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Is It Safe To Say Trump Is A Favorite To Win Re-Election?

In this week’s politics chat, we debate what we can say now about the 2020 presidential election. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hi, people!

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Hey, friends! ЁЯЩВ

micah: This article, “Trump is on track to win reelection,” sparked some heated debate in the office. Nate thought it was dead-on and brilliant. I didn’t.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): #fakenews

micah: So let’s argue it out! The idea here isn’t to pick apart this one piece, but more to use it as a vehicle to discuss what we know at this very early date about President Trump’s re-election prospects. So, is Trump more likely than not to win re-election in 2020? Or, as I maintain, is that a silly question at this point given how long we have until that campaign and how unpopular Trump is.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): This will be a more interesting conversation after the midterms. I’m a little undecided as to whether or not the article is silly.

harry: It certainly had a provocative headline. And while I agree with Clare that this is a question that is difficult to answer now, many potential candidates are asking it.

natesilver: There might be less than a 50 percent chance that Trump will be president on Jan. 21, 2021. But that’s because he might not run again (or might not complete his first term) — it’s not the same thing as the chances of his winning re-election, conditional upon running.

harry: I think that’s true.

micah: OK, let’s go point by point …

First, Trump knows that gaining the support of a majority of voters in a presidential election is not a requirement; it’s simply an aspiration. In fact, two out of the last three presidents were elected despite losing the popular vote.

harry: This is entirely true. You don’t need to win the popular vote (though doing so obviously increases the chances of winning the Electoral College). And you certainly don’t need to win a majority of the popular vote. Bill Clinton never did. George W. Bush did only once.

natesilver: Wait — elections are determined by the Electoral College?

harry: I know; this shocked me, too.

micah: This is what bothers me so much. Sure, it’s true that you can win the White House without winning the popular vote. But all else being equal, it’s harder! Right?

harry: It is. The question, which we can get to now or later, is whether Trump is in a better position to win the Electoral College without winning the popular vote than the normal politician.

micah: This also presumes a ton about what the coalitions will look like in 2020.

natesilver: Trump had a very significant Electoral College advantage … but the thing is, the Electoral College edge typically isn’t that stable from election to election. This is from an article we did in November:

The Electoral College advantage ebbs and flows
2016 D__+1.8* Pennsylvania R__+1.1 R_+2.9
2012 D__+3.9_ Colorado D__+5.4 D_+1.5
2008 D__+7.3_ Colorado D__+9.0 D_+1.7
2004 R__+2.5_ Ohio R__+2.1 D_+0.4
2000 D__+0.5_ Florida R__+0.0 R_+0.5
1996 D__+8.5_ Pennsylvania D__+9.2 D_+0.7
1992 D__+5.6_ Tennessee D__+4.7 R_+0.9
1988 R__+7.7_ Michigan R__+7.9 R_+0.2
1984 R_+18.2_ Michigan R_+19.0 R_+0.8
1980 R__+9.7_ Illinois R__+7.9 D_+1.8
1976 D__+2.1_ Wisconsin D__+1.7 R_+0.4
1972 R_+23.1_ Maine_and Ohio R_+22.3 D_+0.8
1968 R__+0.7_ Illinois_and Ohio R__+2.6 R_+1.9
1964 D_+22.6_ Washington D_+24.6 D_+2.0
1960 D__+0.2_ New_Mexico and Missouri D__+0.6 D_+0.4
1956 R_+15.4_ Florida R_+14.5 D_+0.9
1952 R_+10.9_ Michigan R_+11.5 R_+0.6
1948 D__+4.5_ California_and Illinois D__+0.8 R_+3.7
1944 D__+7.5_ New_York D__+5.0 R_+2.5
1940 D__+9.9_ Pennsylvania D__+6.9 R_+3.0
1936 D_+24.3_ Ohio D_+20.6 R_+3.7
1932 D_+17.8_ Iowa D_+17.7 R_+0.1
1928 R_+17.4_ Illinois R_+14.7 D_+2.7
1924 D_+26.6_ New_York D_+25.2 R_+1.4
1920 D_+31.2_ Rhode_Island D_+26.2 R_+5.0
1916 D__+3.1_ California D__+0.4 R_+2.7
1912 D_+17.0_ New_Jersey and Iowa D_+18.7 D_+1.7
1908 R__+8.5_ West_Virginia R_+10.2 R_+1.7
1904 R_+18.8_ New_Jersey R_+18.6 D_+0.2
1900 R__+6.2_ Illinois R__+8.4 R_+2.2
1896 R__+4.3_ Ohio R__+4.8 R_+0.5
1892 D__+3.0_ Connecticut_and Illinois D__+3.2 D_+0.2
1888 D__+0.8_ New_York R__+1.1 R_+1.9
1884 D__+0.6_ New_York D__+0.1 R_+0.5
1880 R__+0.2_ New_York R__+1.9 R_+1.7
1876 D__+3.0_ South_Carolina R__+0.5 R_+3.5
1872 R_+11.8_ Ohio R__+7.1 D_+4.7
1868 R__+5.3_ North_Carolina R__+6.8 R_+1.5
1864 R_+10.1_ Illinois R__+8.8 D_+1.3

* 2016 popular vote margin is projected
The “Electoral College edge” is the margin in the tipping-point state minus the margin in the national popular vote. Where there are two tipping-point states, their margins are averaged together.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, David Wasserman

harry: I think that’s right about the Electoral College advantage not being permanent, Nate. I will point out that Trump’s approval rating is above his national approval rating in enough states to get over 270 electoral votes. That is, that Trump could win the Electoral College while still losing the popular vote still seems quite plausible.

micah: Conditional on him getting more popular.

natesilver: So are we agreeing or disagreeing, Harry? Because I thought I was pointing out that the Electoral College edge isn’t necessarily all that persistent from one election to the next.

harry: I was agreeing and disagreeing if that makes sense.

natesilver: It doesn’t make sense.

harry: I was saying that you’re right historically but that there are some numbers to suggest that maybe the Electoral College advantage will be stable this time around.

micah: How Trump’s coalition is distributed via the Electoral College will be greatly influenced by who the Democratic nominee is, no?

natesilver: I’m not sure I’d say greatly influenced — but somewhat influenced, certainly. After all, Obama overperformed in the Electoral College relative to his performance in the popular vote. And his coalition was not that different from Hillary Clinton’s.

harry: Not just about who, but what that person articulates as their main message.

clare.malone: This goes back to our theory that Democrats will nominate a populist/progressive white guy in 2020 in order to appeal to more geographic areas.

natesilver: I’d still bet on the Electoral College helping Trump, more likely than not. But it’s not quite as safe of an assumption as our friend who wrote this column assumes.

micah: Next point …

Second, the continued decline in support for both political parties works to Trump’s advantage. The lack of voters’ faith in both parties increases the probability that there will be a major third-party candidate on the 2020 ballot. It will also lead to other minor-party candidates joining the presidential race. The multi-candidate field will further divide the anti-Trump vote, making it possible for him to get reelected simply by holding on to his current level of support.

clare.malone: I do not think this is the case, and I disagree with Nate that this is a time in our history when we’re more likely to see a third-party candidate.

micah: BAM!

clare.malone: I think increased partisanship really does mean that people don’t want to play with spoilers. They want their team to win.

natesilver: I disagree with your disagreement!

clare.malone: Please, sir! Explain!

harry: I disagree with all of you.

natesilver: An unpopular president and an opposition party slightly in disarray sounds a lot like … 1980 or 1992, and those were years that invited third-party challenges.

clare.malone: No, I don’t think we live in the same cultural moment as 1992. There are now two mono-cultures — one for Democrats, one for Republicans. That was not the case in 1992.

natesilver: Well, there were some very … flawed third-party candidates in 2016. And they got, what, 6 percent of the vote? That’s not bad!

micah: But, Nate, 2016 featured the two most unpopular major-party candidates ever, and no real third-party challenger emerged. 2016 doesn’t help your case.

natesilver: The third-party vote was the highest since Perot.

micah: ЁЯШР

clare.malone: I would be interested, Nate, to see what kind of candidate you think would be a viable third-party contender in 2020.

natesilver: Viable? I’m not saying anything about viable.

clare.malone: Johnson was very flawed, gaffe-prone, not that serious.

natesilver: How about a Generic Rich Celebrity or Generic Rich Business(wo)man?

How about … K A S I C H L O O P E R!

micah: You’re undermining your own argument here.

natesilver: What do you think my argument is?

micah: That a third-party candidate more viable than Gary Johnson is more likely to emerge in 2020 than they were in 2016.

natesilver: Yes.

So how have I undermined my argument?

micah: Your only suggestions are TBD and Kasichlooper!

natesilver: The playing field is going to look like a mess to a lot of people. You arguably have two parties in disarray. And Trump becoming president will make a lot of people think: The Rules Are Broken And Anything Is Possible.

harry: We’re missing a key point here: I’m not sure a third-party candidacy helps Trump.

natesilver: Well, yeah. I’d agree with that too.

micah: Yeah, that was my next question.

harry: So I pulled some data from the 2016 American National Election Studies and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Elections Study. According to the former, Republicans won the House vote among people who voted for a third-party presidential candidate by 22 percentage points. The House vote was basically a tie among people who voted for Clinton or Trump. According to the latter, voters who cast a ballot for a third-party presidential candidate were 8 points more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats. Among Clinton or Trump voters, they were 8 points more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans.

My point being that in 2016, Clinton was probably helped overall by third-party candidates, not Trump.

natesilver: One of the likelier scenarios — not likely, exactly, but not impossible to imagine, either — is a split within the Republican Party.

clare.malone: #Romney

micah: That seems more likely to me than a split in the Democratic coalition, right?

clare.malone: #Romneyexmachina

(I’m kidding, folks. Don’t send me email.)

natesilver: You could imagine the left wing of the Democratic Party nominating its own candidate.

clare.malone: See, that’s interesting.

natesilver: I tend to think the Democratic Party’s nominee will be quite left wing, but we’ll see.

clare.malone: The people who were Bernie Sanders diehards might be underestimated when it comes to splintering off. I think the Democratic chaos is actually pretty deep-seated.

natesilver: But Republicans have the bigger dilemma. Relations between Trump and the Republican Congress are already fraying.

Who wins if the tickets are: Bernie Sanders (Green), Kamala Harris (Democratic), Donald Trump (independent), Mike Pence (Republican).


clare.malone: Pence. (Shameless plug.)

Harris and Sanders are both popular in their own right, which would split the left vote; Pence is more likely to attract a swath of Republicans that encompass mainstream voters on that side and those on the far right.

micah: It depends.

natesilver: The answer, if I had to guess, is that Harris would win the popular vote with a plurality, and Pence would win the election in the House.

micah: I think Pence wins? I imagine that without the gravity of partisanship, Trump is a pretty weak candidate.

natesilver: In that scenario, I actually wonder whether one of Sanders or Harris eventually drops out, though. Because a three-way race between Trump, an establishment Republican and a generic Democrat is a very, very good scenario for the Democrat.

micah: You can’t change the scenario!

natesilver: I made the scenario, and I shall change it as I want.

micah: Anyway, this whole thing about third-party candidates doesn’t belong in an argument that Trump is on track to win in 2020. Can everyone at least concede that?

clare.malone: I concede that.

harry: I agree with that.

clare.malone: I bet Nate won’t.

micah: CONTRARIAN NATE! Wait for it …

natesilver: I concede.

micah: ЁЯН╛ЁЯН╛


micah: Reverse psychology!

natesilver: I concede NOTHING.

harry: Folks, a parade was just thrown in the office.

micah: OK, next point:

Third, despite dismal poll numbers, Trump enters the contest with a job approval rating that is certainly at least marginally better than what the current national polls would suggest.

natesilver: If he’s talking about comparing polls of registered or likely voters to polls of adults, that’s a vaild point.

micah: That, and also that Trump’s national numbers underestimate his strength in battleground states.

harry: Well, we already spoke a little about the battleground states. That’s true … for now.

It’s also true that he’s doing better among voters than among all adults. We track that.

natesilver: Unregistered voters — who show up in polls of adults but not registered voter or likely voter polls — are largely not a Trump-leaning group. So when they drop out of the sample, things get a bit better for him.

harry: The bigger question is what does a 40 percent approval rating among voters — as Trump has now — mean in terms of a vote.

natesilver: Meh, I don’t think that’s such an interesting question.

harry: OH, I think it’s a very important question.

natesilver: Wrong.

harry: It’s the question, perhaps.

natesilver: Wrong.

clare.malone: This is getting to be unreadable.

harry: A lot of people have argued that Trump won the presidency despite poor favorable ratings and that therefore his piss-poor approval ratings don’t mean squat.

I think that’s wrong, but the question is how wrong.

So here’s something I did. I went back to Franklin Roosevelt and took Gallup’s final estimate of an incumbent president’s approval rating (or Nate’s calculation of that) and ran it against the margin that the incumbent president won or lost by.

natesilver: I think you’re probably making a mistake to conflate approval ratings and favorability ratings. Once you’ve been on the job for four years, voters aren’t liable to vote for you if they think you’re doing a shitty job. Conversely, they might vote for you even if they don’t like you, if you’re not an incumbent and they think they can “take a chance.”

harry: I’m not disagreeing with you, Nathaniel.

micah: ЁЯТд

clare.malone: With you, Micah.

natesilver: I think you’re confusing two things, though. What would Trump’s chances be of being re-elected today, Harry?

micah: [Editor’s note: Harry is yelling at us via verbal slack.]

harry: But what’s interesting to me is that when you run my calculation, you get Trump losing by a little over 3 percentage points with an approval rating of 40 percent. That’s not much different from what he lost by in 2016. It also comes with a large enough margin of error to be quite uncertain. I have NO idea what Trump’s approval rating will be on Election Day 2020. I have no clue if it will be up or down. I’m just saying that a president with an approval rating of 40 percent among voters is not doomed. He’s not in a great position, but it’s not awful.

micah: ЁЯТд

j/k … I agree with Harry — this is an important question: Trump won, in no small part, because a lot of people who didn’t like him still voted for him. To what extent that will hold true in future election is important.

harry: I’m so sorry I tried to inform our audience. Maybe I should just go home.

micah: Last point:

Fourth, Trump’s support has largely remained durable with a core group of supporters.

Go ahead, Nate.

This is one of your hobby horses.

natesilver: #actually

harry: I hate all of us.

natesilver: This is a myth — Trump’s strong approval rating has actually fallen quite a bit.

harry: I agree.

Great chat, folks.


natesilver: There’s also evidence that his support has fallen some even among rural, working-class voters:

Now — it is true that some of those voters — maybe most of them — might come back to Trump when he has a Democratic opponent.

clare.malone: That’s what I think is the case.

harry: This actually ties in with the point earlier about third-party candidates. There are a number of folks who will not vote Democratic but would be willing to vote for a conservative third-party candidate.

micah: But we’re also talking about the Obama-Trump voters.

Or our reluctant Trump voters.

Trump can’t win with only his diehards.

And I don’t think the Democratic nominee will necessarily be a non-starter for those more marginal Trump voters.

clare.malone: Roger that. Who cares about his base, on some level.

micah: Well, electorally, yes.

OK, to wrap …

This argument that Trump is on track to win re-election basically boils down to:

  1. Trump doesn’t need to win the popular vote.
  2. A third-party candidate could come out of left field and help him.
  3. Trump’s not as unpopular as you think.
  4. Trump’s base support is inviolate.

No. 4 is wrong. No. 2 could happen, but it’s not particularly likely or more likely than a third-party candidate hurting Trump. Nos. 1 and 3 are true, but … I guess what I’d say is that if your argument is “it’s not that bad,” doesn’t that suggest it’s still pretty bad? A disadvantage not being fatal doesn’t make it an advantage.

I’d 100 percent sign on to an argument along the lines of “Trump could still very much win in 2020” or “Democrats are by no means guaranteed a win in 2020” or “it’s easy to overrate how much trouble Trump is in.”

harry: I don’t think Trump is on track to win re-election. It’s not good.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think the headline of the piece really oversold it, but that’s not the author’s fault per se.

natesilver: I think there’s a much better argument for why Trump is a favorite: Trump is an incumbent, incumbents usually win, and even though he’s unpopular now, there’s a long way to go and his approval ratings now don’t predict much about what they’ll be in 2020.

micah: That last part is true?

harry: Agree with that latter part, and approval ratings tend to revert to the mean in the long run.

natesilver: Like if you called a “snap” election in five weeks between Trump and Joe Biden, I’m pretty sure that Biden would win. Trump vs. Biden in 2020 is a different story (maybe).

micah: OK, so to end … Trump vs. the field … who you got?

clare.malone: I think THE ROCK is just going to be my standard answer every time this question is hurled at us in chats.

But to answer that more seriously … I think I take the field.

natesilver: Well, to come full circle here … I’m not sure how likely Trump is to finish his term and be the GOP nominee again. Conditional on doing so, he might be, say, a very slight (51 percent? 55 percent? 60 percent?) favorite to win re-election. But the times when Trump is in real trouble, he probably doesn’t run or even loses the GOP nomination.

harry: I’ll take the field.

micah: The Rock vs. the field?

clare.malone: THE ROCK!

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.