U.S., President Donald Trump, center left, waves after viewing the White House Christmas tree with First Lady Melania Trump, right, at the North Portico of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Will Trump Face a Nomination Fight?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- CNN’s Harry Enten makes a good point here about 2020. Unless the election is very close, there’s no point in paying attention to the Electoral College. In landslide elections, and even solid wins, the Electoral College will just follow – and usually amplify – the overall vote. If a president’s approval rating is high, then re-election will follow, whereas a president with Donald Trump’s dismal numbers is in big trouble.

And as Nate Silver recently argued, it’s quite possible that the Electoral College map will tilt against Trump in 2020. Although Republicans won in both 2000 and 2016 despite Democratic popular vote pluralities, the observed tilt in the Electoral College favored Barack Obama in his two elections. And in 2004, John Kerry could’ve beaten George W. Bush with just a little luck in Ohio, even though Bush won the popular vote. 

In other words: Unless the election is close, the state-by-state analysis doesn’t much matter. And even if it’s close, the state-by-state tilt of the Electoral College is unstable and difficult or impossible to predict.

What we can predict is that the president’s approval rating will be a major factor in his re-election campaign. The good news for Trump is that he’s currently up to 42.9 percent approval, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight estimate, which basically matches his post-honeymoon highs. The bad news is that, 675 days in, he has the worst rating of any president in the polling era.

It’s true that the last four presidents to be re-elected all dipped below 45 percent approval at some point between the midterms and the presidential election. Ronald Reagan got as low as 35 percent in early 1983 before winning 49 states the next year. The problem for Trump is that there’s no reason to expect his current numbers to improve significantly, and it probably wouldn’t take much for him to return to his 2017 lows. 

If that happened, the chances of a serious nomination challenge would increase rapidly. A 40 percent approval rating seems like a rough line dividing incumbents who get renominated by acclamation and those, such as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who have to overcome serious threats. Although such a challenge would be unlikely with a president who seemed competitive, it certainly could happen if Trump looked like he was about to get clobbered in a general election and bring the whole party with him. After the midterms, it’s hard to believe many Republicans still think Trump is immune from the normal laws of politics. Nomination challenges don’t cause re-election weakness; it’s the other way around. 

Meanwhile, we’re entering a period of real danger for Trump, in which the incentives for elite Republicans to support him will be weaker than they’ve been at any time since he clinched the nomination. If he runs into further trouble in the next six to 10 months, he might find less loyalty from his party than usual, which in turn could push his approval numbers lower and make a serious nomination challenge more likely. Of course, it’s possible that the administration won’t run into any new scandals or otherwise create bad news out of nothing. Possible. But not likely. 

1. S. Erdem Aytaç and Susan Stokes at the Monkey Cage try to explain the (relatively) high turnout for the midterms this year.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage, Gabriele Magni and Andrew Reynolds on LGBT candidates and the midterms.

3. From last week, but still relevant: Brian J. Gaines and Gisela Sin at Mischiefs of Faction on the House Democratic leadership struggle. Nancy Pelosi appears to be in better shape now than she was a week ago, but the general points here are useful regardless. 

4. Paul Kane on two excellent suggestions: Build dorms for members of Congress and raise staff pay. 

5. Very good item from my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson about impeachment. He’s correct: House Democrats really don’t want a partisan impeachment that would be defeated along party lines in the Senate. But if the evidence demands it, they may feel they have no choice. We’re not there yet. But we certainly could get there. 

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe. Also subscribe to Bloomberg All Access and get much, much more. You’ll receive our unmatched global news coverage and two in-depth daily newsletters, the Bloomberg Open and the Bloomberg Close.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.