Jana Riess: What history tells us about Donald Trump’s reelection prospects

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump listens during a meeting about the coronavirus response with Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Washington.

A lot can happen in six months. Heck, this spring has demonstrated that a lot can happen in six weeks. So while all prognostications should be taken with a grain of salt in a presidential election year in which little has gone according to plan, we can still look at some lessons from history and ask: Six months before the Nov. 3 presidential election, what are Donald Trump’s chances?

On the side of reelection, Trump has several things going for him.

• Most incumbents win reelection. It’s usually not even that close. In fact, right now incumbency is the single most encouraging thing Trump has going for him. Since 1900, incumbent presidents have won 14 out of 19 elections. One exception was Republican Gerald Ford, who, stained by Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, stagflation and the lingering crisis of Vietnam, lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Four years later, Carter, unable to overcome the twin nightmares of the oil embargo and the Iran hostage crisis, was crushed at the ballot box by Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s two terms of steady popularity were followed by the one-term presidency of his former vice president, George H.W. Bush, whose approval rating declined from 53% in 1988 to 37% by 1992, largely because of an economic recession. If incumbents don’t win, it’s usually because the economy is in the crapper.

• Trump has the overwhelming support of his fellow Republicans. In January, 8 of 10 Republicans approved of the job he was doing, and by late March that had increased to more than 9 of 10, according to Gallup. It’s not something presidents can take for granted: Ford’s 1976 campaign had trouble from the start in part because he had serious rivals within his own party, and Reagan almost took away the nomination.

• There is no “spoiler” third-party candidate. This factor was likely the nail in the coffin of the first President Bush’s unsuccessful 1992 reelection bid, when billionaire Ross Perot siphoned off 19% of the popular vote. Though former Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash is making a run as the Libertarian candidate, it’s not certain who he’ll pull votes from, if he pulls many at all. The absence of a real third-party threat so far this year is great news for Trump.

• Trump is unpredictable and adaptable. He has a history of coming out on top by any means necessary. If that means lying about his opponents, lying about the media or even risking human lives by lying about the real dangers of a global pandemic, he is unfettered by the scruples of lesser villains. The guy thrives on chaos. Never count him out.

On the other hand, there is growing evidence that November may see Trump getting his arse handed to him on a platter. Let’s take a look.

• No incumbent has ever won reelection with such low overall job approval. The highest approval rating Trump has ever managed is 49%, according to Gallup. The lowest ever received by an incumbent who went on to win reelection was 50%. If history is a reliable measure (and is it ever, with Trump?), the president has an uphill road ahead in cracking that 50% barrier. More recently, his approval rating has slipped back to 44% (Gallup) or 43% (PRRI) because of the backlash on how his administration has handled COVID-19.

• The economy has fallen into profound disarray. This, more than anything, is the danger for Trump, who has boasted of his unique financial genius, taking credit for a roaring stock market and record-low unemployment. Suddenly, instead of the 2% to 3% growth in the gross domestic product that the president was expecting, the International Monetary Fund is predicting that the U.S. economy is going to shrink by nearly 6% in 2020. More than 30 million Americans have now applied for unemployment benefits. Suddenly Trump has lost his trump card and the baked-in advantage of incumbency may turn into an albatross. Just ask Herbert Hoover how forgiving American voters were when they went to the polls in 1932 weighed down by 24% unemployment. He carried six of the 48 states. The lesson here is that if the economy doesn’t recover and Joe Biden can convince American voters he’s got a bona fide New Deal up his sleeve, Trump is screwed.

• The Republican Party base is shrinking. Beyond the situational drama of the COVID-19 virus and its attending economic fallout, the GOP has systemic problems in its demographic base. Three of its core constituencies — evangelical Christians, white men and the elderly — are shrinking as a share of the population. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who are nonreligious is growing — and 70% of them lean Democratic. Republicans have also had a hard time keeping pace with America’s growing racial diversity. In addition, college-educated voters — once the bread and butter of the GOP — are shifting to the Democratic Party, and there are more college-educated Americans than ever.

• Many suburban districts that used to be red have become unpredictable. A main reason that Democrats won the House in the 2018 midterm elections was that so many suburban districts went blue. In 2016, Democrats generally owned the cities and the GOP owned rural America; suburban swing voters swung the election toward Trump. If they swing the other way in 2020, that could decide an election.

• The battleground states are not looking good for Trump. In 2016, despite losing the popular vote, Trump eked out a victory because his wins in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan put him over the top in the Electoral College. Polling in several of those states has been consistently pro-Biden in the past two months, with Biden’s lead suggesting those states may return to their former status as bricks in the “blue wall.”

• Trump can’t hold rallies right now. This year may be remembered as one of the strangest presidential elections in history, with no traditional summer party conventions, no campaign rallies around the country and no in-person voting. For Trump, who lives for the energy of rallies, the inability to directly interact with his base supporters may prove more shriveling than it would for a more traditional, establishment GOP candidate.

• Trump continues to hoist himself by his own petard. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated some of the president’s greatest weaknesses. He cannot stop attacking people and whipping up turmoil on Twitter, even to the point of undermining his administration’s stay-at-home orders or the medical advice from his own public health experts. Of course, he thrives on chaos, but the people who forgave him a host of missteps in 2016 (criticizing John McCain, a war hero, for getting captured in Vietnam when he didn’t serve at all himself, for example) may be less indulgent when they’re facing down a deadly pathogen and double-digit unemployment.

In all, things are not looking terrific for Trump. But anything could happen between now and November. The only guarantee for us at this point is that it’s shaping up to be a very interesting six months.

A note: This is my personal take after studying the current poll data and the historical precedents. I am no fan of Donald Trump, as previous columns (see here, here and here) have clearly indicated. I write an opinion column from the perspective of a historian of religion who tends to vote for Democratic candidates but never voted a straight ticket in my life until 2018. Just to lay my cards out on the table.

Editor’s note The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.