What 2018 could have in store for Trump (and who might he face in 2020)

January 1st, 2018

On his return from the U.S., Keiran Pedley gives us the rundown on what is happening stateside

Having spent a few weeks in New Jersey, as I usually do this time of year, it will not come as much of a surprise that the news media there is wall to wall Trump. However, as a keen observer of US politics, I do enjoy being over there and watching the political comings and goings ‘live’ – you can often pick up some nuances that you might not when watching from overseas. Here are some observations from my time there over the Christmas break.

Trump faces a tough election cycle in 2018

Unless the ongoing Russia investigation finds a ‘smoking gun’, or war breaks out on the Korean peninsula, the big story of 2018 in Washington is likely to be November’s midterm elections. Here Trump’s Republican Party, which currently holds both houses of Congress, could potentially lose both. Any sense that this prospect was ‘fake news’ was pretty much dispelled by the Democrats taking deep red Alabama in December’s special election (granted under very ‘special’ circumstances given the objectively awful Republican candidate Roy Moore).

The two charts below spell out the difficulties faced by Trump and the GOP in no uncertain terms. The first chart, courtesy of Jennifer Agiesta of CNN, shows President Trump is the least popular president after his first year in office since modern polling began. The second chart, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight shows the Democrats are on average 12 points ahead of the Republicans in the so-called ‘generic ballot’ – polling that measures which party Americans would support for Congress irrespective of who is running locally. The conventional wisdom, reflected here again at FiveThirtyEight, suggests a lead of more than eight points (maybe less) would be enough for the Democrats to win back the House of Representatives.  As it stands, they are favourites to do so.

Table 1: Trump’s approval rating after one year versus other presidents

Table 2: Polling average for the ‘generic ballot’

But it isn’t all bad news for Trump

The race for the House might be going the Democrat’s way but the race for the Senate is much less certain. Whereas the whole House is up for re-election every two years, only a third of the Senate is up each cycle and the 2018 map is not kind for Democrats. At the time of writing, they need a net gain of two seats to win back control of the Senate, yet the Republicans are only defending 8 of the 34 seats up for election (many of these in very ‘red’ states). Furthermore, the Democrats themselves happen to be defending seats in several states that Trump won in 2016 (notably Vice President Pence’s Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, Ohio, Florida and several others in the now infamous ‘blue wall’ that failed so miserably for Hillary Clinton). Put simply, two Democratic gains may not be enough if they fail to hold seats elsewhere.

Table 3: Senate seats up in 2018

So for the Democrats to take the Senate everything would need to go right for them. The prevailing political mood now suggests this might happen. However, Trump will hope to shift this mood if his recently passed tax plan provides a turbo boost to a US economy that is already chugging along quite nicely and the Russia investigation comes to naught (a crisis in North Korea is never far away too). He will hope for a second hearing, if not from Democrats, from Independents that currently give him an approval rating of just 33% with Gallup (57% disapprove).

The risk for Trump is that the 2018 election cycle may not really be about his record at all. It could be a referendum on the man himself as president and in that case there is nothing he can really do to avoid the Democratic wave he faces. Even if he ‘only’ loses the House, his domestic agenda will be severely hampered. If he loses both the House and Senate, it will stall completely.

However, this does not mean impeachment.  The US constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to vote for impeachment to remove a president from office. Despite many suggesting that the GOP might ‘dump Trump’ if he became a liability, I find that idea highly dubious, unless clear and unambiguous illegality emerges that is explicitly linked to Trump’s own hand. Never say never but I won’t hold my breath.

In a bizarre way, Trump may even find his prospects for re-election boosted to some extent if the Democrats control Congress. He will once again have an enemy to run against in 2020 and nothing motivates the Republican base more than getting one over on the Pelosi’s and Schumer’s of this world. Make no mistake, losing Congress is bad for any president’s agenda, but there could be a silver lining of sorts for Trump – particularly if he manages to boost his credentials as a ‘dealmaker’ by governing with the Democrats (unlikely as that sounds).

Meanwhile the Democrats lack leadership – and that makes 2020 unpredictable

It is too early to make any definitive judgements about who the Democratic nominee will be in 2020. There are large question marks over who will actually run from the early list of front runners. Yet the skeleton of a field is starting to emerge nonetheless. Here are some names that consistently come up in the conversation about 2020 and their odds with Ladbrokes. This list doesn’t include some of the more fanciful names that feature, such as Michelle Obama, Mark Zuckerberg or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson:

  • Elizabeth Warren (Senator, Massachusetts) 6/1
  • Kamala Harris (Senator, California) 6/1
  • Bernie Sanders (Senator, Vermont) 7/1
  • Cory Booker (Senator, New Jersey) 20/1
  • Joe Biden (fmr. Vice President) 20/1
  • Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator, New York) 25/1

Selection of odds taken from Ladbrokes

What should worry Democrats at this stage is that there is no obvious spokesperson for the party right now. No clear leadership. That suggests that the field for 2020 will be large, much like it was for the GOP in 2016, this makes the contest itself extremely unpredictable.

A number of dynamics will be at play when the Democrats choose their standard bearer in a couple of years’ time. Race and gender will loom large as ever but so too will a generational divide. In ‘normal’ circumstances, 2020 would be a contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; yet both will be comfortably in their late 70s come 2020. We cannot be certain if either will actually run. Therefore, the race is on to see who will emerge as the ‘next generation candidate’ to challenge or replace them.

In this context, I think Kirsten Gillibrand is a great value bet. She has made a lot of running in 2017, surprising many by saying President Clinton should have resigned following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and decisively calling for the resignation of Al Franken following accusations of sexual assault. Aged 51, she is seeking to make herself a leader of the #metoo movement and seems to have made the early running better than others that might seek that ‘next generation’ mantle; such as Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

Of course, it is early days and just because a generational divide exists, it does not necessarily follow that the Democrats ‘have’ to move to the next one. It may well be that Biden and Sanders both run and they dominate the field. However, I think it is highly likely that at least one woman makes a strong bid for the Democratic nomination next time and this makes Gillibrand one to watch.

Nevertheless, for now I am still watching Bernie Sanders closest of all – whether he runs or not. If the 2020 Democratic field is as crowded as it was for the GOP in 2016, it is easy to see how Sanders, with his loyal supporters, racks up primary wins without winning a majority of the vote each time. If he doesn’t run, Elizabeth Warren could take his progressive mantle. Given that she is a woman as well it is not hard to see why Ladbrokes have her as favourite but she probably needs Sanders not to run. A Biden run from the centre has to be taken seriously too – more seriously than 20-1.

For now this is all speculation. In 2018, it will be important to watch Trump’s approval rating as we approach the midterms and keep a keen eye for which Democrats emerge as party leaders with one eye on 2020. It should make for interesting viewing.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley