If you detest Donald Trump, the recent U.S. midterms probably put a spring in your step. Watching the Democrats decisively win the House of Representatives seemed like an omen for two years hence.
And perhaps it is. Maybe 2020 will consummate the electoral cycle by evicting Trump from the White House and consigning his presidency to history’s dustbin. Normalcy will be restored.
Then again, it might not.
There are several reasons to refrain from betting the farm on Trump being a one-term president. Here are three of them.
The midterms are unreliable presidential predictors
Trump’s Republicans lost 40 House seats but picked up a net of two in the Senate. At a similar point in their presidencies, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama experienced larger losses.
Clinton lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994. Obama’s 2010 losses were 63 House seats and six Senate seats.
Yet notwithstanding those losses, both Clinton and Obama cruised to re-election two years later. The midterms offered no predictive insight with respect to the next presidential election.
The argument is being made that Trump’s losses are really more severe than those of either Clinton or Obama. Although he did better numerically, that’s said to mask a deeper underlying weakness.
For instance, there’s the matter of the economy. With business booming and unemployment very low, it’s argued that the Republicans should’ve been able to buck the historical trend whereby the party that controls the White House loses ground in the midterms.
And the two Senate pick-ups happened by virtue of a fortuitous map. Because only one-third of the Senate seats come up in any given cycle, 2018 produced a scenario where a disproportionate number of Democratic seats were being defended in states where Trump is unusually popular.
Still, a couple of things need to be remembered.
As late as the confirmation battle of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in early October, prognosticators were speculating that – unfavourable map notwithstanding – the Democrats had an outside chance of actually taking the Senate.
It didn’t come close to happening.
And Florida – a swing state that provided one of the Republican Senate gains – had been in Democratic hands for 18 years. The incumbent had won it by 13 points in 2012 and was expected to keep it in 2018. The fact that he didn’t bodes well for Trump’s prospects there in 2020.
As blogger John Althouse Cohen recently noted, “if you look at historical patterns from the end of the 19th century to now, you’ll see that a party (Republican or Democratic) almost always holds the presidency for at least eight years.”
The only exceptions since 1897 were Jimmy Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George HW Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1993.
Trump’s re-election bid will come after just four Republican years.
2020 will be a choice, not a referendum
If you disapproved of Trump, you could decide to vote Democrat in the midterms as a way of voicing that disapproval. But you weren’t picking an alternate president. Voters expressing their disapproval could have wildly different opinions on the desirable characteristics of an alternate president.
That, however, won’t be the case in 2020.
The choice then will be between Trump and another very specific individual. And that individual will bring his or her own baggage to the table, just like Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
Trump wasn’t elected because he was widely popular. He won because, in an electorally critical configuration of states, he was less unpopular than Clinton.
It’s like the joke about two men being chased by a bear. To survive, you don’t have to run faster than the bear. You just have to run faster than the other guy.
In what will be a choice battle rather than an approval referendum, Trump will have an opponent he can contrast himself with, someone he can work at negatively defining. And as previously demonstrated, he has a particular talent for doing that.
In this sense, Trump’s destiny is significantly in the hands of the Democratic nomination process. The candidate nominated will be Trump’s raw material. Who it is will really matter.
Trump’s ideal scenario would be a rerun of the 2016 matchup. And judging from what some of her associates are publicly voicing, that’s also what Clinton wants. Indeed, I suspect she very much wants it.
Surely, though, the Democrats wouldn’t – nay, couldn’t – be that dumb.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.