The experts tell us that four of the five issues that were in play during the 2016 election – health care, immigration, the economy, and the President – again dominated debate. The President and Republicans campaigned on immigration and the economy, while Democrats focused on health care and the President’s character. Ironically, he and 64 percent of the electorate agreed that the election was a referendum on his leadership.
The Democrats’ failed gambit to smear Justice Kavanaugh’s reputation unexpectedly added a fifth factor to the election to replace Mrs. Clinton’s character flaws and alleged criminal conduct, which proved decisive in 2016. The smear campaign against Justice Kavanaugh energized Republican turnout, assuring Democratic Senate losses in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and apparently, Florida. President Trump’s active campaigning also affected these outcomes, but his rallies could not deliver victories in Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia.
Most analysts view the mid-term outcome as a draw, but as any soccer fan can tell you, not all draws are equal. Democrats swept Republicans from competitive House districts in the suburbs, won new Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona (likely), retained Senate seats in red states, and regained key governorships. This occurred because Democrats and their media allies at MSNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the LA Times and many regional news outlets, assured that the stretch run debate was dominated by Democrats’ views on health care and the President’s conduct and character. The volume and frequency of Democratic messaging simply overwhelmed Republican narratives on immigration and the economy covered by Fox News and talk radio shows.
In the aftermath, Republicans can console themselves that through the end of his term in 2021, President Trump can continue filling the courts with conservative judges. Republicans have also likely firewalled their Senate majority through at least 2024, provided they can successfully manage Republican Senate re-election races through the 2020 presidential race. However, this is a huge disappointment after the heady days of 2016, when Republicans expected President Trump and majorities in both Houses to produce legislation on health care reform, immigration reform, tax reform, and infrastructure investment to set the stage for 2018 Senate majority expansion and solidification of the House majority. Those opportunities are gone, lost to poor legislative strategies, dreams of grand bargains, and infighting within the former Republican congressional majority.
The Wall Street Journal’s early data analysis of 2018 voter trends provides useful insights for the 2020 presidential race. In 2018, suburbanites, who comprise 44 percent of the electorate, voted for Democratic candidates by 53 percent to 45 percent. Women, who are the majority of the American electorate (51 to 49 percent) voted 56 percent to 44 percent for Democrats. They also received 90 percent of African-American votes, 64 percent of Latino votes, and 69 percent of Asian-American votes. A majority of voters under the age of forty also voted for Democratic candidates. Republicans, in contrast, only earned majorities among whites (54 percent), men (51 percent), and citizens over 65 years in age (51 percent).
If Republicans nominate President Trump in 2020 and current political and media trends continue, it seems farfetched today that he will be able to convince suburban and female voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to vote for him instead of a generic Democratic opponent. That is a 46 electoral vote swing that gives the Democrats the White House. The 2018 results give Republicans hope to flip Minnesota in 2020, which would give them a narrow victory if all other states vote consistent with 2016 results. However, the outcomes of 2018 elections in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, suggest that a more likely outcome is an even wider 2020 electoral vote margin against President Trump.
Looking ahead, Democrats will certainly use their House majority and media allies to build on their momentum among long-standing constituents and new supporters. Just as Republicans plagued President Obama from 2011 through 2016 with a series of investigations of misuse of government authority, the Democratic House will seek to frame issues for the 2020 election through a series of investigations. The Trump Administration will almost certainly model its responses to Democratic House inquiries on the behavior of the Obama Administration. Turnabout is, after all, fair play, but the Democrats’ overwhelming media dominance will shape the narratives of Democratic House investigations much differently than they covered the Republican investigations of Obama Administration misbehavior. Likewise, the Democratic media will echo repeatedly with denunciations of the Republican Senate blocking “just, worthy, and necessary” legislation passed by the Democratic House.
This leaves many Republicans with a strategy of hoping that Democrats repeat their 1972 error of nominating an extreme leftist as their candidate. Some Republican pundits are already comparing Trump to Nixon. Ironically, so do Democrats, but for different reasons. Yet there is hope for Republicans along these lines. Potential Democratic presidential candidates such as Senators Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren, along with New York’s Governor Cuomo, are unambiguous policy heirs of Senator George McGovern. However, Democrats have sensible choices available, such as Colorado’s Governor Hickenlooper, Senator Amy Klobuchar, defeated Texas Senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, or one of the newly-elected Democratic governors. Given the President’s unpopularity in the suburbs where national elections are decided, almost any normal, center-left Democrat could be a shoe-in.
A more sensible Republican strategy for 2020 should assume that a Democratic candidate who can unite progressives, moderates, and independents against President Trump will emerge from a fierce primary fight. To prepare for that eventuality, Republicans need to use their Senate majority to gain credit among swing voters for achieving balanced legislative solutions to the health care, immigration, and infrastructure problems vexing the country, while also defending the tax reforms and regulatory unraveling that are fueling economic growth. Republicans must also take steps to redress the severe media imbalance they face across the country. Finally, Senator Flake (R-AZ) is correct that someone must challenge President Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. But to be successful, that candidate will need to be someone who will fight President Trump toe-to-toe for the Republican base, while also offering swing voters better policy solutions than the Democrats.
For the President himself, the path to re-election appears more difficult than the road he faced in 2016. Polls suggest that Americans are appreciating the effects of the policy changes he has made. He should work with the Republican Senate and negotiate with the Democratic House to maintain this policy momentum. However, there is no doubt that a significant majority of Americans dislike the President and fear that his persistently unpresidential behavior is dividing American society, damaging important international relationships, and lowering America’s prestige around the world. Instead of making America great again, he is diminishing it, while feeding the Democratic media machine a rich supply of ammunition to use against him and other Republican candidates. In reality, the steepest slope to a re-election victory for President Trump, is within himself.