Will the 2020 election prove President Trump’s 2016 victory was an anomaly — the nightmare convergence of a polarized electorate, gerrymandered congressional districts and possible Russian collusion to elect an unqualified, political neophyte whose self-proclaimed objective was to “Make America Great Again?”
The next presidential election may be a defining moment for the U.S. political system. The pushback against globalization, societal tension caused by increasing inequality, and the normalization of racist bigotry provides the socio-cultural context of the upcoming election.
Recent studies suggest growing dissatisfaction with Trump among three segments of the electorate: young voters, women and suburbanites. Taken together, they demonstrate significant weaknesses in Trump’s ability to form a coalition capable of winning re-election in 2020.
The Intergenerational Gap
By November of 2020, slightly more than 37 percent of the U.S. electorate will consist of millennials and Generation Z voters. Born after 1981 and 1996 respectively, these voters have experienced an increasingly multicultural U.S., come of age with the practical realities of the climate crisis, witnessed the planet become interconnected through globalization, and wrestled with rising inequality and the unpredictability of establishing a career in an age of hypercapitalism.
They have also expressed skepticism regarding Trump’s capabilities as president. In a December 2018 Quinnipiac Poll, 60 percent of respondents aged 18-34 felt dissatisfaction with the “way things are going in the nation today.” Young voters disagree with Trump’s views on global warming and border security: 72 percent of this cohort believe extreme weather events in the U.S. are “related to climate change,” and 78 percent do not think a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is “necessary to improve U.S. border security.”
A January 17, 2019, Pew Research study found a dynamic intergenerational gap between Generation Z, millennials, baby boomers (born after 1946) and the silent generation (born after 1928). When respondents were asked whether they approved of Trump’s job performance, 43 percent of boomers and 54 percent of silents approved. In contrast, only 30 percent of Generation Z and 29 percent of millennial respondents expressed approval.
Another significant intergenerational gap emerged over the issue of race and diversity. Sixty-two and 61 percent of Generation Z and millennials, respectively, expressed the belief that racial and ethnic diversity was a positive thing for society, while 48 and 42 percent of boomers and silents expressed this view, both under a majority. Echoing the Quinnipiac poll, the Pew study found that two-thirds of Generation Z, millennials and Generation X (born after 1965) say “things in the country are generally going in the wrong direction.”
This intergenerational gap also exists between respondents who identified themselves as Republicans. Generation Z Republicans take a more liberal stance on the issues of race relations, the role of government and climate change than older Republicans. The Pew study concluded that Generation Z, in general, is “moving toward adulthood with a liberal set of attitudes and an openness to emerging social issues.” The data suggest many young voters are not buying Trump’s political rhetoric or his “Make America Great Again” policy agenda.
Writing in The New York Times, Dan Levin stressed the Pew findings “mark a shift that could substantially reshape the nation’s political and economic landscape.” Exit polls from the 2018 midterms validate this shift. According to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), among voters aged 18-29, 67 percent voted for Democratic House candidates while only 32 percent voted Republican — a 35-point gap in favor of Democratic candidates.
Still, according to research compiled by CIRCLE, only 31 percent of young voters age 18-29 voted in 2018. Likewise, millennials are notoriously fickle when it comes to voting. A Pew study found that in the 2016 presidential election, millennials constituted the second-largest voting bloc in the U.S. electorate, but they had the lowest percentage of voters to actually vote, at 51 percent. The study concluded that voter turnout by young people is dependent on three issues: “the candidates, the success of voter mobilization efforts, and satisfaction with the economy and direction of the country.”
The Gender and Geography Gap
Besides young people, growing percentages of women oppose Trump’s political agenda. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, nearly 60 percent of women who cast votes for the two major parties voted for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm election, while only 47 percent of men voted Democratic. Trump’s long-standing misogynistic behavior and rhetoric has created backlash among white college-educated women. According to Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner, one of the researchers who administered the study, this gender gap of 13 points “was the largest we have seen in almost a decade.”
Support for Trump also seems to be waning in areas of traditional Republican strength: the suburbs and exurbs of major cities. In the 2018 midterm election, according to the Congressional Election Study, Democratic candidates gained majority support in suburban areas of every region in the United States except the South.
The End of Trumpism?
Trump is one of the most vulnerable incumbent presidents in the modern era. In a counterintuitive political strategy, he has engaged in continuous campaigning, ignored policy-making, and spent his entire political capital on keeping his base of support unified. This strategy, however, appears to be failing.
As of mid-February, FiveThirtyEight had Trump’s approval rating at 41.6 percent while 54 percent disapproved of his job performance. A CNN analysis of approval ratings correlated with party identification estimates that just 20 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 18 is Republicans who approve of Trump. A Brookings Report has noted erosion in both mainstream political parties as more voters declare themselves independents. However, the erosion has been strongest within the Republican Party since Trump’s election in 2016. To win in 2020, Trump needs to expand his base but appears unwilling or incapable of doing so.
It is hard to imagine that Trump could possibly be re-elected, given his abysmal approval ratings and growing opposition to his political agenda by young people, women and marginalized communities. However, political realities often belie the numbers. Polling data are only snapshots in time, and political attitudes change quickly.
During the last decade, the Republican Party has viewed demographic change as its most dangerous threat. In response to growing numbers of voters of color who tend to vote Democratic, the GOP has pursued a political agenda of gerrymandering congressional districts and creating draconian state laws to restrict the voting rights of communities of color. Suppressing their turnout is part of Trump’s electoral strategy.
To win in 2020, Democratic strategists must gain independent voters who have become disenchanted with the Trump presidency. Likewise, they must target young voters, especially through social media platforms, in a massive get-out-the-vote campaign. The Democratic Party must focus on a people’s agenda that emphasizes health care, comprehensive immigration reform, minority voting rights, mitigating climate change and expanding the rights of women.
These are the issues Trump refuses to recognize and the Republican Party has ignored. These are the issues that stand the best chance of ending Trump’s growing threat to democracy.