How Trump Could Still Lose 2020
Forget trying to game out the odds for his Democratic opponents—this is all about the incumbent.
Bernie Sanders is not George McGovern. And Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon when he ran for reelection in 1972. Thus the oft-heard analogy explaining why Sanders couldn’t beat Trump this year—that he is too liberal, just as McGovern was too liberal 48 years ago—doesn’t hold.
McGovern didn’t lose his presidential bid because he was too liberal. He lost because he ran against an incumbent, Nixon, who had logged an exemplary record as president in his first term. American voters don’t discard presidents for the fun of it. They discard presidents when presidents prove themselves to be too small for the job.
Thus it can be said that no Democrat, however liberal or centrist, was going to beat Nixon in 1972.
The corollary is that when presidents lose the confidence of the American people—as Jimmy Carter did in the late 1970s, for example—any opponent will suffice to expel him from office. The pols and pundits of 1980, when Carter sought reelection against challenger Ronald Reagan, considered the Californian to be just too conservative to be president. Hence, many of them thought Carter would be the inevitable winner. Wrong again. Voters don’t get hung up on the views of challengers; they focus on the performances of incumbent presidents and parties. That, primarily, is what drives presidential elections.
I explored this referendum thesis of presidential elections in my 2012 book, Where They Stand, and again in the fall of 2016 in a piece for TAC magazine (later republished on this website), which posited that “Trump actually can win, despite his gaffe-prone ways and his poor standing in the polls.” I based this not on anything said or done by Trump or by his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, but on Barack Obama’s second-term record, which I adjudged to have been a mild failure (after a first-term record that I considered a mild success—hence his 2012 reelection). The subhead on the TAC piece posed a thought that was highly unconventional, even outlandish, at the time: “The keys that predict victory could pose bad news for Clinton.”
To understand the dynamics of this year’s presidential election in terms of referendum politics, we must first dispose of the McGovern analogy, which can be done only through a look at Nixon’s first-term record (leaving aside, of course, his second-term fiasco).
He inherited the presidency in January 1969 when the country was beset by multiple crises. It was bogged down in a war widely considered unwinnable, with 540,000 troops in Vietnam and large numbers of casualties every week. The economy was beginning to sputter under the weight of Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” policies, with meager economic growth mixed with a rising threat of inflation. Mass antiwar demonstrations on college campuses and in Washington, D.C. raised questions about civic stability, rendered all the more urgent with race riots in multiple cities that claimed dozens of lives.
Yet over the course of the next four years, Nixon reduced America’s Vietnam troop commitment to just 70,000 soldiers and brought the war very close to a negotiated end (realized shortly after the 1972 election). With his famous “Silent Majority” speech and other actions, notably his support for an all-volunteer army, he managed to calm the waters of protest. Through an economic stimulus program, he boosted GDP growth in the election year to a robust 4 percent. He stunned his country and the world with his bold overture to China, which transformed the geopolitical dynamics of Asia. He also scored a major domestic triumph with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In their 1990 book exploring the dynamics of referendum politics, The 13 Keys to the Presidency, Alan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell write that Nixon’s early presidential performance seemed too mediocre for any 1972 victory. But he managed to recoup brilliantly. “The reality of 1971,” they wrote, “was that Nixon’s prospects for reelection looked bleak.” But then, they added, he pulled off “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in presidential history,” marked by an economic boom, the unexpected foreign policy triumph with communist China, and his remarkable success in defusing the Vietnam controversy. The result was a landslide reelection, with 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 570 electoral ballots to just 17 for McGovern.
Is it really realistic to suggest, based on any analysis of history, that Nixon could have been defeated if only the Democrats had put up a more centrist opponent or if McGovern hadn’t positioned himself so far to the left? No, Nixon won on his record, and McGovern’s liberalism had little to do with it.
Thus will Donald Trump rise or fall this year on his record, not on who his opponent is. Lichtman and DeCell, in their book (updated in later editions by Lichtman alone), posited an analytical matrix designed to lay bare the essence of voters’ presidential decision-making. They identify 13 “keys,” or fundamental analytical statements, that illuminate the political standing of the incumbent president or incumbent party. They note that, since Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory, when five or fewer of these statements disfavor the incumbent, the incumbent wins. When six or more disfavor the incumbent, the result is defeat. This is all based on complex “pattern recognition” algorithms designed to illuminate the politics of today by discerning patterns of circumstance that guided the country’s past political paths.
Some of the keys deal directly with questions of success and failure—for example, whether the economy has grown beyond that of the previous eight years, whether there is an election year recession, whether the president has scored a major foreign policy success, whether he has suffered a major foreign policy failure, whether he has scored a major domestic policy success, whether he has been beset by scandal, whether civic unrest has reached a point of violence and major disruption.
But others deal merely with circumstances surrounding the incumbent—whether he must fight for the nomination, whether there is a serious independent challenger in the general election, whether the party in power has gained or lost seats since the last presidential election, whether he or his opponent is a person of charisma or a military hero, whether the nominee of the party in power is the incumbent.
Based on the answers four years ago, I concluded that no Democrat was likely to win the presidency for the reason that Obama’s second-term performance precluded it. Hence, I took Trump seriously, not because of Trump himself but because of the referendum factors.
If we apply those same keys today to Trump’s presidency and reelection bid, it appears they could point either way, to victory or to defeat. Some remain indeterminate for now; others can be answered only through subjective reasoning.
It would be a mistake to take the Lichtman-DeCell thesis, or any other such thesis, too literally. The subjective nature of some of the questions suggest caution, as does the idea that every aspect of past campaigns can be captured by algorithms that will hold indefinitely into the future. But the outlines of the referendum reality can be discerned through some of their questions.
As for Trump, has he been beset by scandal? Yes. Has his party lost standing in Congress since his election? Yes. Has he scored a major foreign policy or military triumph? No. Has he effected major changes in national policy? Probably not. Has his stark persona been a net positive or net negative? Probably a negative. On the other hand, he has not been challenged for the nomination, there is no independent candidacy of note, the economy is better than it was in the immediate previous era, and there has been no social unrest of serious concern.
Whatever it all adds up to by November 3, Trump will rise or fall on his own record, as he should. Even if Bernie Sanders gets the Democratic nomination, his impact on the outcome will be secondary. And in that event, if Trump is adjudged by the voters to have been an unsuccessful president, his successor will be the socialist from Vermont.
Robert W. Merry, journalist, author, and former publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).