Is Trump’s reelection doomed?

In a sane world it would be.  Of course, we’re clearly not in that world.  Pretty sure that every president in history who saw negative economic growth in 2nd quarter of the election year lost.  And talk about negative economic growth for this 2nd quarter!!  And in times of modern polling, presidents with Trump’s approval rating at this point are set up to lose.

But, somehow, it often seems with Trump that the ordinary rules of politics as we understand them just don’t work so well.  Still, if I were a betting man (okay, I am at small stakes), you’d have to look at the current situation and say it would be quite suprising for Trump to pull off a reelection.  Completely leaving aside his incompetence that will lead to untold American deaths (honestly, seems pretty clear his supporters will be convinced he did a great job and it’s all China’s fault), the economy alone suggests a really bad outcome for any incumbent.

Political scientist and election forecaster, Alan Abramowitz, with a nice piece:


— The coronavirus public health crisis likely will lead to an economic downturn of unknown length and severity.

— Historically, second-quarter GDP growth in the election year is an important variable in predicting how an incumbent president will perform in the fall.

— A recession could seriously damage President Donald Trump’s reelection chances.

— However, we are in truly uncharted territory, and it’s unclear how the public will respond electorally to an economic downturn forced by a pandemic…

Discussion and Conclusions

Based on the results of presidential elections since World War II with running incumbents, a president with an upside-down approval rating and an economy in recession would have little chance of winning a second term in the White House. If President Trump’s net approval rating remains where it is now or declines further, and if the recession is severe, with real GDP shrinking by three points or more in the second quarter, the result could well be a defeat of landslide proportions. [emphasis mine]

A few caveats are in order here. Voters may not hold an incumbent president responsible for a recession brought on by an unforeseeable disaster like the coronavirus pandemic — although they may hold him responsible for the government’s response to the pandemic, which is a story that is still being written.

Moreover, in our current era of deep partisan polarization, events like recessions may not have as great an impact on an incumbent’s electoral fortunes as they did in the past. We have seen that President Trump’s approval rating has been remarkably stable due to almost unwavering support from his fellow Republicans and equally unwavering opposition from Democrats.

On the other hand, polarization might also mean that an incumbent, especially one who makes little effort to appeal to voters outside of his own party’s base, might not receive the full benefit of incumbency, which depends on the ability of an incumbent to attract votes across party lines.

Finally, the fact that our forecasts are based on only 11 elections should make us cautious in interpreting these results despite the impressive accuracy of the model.

Overall, one of the best arguments in favor of the president winning a second term has been strong economic performance for much of his term. The public health crisis seems very likely to depress that performance for at least the next few months. This poses an electoral threat to the president, which the model vividly demonstrates.

And, if you are a numbers person, the very parsimonious model is definitely worth checking out at the link.

Also, a good time to mention, that if he is re-elected, almost surely the only thing enabling that is the electoral college.  I find it shocking that the betting market still has him at 46% as of today.  Meanwhile, though, there betting market for winning the popular vote has him at 30%.  (And, I think that’s definitely high.  Given what we know now, I think anything over 10% of winning the popular vote is optimistic).  And, for my next post… the abomination that is the electoral college :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Is Trump’s reelection doomed?

  1. Mike in Chapel Hill says:

    Trump will remain POTUS because a) there will be no election or b) the election will be distorted by targeted and large-scale disenfranchisement of urban/Democratic areas. I know that a bunch of Constitutional scholars and talking heads have pointed to rules and laws that make it nearly impossible for the party in power to curtail the election. But guess what? The GOP doesn’t obey rules, laws, or precedent. How did those Congressional subpoenas work out? And Obama’s final chance at a Supreme Court nomination? Getting the IRS to hand over tax information to Congress? Getting Senate approval for scads of Presidential appointees? At the state level, did you see the efforts made by Republicans to suppress voter turnout in urban and college areas?

    Liberals just don’t get it. Here are 2 reasons why the November elections are going to keep the GOP in power.
    1) The Republicans will continue to disregard the Constitution and precedent when it suits their pursuit of power. Why do you think they will suddenly start playing by the rules in November?
    2) Republicans cannot — CANNOT — allow Democrats to obtain documents and testimony related to Trump’s impeachment, Russian interference in the 2016 election, or Trump’s financial and tax records. Every senior GOP member of Congress is complicit in covering up and then facilitating Trump’s corruption. Every one of these criminals is acting out of self-preservation to ensure that Democrats do not gain control of the Executive and/or Senate.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    I’m glad you are getting to the Electoral College. What do you think of the movement toward the National Popular Vote?
    Do you think SCOTUS would call it unconstitutional?
    I like it because, if legal, would bypass the time length and complexities of amending the Constitution.

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