I checked my email this morning and a number of you wrote in asking about some version of this oped by Steven Rattner in The New York Times. You flagged either the original piece or various other publications picking up the underlying studies or riffing on the Times article. If you haven’t read it, Rattner notes a number of economic models which have predicted election outcomes in the past. They tell us now that, contrary to the polls, President Trump is a solid favorite for reelection.
Is this true?
These models don’t mean much to me. Not because they’re wrong but because they do not tell us anything we don’t know. Historically American Presidents tend to get reelected. This is an incredibly strong factor and predictor in American political history. Think about it. In our lifetimes, George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid. Before that you go back to Jimmy Carter. Before Carter you have go back to Herbert Hoover who had the Great Depression happen on his watch. It works the other way too. Since the imposition of a two term limit on US presidential terms, a party has only won a third consecutive election once: in 1988. This to me is actually President Trump’s biggest advantage: incumbency. US Presidents tend to get reelected.
It is also true and frankly commonsensical that the strength of the economy is a big, big factor in a President’s reelection chances. This is hardly surprising. Indeed, it’s often been argued that President Clinton survived impeachment because he was then overseeing a strong economy. I think this judgement is largely wrong. The economy got brought into it because a lot of the elite national media was deeply invested in a resignation narrative that never came to pass. So the economy and moral decline got hauled in as the explanation.
The reality is simple. If this is a normal election and if the economy and incumbency have their normal effects on the outcome of a US presidential election Trump will not only win but win decisively.
I think there’s a lot of reasons to think it won’t be a normal election – and not just because of theories or wishful thinking but because of evidence to date. I think we should take it as a given that with the economy in its current shape, almost any other President, almost any other ‘normal’ President, would be consistently popular. Similarly, if not for the buoyant, even red hot economy, Trump would be much, much more unpopular than he is. Trump is in a word very lucky that for reasons largely unconnected to him he’s presiding over a very strong economy which has consistently buoyed him throughout his presidency.
But look at the model Rattner focuses most on, the one devised by Yale Professor Ray Fair. It predicted that Trump should get 54.1% of the two party vote in 2016. In fact he got 48.8%. In other words, it dramatically over-estimated Trump’s result. Now, he did win the election despite losing the popular vote by a substantial margin. But if we’re talking about the accuracy of the model, that’s a dramatic miss.
Why would this be?
The 2002 election may be illustrative. By almost every measure, the 2002 midterm should have been a strong one for Democrats. President Bush was a minority President. The economy was weak. Presidents almost always lose seats in their first midterm election. But Republicans improbably gained seats. Why? In retrospect and at the time the answer was pretty clear. There was a major, un-model-able factor: national trauma in the aftermath of 9/11, a pervasive climate of fear about new terrorist attacks and a build up to the invasion of Iraq that the White House skillfully managed and timed to drive votes in the midterm election.
Trump’s approval rating throughout his presidency has been dramatically lower than the strength of the economy would predict. The results of the midterm election were also way out of whack for what these models would predict, especially when you consider the in-built advantages of gerrymandering and the over-representation of non-urban voters.
One way to look at this is just to say that yes, incumbency and the economy make Trump a strong favorite. But Trump himself makes reelection a big challenge. Ratner himself says as much, commenting on Trump’s 2016 shortfall I noted above by saying this: “I’m quite confident that the gap was a function of the generally unfavorable rankings on Mr. Trump’s personal qualities. In other words, a more “normal” Republican would likely have won the popular vote by a substantial margin (instead of losing it by three million votes).”
Yes and no, I’d say. Ratner’s is one way of looking at it, and partly correct. But I actually think it’s highly debatable whether a more ‘normal’ Republican would have defeated Hillary Clinton, certainly by this predicted margin – and I mean that quite apart from whatever role James Comey or Russian cyber-operations played in the election. Trump isn’t just another Republican with a lot of baggage. This gives Trump far too little credit and misjudges our contemporary politics.
Trump’s political genius and success is based on being a factional leader who, through a series of factors, was able to become President. He did things that horrified and repulsed big chunks of the electorate but also activated and enthused others. This is what happened in 2016 and it’s basically been the story of his presidency ever since. We can analyze what this means, how it will operate in the future, what it portends about the 2020 election. But the most important takeaway is that Trump presidency represents a disruptive coalitional politics. That fact makes these sorts of broad brush, conventional politics models not terribly predictive. Indeed, the 2016 results, despite predicting a Trump win, tells us as much. As do the 2018 results.
Putting this all together, these models don’t really tell me more than I already know, which is that incumbency and a good economy are big electoral advantages for an American President. They’re big advantages for Trump. But the current political environment makes them far less predictive. But this is also why I think nothing can be left for granted in the 2020 election, a genuinely existential electoral contest, in which President Trump, despite his unpopularity has big advantages tied to holding the powers of the presidency.