Yesterday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee announced they had raised a combined $125 million over the past three months and had $156 million in cash on hand — roughly twice as much as President Obama and the DNC had at this point in the 2012 cycle.
The good news for the Democrats in that is that more spending doesn’t always guarantee a win. Hillary Clinton and the DNC out-raised Trump and the RNC in 2016, and her allied SuperPACs outspent the Trump-aligned ones. The bad news is that the game plan for an incumbent president with a gargantuan campaign war chest is clear and relatively easy to execute, and when done correctly, can more or less “win” the presidential race before it even begins.
Why have four of the last five incumbent presidents won reelection? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one is that the structure of the primary calendar, the rules for campaign spending, and party unified behind the president give the party in power an enormous structural advantage. In 1996 and 2012, incumbent presidents had enormous resources to run ads in swing states defining the Republican nominee, when the GOP nominee had used all his money to win the primary and did not have any cash to return fire. The Clinton and Obama campaigns, along with help from their friends the media, defined the image of Bob Dole and Mitt Romney before the contest really started. In 2004, the Bush campaign ran similar advertising against John Kerry in swing states.
Trump won’t have the assistance from the media, but he will have a Democratic primary that will probably go deep into the spring and drain the resources of the eventual nominee and may well leave some bad blood among supporters of the final candidates. And like Bush’s campaign in 2004 and Obama’s campaign 2012, they’ll have the resources to experiment with all kinds of voter-targeting technology and get-out-the-vote apps and gadgets and doodads. Not all of them will work, but not all of them need to work. Well-funded campaigns have the freedom to try new ideas that aren’t guaranteed; they don’t have to put all their eggs in one basket. The last two Republican presidential victories were driven by Republicans turning out in rural and ex-urban precincts in numbers that the Democratic campaigns never imagined.
It’s easy to find compelling arguments about why Trump will have a tough time getting reelected. His approval rating is low in many important states and has been low for a while. His head-to-head polling against the top Democrats is not encouraging at all. The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated a whole bunch of suburban voters who were usually at least open to voting for the Republican Party had sharply turned against the Trumpified Republican Party. Trump is a very nontraditional president, which means he may not enjoy the traditional advantages of incumbency.
But marinating in the political coverage of the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the rest could give someone the impression that the dramatic portion of the 2020 election will effectively end when Democrats pick their nominee, and that Trump is toast. Democrats may well be underestimating the difficulty of beating Trump in November 2020.
Let’s get the polling argument out of the way. Nate Silver argued after the election that “Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.” (It’s really worth noting that some key states had very little polling in the final week, and a bunch of the polls that were released had been asking questions ‘out in the field’ for long stretches. The last YouGov poll in Wisconsin was collecting responses from October 4 to November 6. That’s not ideal for perceiving a late break in the direction of one candidate.)
It’s easy to believe that there is a group of voters who intend to vote for Trump but who don’t want to say so to anyone before Election Day. Voting for Trump gets labeled racist, xenophobic, fascist, hateful, sexist, and so on. It’s reasonable to argue that Trump will do better than his late polling numbers, but we don’t know if this “shy Trump voter” demographic is one percent of the voting electorate, two percent, five percent . . .
Trump’s lousy job approval numbers indicate a lot of Americans are getting tired of the daily drama and the constant circus. But the Democrats are not running on a return to normalcy. They’ve publicly and loudly embraced a whole bunch of ideas that don’t poll nearly as well as the candidates themselves do. Medicare for All polls well until people are asked if they’re willing to give up their current private health insurance for it. When told they would have to give it up, support drops from 70 percent to 41 percent.
Only 33 percent think it’s a good idea to create a national health insurance program for people who are in the country illegally, and only 27 percent support decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without permission. Only 27 percent think reparations for slavery are a good idea. Only 32 percent of American adults think their state should make it easier for women to have an abortion. Only 4 percent of Americans think the taxes they pay are too low; 45 percent think the taxes they pay are too high. Only 35 percent want the death penalty abolished nationwide; only 31 percent think those currently in prison should be allowed to vote.
The 2020 election will see a deep urban vs. rural divide and the Democrats should have the upper hand in the suburbs. On paper, that should add up to a win for Democrats. But there’s a reason that previous generations of Democrats spent a lot of years courting the white working class, farmers, union members, etcetera. In that recent House special election in North Carolina, Democrat Dan McReady did even better than in 2018 in the most heavily suburban county. But he did worse in all of the more rural counties compared to last November, and Republican Dan Bishop won by 2 percentage points. If Democrats don’t pursue votes in these communities, they’re leaving a lot of votes on the table. Montana governor Steve Bullock’s whole presidential campaign is an attempt to pull the fire alarm about this for the rest of the party, and most Democrats are ignoring him.
Trump reelection campaign strategists like Bill Stepien say they’ve identified “2018 disengagers” — voters who enthusiastically turned out for Trump in 2016 but sat home during the mid-term elections in 2018. And there are a handful of states that Trump lost in 2016 that could be won just by getting the Trump vote a little higher. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by just 2,736 votes. Clinton and Trump split the congressional districts in Maine, winning one electoral vote each, and she won the statewide total (and the other two electoral votes) by a margin of 20,035 votes. Clinton’s margin in Nevada wasn’t that much bigger at 27,202 votes. And if the Trump team thinks it can outperform their 2016 totals by a five-figure sum in key states, two more states appear within reach. Clinton’s margin in Minnesota was just 44,593 votes; in New Mexico, 65,567 votes.
Thirty-two states and territories will have held their primaries by March 29, 2020; the Democratic nominee may be clear by then. The party nominee’s campaign doesn’t get to control and direct spending of the national party until they’re officially the nominee, which won’t happen until July 16, 2020. In April, May, June, and early July, the Trump campaign will have an enormous window of opportunity to define his opponent as extremist, out-of-touch, reckless, unethical, etcetera.
Oh, and if the Democrats nominate Elizabeth Warren, some big donors may sit out the cycle or switch sides, according to CNBC’s inquiries to Democrats working in the financial industry: “Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle — or even back President Donald Trump — if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party’s nomination.” So if Warren really is overtaking Trump, as her fans hope, Trump’s fundraising advantage may grow further.
Now put all of these pieces together: In spring 2020, as the Democratic nominee is becoming clearer, the Trump campaign and RNC take some of that $150 million or so and use it to run ads defining the Democratic nominee as extremist who wants to ban private health insurance, offer taxpayer-funded health care to illegal immigrants, decriminalize crossing the border illegally, raise taxes, make it easier to get an abortion, enact reparations for slavery, and ban the death penalty. They target cost-effective, not-so-big television markets like Green Bay, Madison, Wausau, Marquette, Eau Claire, Erie, Harrisburg Duluth, Cedar Rapids, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Wilkes-Barre, and Winston-Salem. Maybe if they’ve really got money lying around, they expand into Bangor, Fargo (it reaches into northwest Minnesota) Sioux Falls (southwest Minnesota) Albuquerque-Santa Fe, Mankato, and Rochester, Minn. Suddenly, after months of ads laying out the unpopular stances of the new Democratic nominee, that nominee isn’t polling so well in head-to-head matchups with Trump, and that vulnerable incumbent president doesn’t look so vulnerable anymore.
ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the NRA finds a happy ending in San Francisco.