia, and so on.)

perry: In terms of O’Rourke, I was surprised the majority of the money came from Texas, according to his campaign. So it was not just coastal elites who liked seeing a white man delivering Black Lives Matter talking points. Houston, Austin and Dallas all have plenty of Democrats, but they are not Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., or New York. That also pushes back on the idea that he is somehow taking money away from other close races around the country.

clare.malone: Democrats see inspirational stuff in O’Rourke’s response to the NFL kneeling issue and the incident where a black man was shot and killed in his own home.

They like that he’s saying this stuff in Texas.

They also really dislike Ted Cruz.

perry: I think this kind of small-dollar fundraising is a real talent and shows real political appeal. It is what made Howard Dean, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders such viable candidates.

clare.malone: O’Rourke’s also gotten a lot of media buzz, so people know his name, unlike, say, Sen. Joe Donnelly (running for re-election in Indiana) or former Gov. Phil Bredesen (running for Senate in Tennessee).

So they send O’Rourke money!

natesilver: Texas is also a big state with a lot of wealth, and Democrats there haven’t had a lot to donate to in a while.

perry: I can’t tell if O’Rourke should run for president if he loses the Senate race. But he should definitely think about it.

Hard.

clare.malone: I mean, the thing about O’Rourke running in 2020 is that he’s proved he can fundraise and he’s still young(-ish), but he’s been in Congress awhile, which is an asset. People can’t call him too inexperienced the way they could with, say, failed Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander.

perry: But I’m not sure how the midterms affect the political outsiders like lawyer Michael Avenatti, billionaire Tom Steyer and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That is the one group I’m probably the most curious about. I feel like I know who the main established candidates are — the senator and governor types like Warren, Booker or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. I suspect the more it seems like Democrats are in crisis, the more these outsiders have a rationale to run.

sarahf: Bloomberg did just re-register as a Democrat.

clare.malone: Real question: Does Avenatti actually want to run or does he just like the attention?

I don’t think he really wants to run.

natesilver: I think Avenatti’s chances are overrated because people are overcompensating for their failure to see Trump last time.

natesilver: He massively, massively, massively fucked up in the Kavanaugh thing.

He’s polling at 1 percent.

I don’t think his chances are zero … I just think he’s one from a long list of long shot possibilities.

clare.malone: POLLS!

Bloomberg’s flirtations feel so off for this political moment with the Democrats.

perry: I think Avenatti, Bloomberg and Steyer would love to be president, so if there is demand for their candidacies, they will be more than eager to jump in. But whether there’s demand for their candidacies is going to depend on whether Democrats need a savior.

sarahf: I guess what I’m trying to wrap my head around is: Under what scenario does it make sense for these outsider candidates to run?

perry: If Democrats lose the House and Senate.

natesilver: Make sense for them or make sense for Democrats?

perry: It makes sense for them.

natesilver: If Avenatti thinks it will help to sell more books and put him on TV even more, he’ll run.

If he thinks it will damage his brand in the long term, maybe not.

perry: Yes, Avenatti may just want the fame.

clare.malone: Right.

Steyer and Bloomberg are more interesting because they actually have $$$$.

perry: Bloomberg endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Maybe he feels like he should just run.

He tried to be a team player, and it didn’t work.

sarahf: No matter the national environment for Democrats?

clare.malone: E G O

perry: I think a lot of these candidates are more responsive to, say, “Morning Joe” than FiveThirtyEight.

I will be watching what “Morning Joe” says the day after the election.

sarahf: OK, so, what happens in 2018 means nothing for 2020 … but in a world where they are related, what are you looking for on election night to give you clues about 2020?

perry: I’m looking for results that will create narratives that make it easier for people to run — or not run. I assume Klobuchar wants to be president. Does she win her Senate election by so much that she convinces herself (and others) that she is the electable candidate Democrats want?

Or do Democrats do poorly enough in swing states that people who are too centrist for the party’s activist crowd (e.g., Biden, Bloomberg or Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper) convince themselves and others that they are the solution?

Maybe O’Rourke, Abrams and Gillum do so well that it’s clear Democrats should try to grow the base and focus on swing voters less. Or they do terribly — and the message is that Democrats should be thinking about the center more.

natesilver: Again, it depends a lot on what happens (obviously). If Democrats sweep both chambers, or lose both chambers, there are some pretty clear takeaways. Otherwise, I’m not sure that the midterms will affect people’s behavior that much. I do think the Abrams and Gillum gubernatorial races are important, though. Plus, there’s the fact that Democrats have nominated an awful lot of women. And if women do well, it could (perhaps quite correctly!) lead to a narrative that Democratic candidates should look more like the party they’re representing, which is to say diverse and mostly female.

perry: I think I might view the 2018 election results less as telling us important information about 2020 and more as data points that will be spun by self-interested people into rationales for what they already wanted to do anyway.

clare.malone: I guess I’m mostly focusing on what kinds of women turn out to vote for Democrats in this election. I want to see whether there’s elevated turnout in communities we don’t usually see elevated turnout in, particularly with women. There are a huge number of female candidates potentially on the Democratic docket for 2020, and Warren, for example, has already made an interesting ad about running as an angry women in the age of Trump. What I’m saying here is that I’m eager to see what the zeigtgeisty take away from Nov. 6 will be, in addition to what stories “Good Morning America” is running vs. “Morning Joe” (as a proxy for what Americans who aren’t microscopically interested in politics will take away from the election).

sarahf: Indeed. And I’ll be looking for FiveThirtyEight’s 🔥 takes as well.