Throughout the 2016 Republican primary, Trump’s opponents and most mainstream media were certain he would self-destruct. After he won the nomination, they were nonetheless certain his campaign would implode, and that Clinton would win the general election in a landslide.
I was one of the dissenters who recognized early on, and explained in great detail throughout 2016, that Trump was probably going to be the 45th President of the United States.
Since his inauguration it has grown increasingly apparent that, rather than having learned some kind of lesson, Trump’s erstwhile opposition remains as closed-minded and overconfident as ever. Just over 100 days in, and it’s already considered a virtual certainty that the 2018 and 2020 elections will be a bloodbath for the President and his party (if he even makes it that long, am I right?).
Here are four reasons to believe that the popular consensus is, once again, dead wrong. Trump will probably win re-election in 2020, and his party will likely retain one or both chambers of Congress at least through 2022.
1. The “Default Effect”
Even when people are unhappy with a state of affairs, they are often disinclined to actually change it. In my area of research, the cognitive and behavioral sciences, this phenomenon is known as the “default effect.”
Software and entertainment companies exploit this tendency to empower programs to collect as much data as possible from consumers, or to keep us glued to our seats for “one more episode” of a streaming show. Overall, only 5 percent of users ever change these settings, despite widespread concerns about how companies might be using collected information or manipulating people’s choices.
The default effect also powerfully shapes U.S. politics.
For instance, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms as president of the United States, serving from the Great Depression to World War II. Out of concern some future leader might hold and consolidate power indefinitely, the 22nd Amendment was passed, limiting subsequent officeholders to a maximum of two terms.
Eleven presidents have been elected since then.
Eight of these administrations won a renewed mandate: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Even the three single-term aberrations largely underscore the incumbency norm. Had Ford won in 1976, it would have marked three consecutive terms for the GOP. If George H.W. Bush had won in 1992, it would have meant four consecutive Republican terms.
Since 1932, only once has a party held the White House for less than eight years: the administration of Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980.
So it’s a big deal that Trump is now the default in American politics. Simply by virtue of this, he is likely to be reelected (a mathematical elaboration on this point is available here. The ex ante likelihood of Trump being reelected is roughly 89% prior to adjustments).
2. Impeachment? Not going to happen (in his first term)
Many Democrats seem to be counting on Trump being removed from office in the near future, leaving their own candidate to run against Pence in 2020.
Let’s be clear, this is pure fantasy.
What about Comey? The Russians? Trump’s financial quagmires? Here’s the thing: scandals tend to only have consequences when one’s opponents possesses sufficient leverage to exploit them. This will not be the case for Trump in the foreseeable future.
Impeachment would require a majority in the House. Actually removing Trump from office would require at least a two-thirds vote in the Senate as well.
Nixon faced impeachment because, even after his landslide reelection, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, and some Republicans had turned on him as well. Clinton was impeached in 1998 by a Republican-controlled House, but was acquitted in the Senate because the GOP controlled *only* 55 seats.
Without massive Republican defections, Democrats will not be in a position to impeach Trump, let alone achieve the two-thirds majority required in the Senate to actually depose him. The 2018 elections will not change this reality:
As a function of the default effect, the particular seats which happen to be open this cycle, the DNC’s unpopularity (more on that soon), and Republican dominance of state governments–which has allowed them to draw key congressional districts in their favor – it will be extremely difficult for Democrats to gain even a simple majority in the Senate in 2018. A 2/3 majority is out of the question. As for taking the House? Even less likely.
Could Trump instead be declared unfit for duty in accordance with 25th Amendment? No chance. First, this would require the Vice-President and a majority of his Cabinet to turn on him. Then, if Trump protested his ouster (which he would), it would take a 2/3 majority in both chambers of Congress to prevent him from regaining power. As previously discussed, this is wildly implausible.
In other words, we can count on Trump surviving his first term – and likely winning a second.
3. Popularity is overrated
Most Americans don’t like Trump, but that matters a lot less than one might expect. The President won his first term despite record-low approval ratings, triumphing over the marginally less unpopular Hillary Clinton. And he’ll probably be able to repeat this feat if necessary.
Trump continues to enjoy staunch support from the voters who put him in the White House. He’s raised millions of dollars in small donations for reelection, pulling in twice as much money as Barack Obama in his first 100 days. And he’s already putting that money to use running ads in key states that trumpet his achievements and criticize political rivals.
Although most don’t like or trust Trump, polls show he seems to be meeting or exceeding Americans’ expectations so far. In fact, an ABC News/ Washington Post survey from late April suggested that if the election had been held again at that time, Trump would have not only won the Electoral College, but the popular vote as well – despite his declining approval rating.
To further underscore this point, consider congressional reelection patterns.
Since World War II, the incumbency rate has been about 80 percent for the House of Representatives and 73 percent for the Senate. Going into the 2016 election, Congress’ approval rating was at an abysmal 15 percent. Yet their incumbency rate was actually higher than usual: 97 percent in the House and 98 percent in the Senate.
4. Trump…or who?
Trump’s unpopularity would only matter if there was a compelling and credible opponent running against him. As a result of the “default effect,” what matters most isn’t how the public feels about the incumbent, but how they feel about the most likely alternative.
Jimmy Carter didn’t just have low approval ratings, he also had to square off against Ronald Reagan. “The Gipper” was well-known, relatable and media-savvy. Although the Washington establishment largely wrote off his platform with derisive terms like “voodoo economics,” the American public found him to be a visionary and inspirational leader –and gave him two consecutive landslide victories. Even with the Iran-Contra Affair dragging on throughout most of his second term, leading to criminal convictions of many of his close associates, he left office in 1989 with the highest approval ratings since FDR. Donald Trump is unlikely to face a Reagan-level challenger in 2020:
The Democratic Party has been hemorrhaging voters for the better part of a decade. Since November, their ratings have deteriorated dramatically while approval for Republicans has remained stable. Democrats are viewed as being more “out of touch” with average Americans than Trump or the Republicans. Yet key players in the DNC still resist making substantive changes to the party’s platform and strategy. Hence it remains unclear how Democrats will broaden their coalition–or even prevent its continued erosion:
The populist wing of the party continues to be marginalized. Most of the Democratic options being tossed around for 2020 are boring neoliberal technocrats—the kind that consistently lose to populists. Consider the Democrats’ previous bids with Mondale vs. Reagan, Kerry vs. G.W. Bush, or Hillary vs. Trump.
If Democrats think they will sweep the 2020 general election simply by nominating another “grownup,” then they’re almost certainly going to have another losing ticket.