Political activists often act and speak as if campaigns are won or lost by the mechanics of campaigning — who raised the most money, has the better ground game, better messaging or whatever. That approach feeds the delusion that candidates and their handlers are in control.
In reality, politicians aren’t in control, they are controlled by events. Recognizing that distinction is essential to understanding what could happen in Election 2020.
As a starting point, consider the example of the last two presidents to run for reelection.
In May of 2004, while running for reelection, President George W. Bush’s job approval rating was a few points under the 50% mark. Six months later, when the election arrived, his approval numbers had inched just above the 50% mark and he won just over 50% of the vote.
President Barack Obama’s reelection effort followed exactly the same pattern. For most of his first term, Obama’s approval ratings held steady a few points below 50%. Then, in the final six months leading up to the election, his ratings inched up a few points enabling him to win just over 50% of the vote.
Why did this happen? Some small portion of their gains may be attributable to the power of incumbency or the brilliance of a campaign strategy (though I am skeptical). Instead, let’s look at the key issue of each campaign season.
· In 2004, the first presidential election after 9/11, that issue was the War on Terror.
· In 2012, the first presidential election after the financial industry meltdown and the Great Recession, that issue was the economy.
While the issues driving the election were different, they dynamics in both reelection bids were the same. In the six months leading up to election day, voters grew a few points more optimistic about the key issue of the day. As voter optimism increased a few points, so did their perception of the man living in the White House at the time.
Had public perceptions of the key issue grown more pessimistic during the final six months of the campaign, neither Bush nor Obama would have been reelected.
What does that tell us about 2020?
First, this election will not be decided by what has happened over the past 3½ years. President Trump’s job approval ratings are just a couple of points lower than the ratings for Bush and Obama at this point in their reelection bid. National polls show him trailing Joe Biden among registered voters by a modest amount. At the same time, Biden’s voters appear a bit less enthusiastic about their candidate. These facts tell us it could go either way.
More importantly, the election will once again be decided by public reaction to the key issue of the day. For this election season, that issue is how successfully American society reopens in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. If in November voters are more optimistic than today, the president will be reelected. If not, he will be defeated.
However, the range of possible outcomes this year is much wider than it was in 2004 or 2012. In both of those reelection bids, the key issue had dominated the president’s first term in office. Policies had been in place for years and public opinion was largely set, allowing for only modest changes at the margins.
In contrast, when 2020 began, nobody could even imagine that our nation would soon be locked down in response to a deadly virus. Rather than worrying about 40 million people being thrown out of work, the year began with unemployment at record-setting lows. Anybody predicting that Americans would overwhelmingly support draconian restrictions in the name of public safety would have been laughed out of the room. The pandemic changed everything.
All of that is behind us now. The key question at this point is where do we go from here?
While both sides are still fumbling for a final answer — and the dynamics are clearly different from state-to-state — a broad campaign theme has emerged. Republicans want to focus on reopening society more quickly while Democrats are resisting and prefer a much slower approach. A related sub-theme has emerged with Republicans placing more trust in voters to make their own decisions while Democrats place more trust in government officials to establish rules for reopening.
Now that the political teams have chosen sides, real world events will decide the outcome of Election 2020.
This fall, if the economy is gaining traction and there is not a massive new coronavirus outbreak, President Trump will be reelected. If Democratic officials are seen as standing in the way of a successful reopening strategy, the president might even win a majority of the popular vote and expand his electoral college margin.
On the other hand, if there is a massive new wave of the pandemic, the president will be defeated. If President Trump is seen as recklessly pushing to reopen while voters are retreating to lockdown mode, he could face a defeat comparable to Herbert Hoover’s loss in the Great Depression.
I don’t know what will happen in the election, but I do know it will be determined by events outside the control of the campaigns.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”