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  • Writer's pictureGregory Koger

Sorry, Wisconsin, the Presidential Election Could be a Blowout

Since November 9, 2016, Democrats and pundits have contemplated the path back to Presidential victory in 2020: is it winning back white "working class" voters in the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin & Michigan, or is it a candidate & platform that people of color actually want to vote for?

The latest round of this conversation is a New York Times/Siena poll report showing head-to-head matchups of President Trump vs. Vice-President Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the "all-important" swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. Sample sizes per state ranged from 501 to 652 registered voters. The upshot of the story is that Trump is close to the Democratic candidates across these states, with Biden doing slightly better than Warren & Sanders.


But...what if the 2020 election outcome does not depend on the same swing states as 2016? Yesterday Morning Consult released its state-by-state poll of Trump's job approval/disapproval. The write-up emphasizes the limited effect of the House's impeachment inquiry so far, but the actual data tell a more interesting story. Based on much larger samples per state, Trump has a negative net approval rating (approval - disapproval) in 34 of 51 states (plus DC). This includes "red" states like Alaska, Georgia, Montana, and Utah.

Electoral College map based on Morning Consult Presidential Approval Ratings, October 2019

Together, these 34 states (and DC!) total 391 Electoral College votes. If the 2020 election followed this pattern, it would be the largest Electoral College landslide since 1988.

Of course, there are huge caveats.

  • It is a year until the election. During the Trump presidency that equates to about 1,000 news cycles. A lot can change.

  • Current job approval ratings are he same as voter preferences at the end of a primary election season, convention, and general election. But, then again, neither are head-to-head matchups in November 2019. Some disapproving voters will probably drift back to their party affiliations (looking at you, Utah) but it is plausible that most of the voters who disapprove of Trump will end up supporting the Democratic candidate.


1. Trump's Uphill Battle

Let's start with the obvious: if Trump makes it to the 2020 general election, his campaign has a lot of ground to make up. First, let's take a more refined look at the 2020 map, recoding states as "swing states" if Trump's net approval is +/-5 percent.

2020 electoral map based on Oct. 2019 net approval, with swing states indicated.

By this calculation, the Democrats have a base of 306 Electoral College votes with another 137 in play, including Texas. To win reelection, Trump would have to win all of these and then flip enough states for an additional 36 votes.

After 2016, anything is possible. But it is worth noting that Trump's current (dis)approval ratings occur without a Democratic nominee to make a public case against the president or lay out an alternative policy agenda. Nor is it likely that campaign spending alone will reverse these numbers. Thus far, the Trump 2020 campaign and affiliated groups have spent over $171 million on his reelection, with the Republican National Committee spending an additional $133 million in 2019 alone. This spending has kept Trump's support from falling, but it has not changed enough hearts and minds to reverse the blue wave of the 2018 elections. An unscrupulous President in this situation might be tempted to invite--or even extort--foreign interference.

2. Senate Republicans should be very nervous

At present, there are 35 U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2020. Of these, 23 are held by Republicans, 12 by Democrats. Trump's net approval is negative in 21 of these 35 Senate election states (Georgia has two Senate elections).

President Trump's net approval in states with 2020 Senate elections. Tan states have no Senate elections in 2020. Georgia has two Senate seats up for election.

Nine seats currently held by Republicans are up for election in states where Trump has a net

job disapproval. The Democrats only need 3 or 4 seats to gain a majority in the Senate.

3. Trump Probably Can't Save the GOP in 2020

The message of the Republican National Committee after the recent 2019 elections is that President Trump is a base-turnout machine who can save Republican candidates who are otherwise outspent, personally abrasive, or drowning in an anti-Trump tide. The subtext is, "Hey Republicans, you need Trump because your constituents sure don't like you."

But how helpful will Trump be to Republican candidates in 2020? Again, President Trump may have to campaign hard just to win traditionally Republican states like Alaska and Indiana. On top of that, he will likely invest his time and money in Florida and the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania--none of which have Senate elections. How much time and money will his campaign invest in shoring up Republican candidates when they are struggling to get anywhere close to 270 Electoral College votes?

And, how many Republican Senate candidates will actually benefit from a Trump visit in the weeks before election day? Trump may be able to help unpopular candidates in deep-red states (e.g. Mitch McConnell) but many Republicans may feel they are better off distancing themselves from an unpopular, by-then-impeached President, e.g. Susan Collins (ME), Joni Ernst (IA), and Cory Gardner (CO).

Again, the election is a long way off, and presidential job (dis)approval ratings are far different from general election outcomes. And after the shock of 2016, Democrats may be understandably wary of positive polling results. However, it is worth considering some of the best available information when making projections about the 2020 elections.

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