2020 Is Still a Fantasy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two New York Times columnists engaged in a bit of a fun recently, writing about the 2020 election in the past tense — with Bret Stephens explaining how President Donald Trump “won” that future election, and David Leonhardt describing how Trump “lost.”

Fun, but in fact it really is way too early to have any idea what will happen two years from now. Stephens is right that the performance of the economy is a crucial factor for any incumbent president’s re-election bid. In fact, it’s almost exclusively election-year economic performance; voters do care about the economy, but their memories are very short. 

What else matters? Voters really don’t like high-casualty foreign wars. Iraq hurt George W. Bush in 2004 (although he won anyway) and ruined the Democrats’ chances in 1952 and 1968, even when Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson chose to retire instead of running for another term. Will that be a factor in 2020? Good luck guessing on that one. 

And then, as one would expect, presidential popularity matters a lot. But it’s too early to predict that one, too. At this stage of their presidencies, about 60 percent of Americans approved of how George H.W. Bush was handling the presidency and he lost, while only 42 percent approved of Ronald Reagan, and he won in a landslide. What we can say is that so far Trump’s approval has lagged well behind what one might expect based on the economy and relative peace.

What’s generally less important is the out-party candidate. Indeed, Stephens spends most of his piece talking about what Democrats “did” to lose in 2020, but for better or worse, what the out-party does really doesn’t matter very much. Yes, they could probably hurt their chances some by nominating someone perceived to be an ideological outlier — that appears to have damaged Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972, although more moderate candidates would have lost in those landslide years anyway. But in 1980, Reagan won easily despite being perceived as very conservative mainly because voters were mainly interested in rejecting Jimmy Carter, not in assessing the challenger. 

Of course, in a very close election, practically anything can make a difference, whether it’s policy proposals or the quality of the ads or campaign tactics. So the out-party will try to nominate a good candidate and try to design a strong campaign. We just have no way of knowing yet whether it will be close. 

There are lots of very good reasons to be carefully following presidential nomination races this early. The candidates are already running, and party actors are hard at work coordinating and competing over the party’s policy positions and priorities. The general election, however? It’s way too early for anything beyond fantasy. 

1. Robin Kolodny and Diana Dwyre on their new research about outside group donations and party networks. Important. 

2. Dave Hopkins, always a must-read: “The more validity to the conclusion that Trump was a weak candidate who won a close and fluky election only because he was facing a seriously flawed opponent, the rosier the outlook becomes for Democrats this November.”

3. Kelly M. McFarland and Vanessa Lide at the Monkey Cage on the politics of a changing Arctic Circle

5. But see also a thread from my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith. 

6. And here at Bloomberg Opinion, Barry Ritholtz on the GDP report.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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