Are Trump’s 2020 Prospects Fading with the Economy?

Voters may not vote on policy and economic issues and instead view their choices through a larger cultural narrative, but the return of economic uncertainty and Elizabeth Warren’s recent surge means a Center-Left victory still should be seen as more-likely-than-not in 2020.

Back in July I published my predictions for the 2020 US elections. I predicted that a Center-Left Coalition had a slightly better than 50/50 chance of victory in November 2020 but that Trump and the Republicans still had very strong chances to pull an upset and win the Presidency and hold the Senate on the strength of a Right-Nationalist coalition. I also came clean on the type of evidence I used to reach this judgment and, by extension, the type of evidence that I would look to when I updated my “priors” on the probabilities of the three scenarios I identified coming to pass. Since then, I slightly reduced the chances of a Center- Left victory to less than 50 percent and essentially even with the chance of a Trump re-election. For a summary of the categories of evidence please look below where I re-publish my original list verbatim.

The way I see it now, the probabilities return to the levels I first stated. They are:

  • Center-Left Coalition (51%) (+3%)
  • Radical Middle Breakout (5%) (even)
  • Right-Nationalist Coalition (44%) (-3%)

These are probabilities of a victory scenario coming to pass, not the percentage of the popular vote won by each coalition. The coalitions are not running in the election, of course. The coalition scenarios will instead be what propels a major-party Presidential candidate to victory in the electoral college and sway the results in Senate and House races. In my view, the Democrats retaking the Senate is not necessary for a Center-Left coalition “victory.” Taking the US Presidency and holding a policy-majority in the US House is enough. I recognize that this is a debatable point. If retaking the Senate is required to be counted as “victory”, the chances of a Center-Left victory fall below 50%. The types of evidence I announced I would rely upon are as follows:

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a successful Center-Left Coalition would be: (i) good performance by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in early primaries, especially among voters in areas that supported Trump in 2016 and especially in purple states that could influence the electoral vote; (ii) continued indulgence by elite editorialists of the policy “excesses” of leading candidates as not undermining their ultimate “reliability” (in the minds of the business and the meritocratic classes) as they are clearly obligated to try to steal Sanders’ thunder in the primaries; (iii) re-emergence of unemployment and other serious domestic economic worries; (iv) continued stability in the Trump coalition making creation of the broadest anti-Trump coalition necessary.

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a Radical Middle Breakout and its ultimate victory would be: (i) poor early primary performance of Sanders, Warren and (after her attempted take-down of Biden) Harris; (ii) continued strength in the Biden candidacy; (iii) surprise emergence in the primaries of a reliable “moderate” Democrat (Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Booker, Bennet or O’Roarke) who can attract voters initially in Biden’s camp without promising “shiny objects” to the Left; (iv) intensifying the campaign in the elite media and among the pundit-class generally about the dangers of too much “socialism” and the risks of a Center-Left electoral strategy specifically; (v) erosion of generalized elite support for Trump due to scandals and/or international crises or embarrassments; (iv) evidence emerging over the primaries that a significant segment of voters is sufficiently radicalized or disillusioned to make it unlikely that they would vote in the general election for the moderate Democrat who appears able to win the nomination. All these would make a bet on a more narrow Democratic coalition seem smart or at least smart-ish.

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a Right-Nationalist coalition victory would be: (i) no economic surprises and no surge of unemployment; (ii) no scandals or international crisis or embarrassments that make Trump look like a poor bet; (iii) outbreak of open conflict between Center and Left elite and activists as reflected among Democratic candidates and wars of words around issues of economic populism and privilege; (iv) a galvanizing national emergency that allows Trump to look like a successful leader.

Over the past several months, Elizabeth Warren has solidified her position as one of the top three candidates in the Democratic field, with a high degree of positive ratings among Democratic voters. The economy has clearly weakened, a development that clearly spooks the President and has caused him to blame the Federal Reserve chair for raising interest rates too aggressively. Despite (or in some cases because of) her frankly transformative policy agenda and her strong performance in debates, Elizabeth Warren continues to be covered as a winner in the media. There are some (like Jim Cramer on CNBC) who are warning about her high negatives among CEO’s and Wall-Street types. But the strength of this aversion has not yet been tested and is balanced by nice things that others with strong followings among the economic elite now say about her and by such things as the Business Roundtable putting corporate governance and social responsibility back into the news. Thus most of the categories of evidence I look to to judge probability of the Center-Left scenario are pointing up. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s continued strength in the Democratic primary also should be noted. How does that play?My sense is that we are squaring up for a three-way contest for the nomination that will not be resolved until late in the primary season, meaning that a successful candidate Joe Biden will need to make tangible promises on Center-Left issues and pick a running mate acceptable to “progressives” in order to strengthen his general election chances. Voters may not vote based on ideology, but a potentially large group of activists and primary voters will need to be recruited back into the field and strong planks appealing to the social activism and economic populism of segments of the Democratic base will need to made to ensure victory. Moreover an outright meltdown of the Trump Presidency continues to seem to me to be unlikely, meaning that a Radical-Center Breakout (i.e. a Centrist Democrat running and winning without the Democratic Party’s left-wing supporting it) is still highly unlikely. I will be watching Tom Steyer’s candidacy carefully. He represents one version of an alternative to Biden that could embody the Radical-Center Breakout. For this to happen both Biden and Warren would need to falter, pitting a so-called “moderate” like Steyer against Bernie. This is unlikely to happen, but it is a possibility worth taking seriously.

Finally, I will offer a warning that despite the constant drama the President is likely to retain his political strength and be a strong competitor in the 2020 general election. The recent victories of Republicans in the North Carolina special elections is evidence that the Republican Party continues to win under the President and there is still a significant chance that a Right-Nationalist coalition could ride to victory, in particular if the Democratic Party finds itself torn apart by open warfare between Center and Left factions. Despite the tendency of the “infotainment” media at CNN and MSNBC to say nothing of Fox News to exploit tensions among Democrats, the practical sense of most activists has been to not take the bait. Nevertheless, there are dangers that competition among candidates to appear the “toughest” on climate could result in opening vulnerabilities to populist attacks from the Right. A good example of this is the mileage that the President’s supporters have gained by publicizing Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to put a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal land and a tweet publicizing her intention to “ban fracking everywhere” despite this pledge never appearing anywhere in her published plans. Certainly too early to discount the ability of the President and his supporters to exploit these worries in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where fracking employs thousands and is politically popular.

In short, expect the 2020 election prospects to remain dynamic and interesting for quite some time.

Partner at Practus, LLP, a law firm. Rick advises clients on issues at the intersection of business strategy, law and political economy.

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