Republicans suffered a resounding defeat in the 2018 midterms. President Trump now faces investigations not only from special counsel Robert Mueller, but also from Democratic chairpersons who will be running committees in the House. Yet the president’s reaction to his increased political peril has been to invite more of it.
Trump needs the support of congressional Republicans to keep this threat at bay so he can execute his agenda and block any potential impeachment process. But his decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria irritated congressional Republicans. And that policy shift helped lead to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who congressional Republicans really liked. The president needs to get support from voters outside of his base to win re-election, but Trump’s proposed border wall is unpopular and the public was not in favor of shutting down the government over the wall.
All of that raises a big question: Is the president in danger of a serious challenge for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination? Right now, I don’t think Trump has too much to worry about. But there are two scenarios in which a primary challenger against Trump would be more viable than they are now — and either or both of them could happen in 2019.
Before we get to that, however: Why isn’t Trump in much trouble now? The president is very popular among Republican voters. According to Gallup polling, 89 percent of self-identified Republican voters approve of Trump.1 That support from within the party is similar to the level President George W. Bush enjoyed at this stage in his first term,2 according to Gallup; it’s significantly better than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama’s standing at this point in their presidencies.3
|Year||President||Average job approval|
|1990||George H.W. Bush||81.7||
|2002||George W. Bush||92.3||
None of Trump’s three immediate predecessors faced a serious primary challenge. And, so far, there aren’t any Republicans who are clearly set to challenge Trump, even as a long list of Democrats have either already announced their 2020 candidacies or are likely to do so very soon.
“There is no significant opposition to Trump in the Republican Party,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of two recent books about Republican politics. (I talked to several Republican operatives for this story. None of them wanted to go the record, but off the record, they were fairly dismissive of the idea that Trump would be challenged in a primary.)
So how would a serious primary challenge to Trump emerge? First, I should note I am setting a fairly low bar here for a “serious” challenge: Pat Buchanan’s 1992 bid against George H.W. Bush. Buchanan’s challenge was nowhere near as strong as the ones launched by candidates like Ronald Reagan in 1976 (against Gerald Ford) or Ted Kennedy in 1980 (against Jimmy Carter), both of whom won nearly 40 percent of the delegates in those years’ primaries and caucuses. But while Buchanan did not win a single state, he did get 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and more than 25 percent in 11 other states, and, more importantly, he showed that there was some wariness about the incumbent president within his own party. So I’m defining a serious challenger as someone who could get at least 30 percent of the vote in one of the early primary states.
I think there are two clear paths that could produce a Trump primary challenger who’s at least as strong as Buchanan. Let’s walk down each.
Path 1: Events weaken Trump’s support
The most obvious path that could lead to a strong Trump challenger would be paved by some new development. For example, Trump could take a policy step that deeply offends a core part of the GOP base. If he picked a pro-abortion-rights nominee for the Supreme Court, for instance, he could alienate evangelical Christian conservatives, a huge bloc within the Republican Party and one that currently strongly supports Trump.
I don’t expect Trump to do this — he has largely stuck to conservative orthodoxy in his first two years in office. I do not consider removing troops from Syria or even Afghanistan (as the president is considering doing) to be moves that would cause an impasse between the GOP base and Trump. There is little evidence that GOP voters (as opposed to congressional Republicans) are bothered by those moves.
But although he has largely embraced mainstream Republican policies, Trump remains unpredictable, and for that reason I think it is possible, if very unlikely, that Trump could end up taking a step that annoys rank-and-file GOP voters.
Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election and whether Trump benefited from Russian interference represents another potential event-driven shift. Right now, that investigation is doing Trump little harm. Polls show that while the majority of Democrats and independents view the inquiry as serious and justified, Republicans overwhelmingly say that it’s a politically motivated attack against the president. But if Mueller uncovers clear evidence that Trump personally supported Russian efforts to interfere in the election, for example, that could change opinion among Republican voters, or at least among powerful Republican elites.
Here’s perhaps the most important potential event that could inspire a primary challenge: a recession. A key argument of Trump and his allies has been that, whatever you think of the president’s personal behavior, the economy has boomed under his leadership. A recession would undermine that argument, particularly if Republican voters are convinced that Trump’s behavior (such as attacking the chairman of the Federal Reserve) or his policies (such as imposing new tariffs) are partly to blame for the economic downturn.
None of these events are all that likely, but I wouldn’t rule them out. And there’s always the possibility that some new scandal breaks or some other unknown unknown weakens Trump’s support. It’s happened before: For much of 1991, George H.W. Bush had sky-high approval ratings among Republicans.4 But the recession that started in 1990 and whose effects were still being felt in 1992 likely hurt the president. And Bush had broken with his party’s base — and broken a campaign promise — by signing a tax increase in 1990.
Path 2: People work to weaken Trump’s support
The second potential path that could produce a strong challenge to Trump is if the various blocs in the GOP who are unhappy with the president to come together and embrace an alternative.
The first reason this is even a remote possibility is that Trump’s staunch support among Republicans isn’t all that it seems. Some political scientists have concluded that a bloc of Trump detractors who were once Republicans are now describing themselves as independents. Pew Research Center data suggests that a big bloc of people under 30 in particular have left the Republican Party in the Trump era. If many Republicans who dislike Trump are removing themselves from the sample, that would boost his average among those who remain. So if calling yourself a Republican essentially means that you like Trump, of course Trump’s approval rating is very high among Republicans.
In addition, we are in an era of rising partisan polarization, where voters, more than ever, tell pollsters they love the president when he or she comes from their party but hate presidents from the other party. Gallup data suggests that Trump is more popular among Republicans than Ronald Reagan was at this stage of his presidency. I wasn’t covering politics in 1982, but I’m not actually sure Trump is more beloved among Republicans right now than Reagan was then. I wonder if the Trump approval data is just telling us that Republican voters are more loyal to their party now — and that they would be just as loyal to another Republican if he or she became the party’s nominee.
Third, Trump has some clear weak spots within the GOP coalition. Polls show Trump has less support among Republicans under 45, those who consider themselves liberal or moderate, women, those who live in suburban or urban areas, those who identify as independents but lean Republican, and those who are not evangelical.
Yes, those groups have considerable overlap. But the Republican Party is not as dominated by old white male evangelicals as the popular narrative suggests. According to Pew, only about one-third of people who identify with the Republican Party are white evangelical Christians. About 40 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republican are under age 50. These various pockets of Trump skepticism in the GOP could add up to a sizable bloc. And remember that in 2016, the non-Trump GOP vote, which included many people who belong to these same demographic groups, was split among a number of candidates. I doubt there will be more than one or two serious GOP alternatives to Trump in 2020, so if we saw a lone Republican contender, that person would likely be able to draw all or most of the anti-Trump vote to themselves, rather than splitting that potential coalition with other candidates.
“Trump’s base is largely confined to those who identify as ‘strong Republicans,’ and that means his base is weaker than it seems,” said Peter Enns, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University. A recent poll seems to confirm Enns’s perspective. PRRI asked a sample of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who they wanted to be the GOP nominee in 2020. Sixty-six percent said Trump, while 33 percent said another person. The fact that a third of the people who lean or identity as Republicans want someone other than Trump on the ballot in 2020 is significant, as it amounts to a considerable chunk of the party. And that 66 percent number is considerably lower than the percentage of self-identified Republicans who approve of the job Trump is doing, according to Gallup polls, which suggests that Trump’s support is concentrated among the most staunchly Republican voters.
Olsen was more skeptical, “There are places [in the GOP electorate] where he is weaker or stronger, but that is strong versus very strong,” he said.
Either way, Trump is still popular enough among Republicans that someone will have to beat him to get the nomination — he can’t be expected to just step aside. An alternative candidate would need to attract support from more than just the people who hate the president. But it could happen. Remember that Hillary Clinton was viewed favorably by about 90 percent of Democrats in June 2014, according to Gallup. She looked unbeatable. Then a viable alternative emerged (Bernie Sanders) and Clinton found herself in a competitive primary.
So who might this challenger be? The candidate probably needs to appeal to the groups I listed above where Trump’s support is weaker. So generally, even though Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has taken some steps toward a presidential run, I don’t think current circumstances favor someone like Cotton, who mirrors Trump’s conservative stance on immigration issues. Instead, I would look for someone broadly to Trump’s left. Some names given to me by Republican strategists who would not go on the record include former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, departing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Will Hurd of Texas.
If you’re reading that list and thinking that none of those people sound like particularly strong challengers to Trump, I agree with you. Barring some exciting alternative from out of nowhere, I think the real danger Trump faces in 2019 and 2020 is some kind of major event weakening his grip on the GOP combined with a strong challenger emerging.
At least right now, none of that seems particularly likely. And that’s good news for Trump. Maybe the primary challenge was an effect, not a cause, but Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush all lost in the general election after fending off intra-party rivals. Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush all avoided primary challenges and won second terms. If no Republican runs against Trump over the next year, we should interpret that as a positive sign for Trump’s re-election chances — it probably means the party thinks he can win the general election in 2020, and also that it isn’t too annoyed with him. And if Trump avoids facing a challenger, that could also keep the GOP unified and make it easier for him to win.