Eric Davis: Trump has re-election advantages
The identity of President Trump’s Democratic challenger will not be known until next spring. While the large field of Democrats contests primaries and caucuses with each other, the president is actively and always campaigning for re-election. Trump will be a formidable opponent for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee.
A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News showed Trump’s overall approval rating at 44 percent. No reputable poll has shown Trump with more than 50 percent approval since his inauguration. Trump could very well lose the popular vote by millions of votes, and still be re-elected with an Electoral College majority.
The Electoral College provides Republicans with several structural advantages. First, millions of Democratic votes are wasted in strongly Democratic states such as California and New York. In electoral vote terms, it means nothing whether a candidate wins one of those states by 3 votes or 3 million votes.
Second, the Electoral College over represents the smallest states, those with only 3 or 4 electoral votes. More of the smallest states are strongly Republican than are strongly Democratic. The small-state advantage could be worth a dozen electoral votes to Trump, enough to provide the margin of victory in a close contest.
Two other factors working in Trump’s favor will be differential turnout and voter suppression. Differential turnout refers to the tendency of younger and more diverse voters to vote less frequently than older white voters. Studies of the 2016 election results indicate that if African-American, Latino and under-30 voters had gone to the polls at the same levels they did in 2008 and 2012, Trump might not have won in Michigan, North Carolina and Florida, all states essential to his Electoral College victory.
Republican governors and legislatures in states that are competitive in the Electoral College will also try to suppress the vote of Democratic-leaning voters. An example of such a measure is a bill recently passed by Florida Republicans that would require ex-felons whose voting rights were restored by a 2016 referendum to pay all outstanding fines and court costs before they can be reinstated on the voting rolls. This legislation is being challenged in federal court on grounds that it is a form of poll tax.
Trump’s campaign will likely be advantaged by the economy over the next year. The Post-ABC News poll that showed the president’s overall approval at 44 percent had his approval on economic issues at 51 percent. Unemployment and inflation are both low, and recent data show that wages are increasing faster than the cost of living — not enough to make up for lost income on the part of many households since the financial crisis a decade ago, but still a faster rate of increase than at any time since Trump took office.
Trump is trying to bully and pressure the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates to goose the economy further before the election. The risk for Trump is that a Fed decision to reduce rates might come not in response to the president’s pressure, but in order to counteract a slowing of the economy due to the negative effects of Trump’s tariff and trade policies on both the manufacturing sector and lower-middle-income consumers.
While the Democrats raise money to contest each other in the primaries and caucuses, Trump can raise money for the general election. Trump and the Republican National Committee together raised $105 million in the second quarter. This is roughly the same amount of money as was raised in the same three months by the top five Democratic candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — combined.
The Democratic candidates will spend almost every dollar they raise now on the nominating campaign. Thus, the eventual Democratic nominee will come out of next summer’s convention far behind Trump in terms of financial resources available for the fall campaign.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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