Our default position for the upcoming elections in 2018 and 2020 should not be that Trump will self-immolate because he’s a disorganized mess.
By Seth Masket
(Photo: Alex Wong/Newsmakers)
What might the next few election cycles look like? There’s a tendency right now to think that the political system in the United States has gone off the rails into some uncharted territory. But there’s good reason to believe that the same rules that have governed it in the past will continue to govern it in the future.
One of the big mistakes that many political observers (including me) made this fall was assuming that, since this year’s presidential nomination cycle was so weird and defied the expectations of so many observers (including me), that the general election would be weird too. Quite simply, a Democrat running for a third consecutive term of Democratic control of the White House during a period of moderate economic growth should be at a slight disadvantage.
We knew that but set it aside. We assumed that Donald Trump’s bizarre and offensive behavior and his unconventional, unprofessional, and underfinanced campaign would change that equation. We were wrong. In the end, Trump has slightly underperformed the economy, but not by much. Partisan voters rallied to their respective camps and we got a pretty typical presidential election outcome.
Maybe, just maybe, we should assume that 2018 and 2020 will follow the same basic rules. But what would that mean?
It would mean, for starters, that Republicans are probably at the peak of their control right now. In some ways, their position is similar to where Democrats were after 2008 (although Republicans control more state legislatures today than Democrats did at that time). Democrats had just won two solid election cycles; they’d seized the White House, a majority of the House of Representatives, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate; and they looked prepared to dominate U.S. politics for years to come. It was, of course, a brief reign—Republicans made a stunning comeback in 2010 and added to their holdings in 2014 and 2016. This is not a new pattern. Democrats are likely to make gains in the next few cycles for the same reasons that Republicans made gains under Barack Obama, Democrats did under George W. Bush, and Republicans did under Bill Clinton.
American voters will from here on hold Republicans accountable for the economy. Yes, Trump is inheriting a healthy one. But it’s been about nine years since our last recession, and those tend to come roughly once a decade. Even if Trump’s economic stewardship turns out to be excellent, he may well face a recession during his term, and this would harm Republican prospects in upcoming elections.
In the 2018 mid-term elections, Democrats will have the wind at their backs, simply because the out party almost always does well in mid-terms. Trump has a low ceiling on his approval ratings given his past and present behavior, and that could put a drag on Republican candidacies. The Senate map isn’t favorable to Democrats for 2018, but they wouldn’t need very many pick-ups to take control of that chamber. Meanwhile, Democrats face a pretty friendly map for gubernatorial races. And the extent of Republican control in Congress and state legislatures means they have a lot of turf to defend, not all of it friendly. Throw in an economic slowdown and Democrats stand to take quite a few seats in Congress and state legislatures in 2018. Democrats should be preparing for this now by recruiting and training strong candidates at every level of government.
What about 2020? I’m sure many Democrats right now are confident that Trump’s presidency will quickly unravel and that he doesn’t have a shot at re-election. But, again, we should look to the past. Presidents tend to win re-election. In the past century, only three presidents—Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush—sought re-election and were denied it, and all of those losses happened amid a failing economy. Should a recession hit around 2019 or 2020, Trump would be running with a significant disadvantage. But if the economy is growing, he’s the favorite, regardless of who the Democrats nominate.
Now, there are all sorts of reasons to temper those expectations. For one thing, voters tend to turn against the incumbent party during times of war. Trump’s own belligerent statements and his disregard for norms of diplomacy certainly raise the prospects of some sort of large-scale military action during his term.
And there are other reasons to believe a Trump administration will be different from most. His own business dealings are setting up a situation in which he could literally be in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause on the first day of his presidency. The odds of an impeachment or resignation, while not very high, are still substantially higher than they would be for almost any other White House occupant right now.
Beyond that, there’s a substantial ideological rift within the Republican Party that has largely been papered over by Trump’s victory. Trump is not at all where most party leaders are on foreign policy, Medicare, Social Security, trade, and a host of other issues. Perhaps party leaders will defer to him, figuring he’s tapped into American voters in a way that they should be emulating. Or perhaps he’ll defer to them, figuring they know and care a lot more about these policies than he does. But the odds for some significant conflicts within the party are pretty high, and this could result in some public pushback, or even a primary challenger in 2020, which could affect his re-election prospects.
But our default position for the upcoming elections should not be that Trump will self-immolate because he’s a disorganized mess, nor should it be that Republicans will dominate because Trump won over the white working class. Rather it should be that the same forces that have determined election outcomes in the past will continue to do so in the future.