Despite President Trump’s protestations to the contrary, the recent election returns appear in their entirety to be a fairly stinging rebuke of his conduct of the presidency. I intimated in the Election Day post that I thought the President understood what the results were likely to be – and they did come in within the bounds most prognosticators had projected — and was ready for it. It’s pretty clear that I was wrong in that regard. [And not only on that point. As anyone that has seen the last two Packer games will attest, I was clearly mistaken in my recent suggestion that Packer Quarterback Aaron Rodgers might have lost some arm strength; that may be the only problem the Packers don’t have ;).] It seems, given Mr. Trump’s flailing since Election Day, that only when the results registered did he realize that the wildly enthusiastic response he received at his rallies was not indicative of the predominant sentiment of the American people and has only now begun to focus on the prospects he faces with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and in any run for a second term.
Although November of 2020 is a figurative eon away – recall that given the success of Desert Storm, President George H. W. Bush was hugely popular in early 1992 and still lost the presidency the following November — the 2018 election results arguably cast a daunting 2020 Electoral College picture for the President. Hillary Clinton – who proved to be a candidate sufficiently unlikeable and untrustworthy that a large-enough segment of the electorate was willing to gamble on the leadership of a lecherous, intemperate reality show star with no governmental experience – nonetheless claimed 232 Electoral College votes of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Mr. Trump in effect gained the presidency by very narrowly prevailing in Pennsylvania (20 Electoral College votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10) – three states no one thought he would win – and by winning, amongst his other states, Arizona (11) (by 4 points). While this analysis may someday prove to be only so much Noise, one could infer from the 2018 election results that any reasonably acceptable Democratic nominee running against Mr. Trump will pretty readily carry the 232 Electoral votes that Sec. Clinton, despite her limitations, won in 2016; if so, the Democrat in such a contest will simply need to win Pennsylvania (where the incumbent Democratic Governor just beat the Republican challenger by 17 percentage points), Michigan (where the Democrat beat the Republican for an open seat by 10 percentage points) and either Wisconsin (where the Democrat beat – albeit narrowly — incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, who had an effective organization and a string of electoral victories to his credit) or Arizona (where the Democrat beat the Republican by 2 points for the state’s U.S. Senate seat).
It does appear highly likely that there will be plenty of opportunity in coming months’ notes to consider the particulars of the President’s challenges with the House and resulting from the evidence submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team; however, from strictly a political handicapping standpoint, unless the Democrats overplay their hand (Mr. Mueller, nothing if not circumspect, almost certainly won’t overplay his hand), it’s hard to see how events arising from those struggles will do anything but further darken Mr. Trump’s 2020 electoral prospects with those segments of the electorate that have soured on him. (An extraordinary political athlete – Bill Clinton in his prime comes to mind – might be able to cajole enough of those dissatisfied voters back into the fold to eke out another victory, but Mr. Trump has never demonstrated the range or flexibility that would seem to be required.)
I would submit that it’s not unwarranted to suggest that if the President envisions a likely defeat in 2020 – whether due to deepening dissatisfaction with his brand of leadership, the economy, the Mueller investigation, or otherwise – he will proclaim his single term a “fantastic success,” and find some pretext for not seeking re-election (pardoning as many of his cohort as he can during his last days in office). It appears to me that there are a number of Republicans that are reading the tea leaves and preparing to make a 2020 run for the Republican nomination if Mr. Trump doesn’t – Vice President Pence, former Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio perhaps among them. That said, I would offer that at this point, there is one prominent Republican that may be better positioned than any other obtain the nomination and win the presidency if the President chooses not to run. Since I do make an effort (admittedly, sometimes in vain) to keep these notes to a manageable length, we’ll leave that to Part II.