World·Analysis

Trump's approval ratings are hovering around 40%. Here's how he could win in 2020 anyway

Only one U.S. president in recent history had lower approval ratings than Donald Trump at this point in his first term, and that president lost his re-election bid. As Trump kicks off his own campaign Tuesday, CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe explains what he has working in his favour.

The U.S. president is set to officially kick off his re-election bid at a rally in Orlando, Fla.

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to officially kick off his re-election campaign on Tuesday. His poll numbers aren't very good, but he has several important factors working in his favour. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

When U.S. President Donald Trump officially launches his re-election campaign in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday night in front of a crowd of up to 20,000 supporters, he will be neither a favourite nor an underdog.

In fact, some experts say it's pretty much a toss-up at this point whether Trump keeps his job or not.

"I'd put it at maybe 50/50," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a non-partisan political newsletter produced at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

On the surface, that assessment might seem generous.

Trump's national approval rating hovers around 40 per cent. The only president since 1945 who had a lower approval rating at this stage of his first term was Jimmy Carter, and his re-election bid didn't turn out so well.

That said, approval ratings aren't always the best predictor of electoral success. According to the same analysis by FiveThirtyEight, President George H.W. Bush was sitting near 70 per cent at this point in his first term, only to be soundly defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

Internal polling produced by Trump's campaign — and leaked in various media reports — shows Trump trailing potential Democratic nominees in crucial states. When it comes to a potential matchup with former vice-president Joe Biden, the situation looks especially bleak for the president. NBC reports that in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, Trump trails Biden by double digits. The president has dismissed the polls as "fake," but he appears rattled. The campaign fired three pollsters, reportedly because Trump was unhappy with the leaks.

But don't go ruling Trump out at this early stage. And not just because Trump was underestimated in 2016 and no one wants to make that mistake again.

In order to win, Trump needs to keep or expand his base in key states that he won narrowly in 2016. It's a tall order, but there are several important factors that could propel Trump to a second victory despite his relative unpopularity.

Not least of which is the fact that he has the job already. Incumbency is powerful, especially when a sitting president presides over a decent economy in a time of relative peace.

"Those are the sorts of conditions suggestive of an incumbent president that should be able to win re-election," Kondik said.

One factor that could help Trump's re-election campaign is the strength of the U.S. economy. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

For the most part, Americans feel good about the economy, according to Christopher P. Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa., citing low unemployment as a particularly bright spot.

But Borick says that economic confidence is uneven in places like Pennsylvania. Voters working in industries that have been negatively affected by Trump's tariff-fuelled trade war with China, including some in the manufacturing sector, for example, may be less inclined to support the president.

"There are concerns when we ask about tariffs. They are not popular generally," Borick said.

But overall, he says, the economy is a strength for the president.

A head start

Another strength for Trump's re-election bid is organization.

Back in 2016, Trump didn't have the full support of the Republican Party. Now he does. That means armies of volunteers collecting troves of data.

Politico reports the Trump campaign already has boots on the ground in nine key regions.

The campaign has also already amassed a war chest of more than $40 million, with cash from the Republican National Committee doubling the total.

And, as Borick put it, "Money always matters."

According to the New York Times, Trump has already spent $5 million on Facebook advertising alone. That's more than any of the Democratic hopefuls, who are busy competing against each other for donation dollars to be spent trying to win their party's nomination. Meanwhile, Trump has Republican wallets locked up and only needs to worry about spending in the general election.

Trump's supporters have proven to be passionate and loyal. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Trump has media on his side, too — some of it, anyway.

Trump-friendly coverage on Fox News and conservative talk radio is largely preaching to the converted, and probably won't bring the president many new voters. But supporters who rely on those sources may be sheltered from negative stories about the president during the campaign, Kondik said.

"If there are negative developments that emerge about the president, maybe some of his supporters are not so likely to see those developments, or see them spun in a positive light."

Waiting for a rival

A lot can happen in 17 months. Economies can tank, peace can be broken — especially when a country is in a trade war with China and in an increasingly tense confrontation with Iran. Democrats could start an impeachment process — something the party's leadership has been reluctant to do, partially because they fear the spectacle could boost the president's re-election chances.

Perhaps the biggest factor we don't know when evaluating Trump's chances of winning re-election is who he will be running against. There are 23 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination and it could be close to a year before we know who comes out on top.

One of the major unknowns is which of the nearly two-dozen candidates running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination will be chosen to take on Trump. (CBC)

If Trump runs against either Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders, expect him to paint his Democratic opponent as dangerously to the left and bent on taking America on a path toward socialism. And we've already gotten a taste of how Trump would combat Biden, mocking the 76-year-old as "weak mentally" and saying that "he acts and looks different than he used to."

Another thing we don't know is how engaged Americans will be after several years of relentless White House drama.

This is a country suffering from political fatigue, Borick said.

"Those who hate president Trump or love president Trump will probably rally around their respective camps," he said. "But for those who are in the middle, how this period wears on them and what it means for their engagement is going to be important."

About the Author

Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior Washington editor

Lyndsay Duncombe is the senior Washington editor at CBC News. She co-ordinates coverage of U.S. politics for all platforms and has worked as a producer, reporter and anchor at CBC since 2001.

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