Trump is on track to win re­elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DOUG SOSNIK

More than half of Amer­i­cans don’t think Don­ald Trump is fit to serve as pres­i­dent, yet he has a clear path to win­ning re­elec­tion. If Trump isn’t re­moved from of­fice and doesn’t lead the coun­try into some form of global catas­tro­phe, he could se­cure a sec­ond term sim­ply by main­tain­ing his cur­rent level of sup­port with his po­lit­i­cal base.

We have en­tered a new era in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The 2016 elec­tion ex­posed how eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural is­sues have splin­tered the coun­try and in­creas­ingly di­vided vot­ers by age, race, ed­u­ca­tion and ge­og­ra­phy. This isn’t go­ing to change.

What have changed are the po­lit­i­cal fault lines that have driven the de­bate since the early 1980s. Un­til now, the ide­o­log­i­cal di­vides be­tween the par­ties were largely dif­fer­ences around so­cial is­sues, de­fense spend­ing and trade, as well as tax cuts for the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions. To­day, the cen­tral is­sue has be­come pop­ulism as vot­ers have moved away from the two po­lit­i­cal par­ties and in­creas­ingly self-iden­ti­fied as in­de­pen­dents.

In 2016, Trump cap­i­tal­ized on this chang­ing po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. He con­sol­i­dated the grow­ing num­ber of an­gry vot­ers who felt let down by the peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions con­trol­ling power in the coun­try. Trump’s sup­port from these vot­ers is per­sonal, not ide­o­log­i­cal. That ex­plains their will­ing­ness to stick with him de­spite his fail­ures of lead­er­ship.

Since Trump’s in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, his fo­cus has been on main­tain­ing his sup­port among this loyal base rather than ex­pand­ing it. As coun­ter­in­tu­itive as it may seem, this could be a win­ning po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.

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.

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 mi­nor­party 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.

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. Through­out the 2016 elec­tion, most an­a­lysts tracked the na­tional polling, which failed to cap­ture Trump’s strength in key bat­tle­ground states. Cur­rent sur­veys con­tinue to un­der­state his sup­port. Many na­tional polls sur­vey all el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, rather than reg­is­tered or likely vot­ers, which can un­der­es­ti­mate Trump, and some vot­ers may be re­luc­tant to ad­mit that they are pro-Trump at all. Add to that the fact that Trump ef­fec­tively demon­strated dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign that he is ca­pa­ble of ex­pand­ing his sup­port by ef­fec­tively de­mo­niz­ing his op­po­nents.

Fourth, Trump’s sup­port has largely re­mained durable with a core group of sup­port­ers. These are the vot­ers Trump was re­fer­ring to when he said that he could stand in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue and shoot some­one and he wouldn’t lose votes. There is an­other group of Trump fol­low­ers whose sup­port isn’t un­equiv­o­cal, but they have stayed with him be­cause they still be­lieve he will blow up the sys­tem and bring about real change.

In or­der to main­tain and nur­ture his base, Trump will con­tinue to em­brace con­flict, which will prob­a­bly so­lid­ify his his­tor­i­cally low ap­proval rat­ings. Trump can­not win a two-per­son race this way. But he can pre­vail in a field with strong in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates on the bal­lot.

So for Democrats and oth­ers who want to beat Trump, uni­fy­ing be­hind one can­di­date will be es­sen­tial. In ad­di­tion, Trump must carry Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin in 2020 to win. Ef­forts should be­gin now to chip away at his sup­port in these states.

It would be as big a mis­take to as­sume that Trump can­not win re­elec­tion in 2020 as it was for those of us who never thought that he could be­come pres­i­dent in the first place. Doug Sosnik, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, was a se­nior ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton from 1994 to 2000.

RICKY CARIOTI /THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump and Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence on elec­tion night in New York last year.

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