As we sit here in this topsy-turvy political time, we are now approximately a year out from Election Day in 2020. So much can happen, but let us take a moment to examine five key points surrounding this election cycle, especially for Democrats who are trying to beat President Trump.
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1) I wrote more than a year ago that one of the ways to contrast with President Trump is to present a more humble candidacy while running with confidence. The best contrast with Trump’s bombastic nature is not a Democratic version of it, but something more akin to its opposite. To that end, I don’t understand why candidates and campaigns believe they must present policies and ideas as the only “right” ones. A more humble, and more strategic approach might be to say “I have an idea which I think is good, but I am open to figuring this out with others.” In the end, that is exactly how policy is made. It is made through a vision combined with cooperation. Maybe one attribute Democratic voters should look for is not who has the “best” plans, but rather who can bring people together to get policy done.
2) As Democrats begin to consider whom they might vote for in the caucuses and primaries ahead, my advice is to not focus much on “electability”. Electability is a dynamic thing and the candidate who seems most electable today might not be six months from now. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were not the “most electable” candidates in their races when they first started out. Usually candidates who win primaries and caucuses are considered electable. Democratic voters should pick the candidate who they think will be a great President and who can bring the country together. Electability will take care of itself.
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3) The November election a year from now is going to be primarily determined by macro factors, the most important of which is the president’s job approval number on Election Day. Every president running for reelection over the last 60 years has received on Election Day a percentage of the popular vote within a point of their job approval number. For instance, Obama in 2012 had a job approval of 51% and got 51% of the vote. Bush in 2004 had a job approval of just over 50% and got just over 50% of the vote. The same was true for Clinton in 1996, Bush in 1992, Reagan in 1984 and Carter in 1980. In all these cases, the opponent was a secondary factor.
4) Considering the above, ignore the state head-to-head polls for the general election that you see at present. If you do look at state polls, pay attention to Trump’s job approval number because that is the biggest factor in whether he can carry a given state. If Trump’s approval number is below 45% in a state, he is highly unlikely to be able to carry it. If his approval number is above 49% in a state, he is highly likely to carry it. In between those numbers is highly unpredictable. I would suggest ignoring most of the state general election polling until next October.
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5) The impeachment process is going to be a very disruptive moment in our country, but spelling out exactly what the political consequences will be is guesswork at this point. Trump is in a very different, and much more precarious political position, than Bill Clinton in 1998. Today, a plurality of the country supports President Trump’s impeachment and in some polls it is a majority; in 1998, support of impeachment of Clinton never got above a third of voters. In 1998, Clinton had a 65% job approval; today, Trump has less than 40%, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. A majority of the country disapproves of him and nearly two-thirds see his conduct as unpresidential — a very problematic communication environment in the context of impeachment. Still, even having lost many Americans on impeachment, President Trump is unlikely to be convicted in the Senate because of support from Republicans unless information is revealed which fundamentally alters the GOP perception of him.
In this time of profound change, a day seems like a year of movement, and a year seems like a lifetime. So with a lifetime ahead of us until next November, let us focus on the big picture, not get drawn into reality show politics, and set our North Star to finding leaders with integrity and who can communicate on big values and how to achieve the consensus our democracy depends on.