Last Friday, polling showed Trump is deceptively stronger, and Democrats weaker, than currently perceived. Beneath the surface, Trump is ahead of his 2016 finish with key groups, and ahead of where Obama was in 2011. A year and a half ahead of November 2020, these comparisons show an incumbent advantage and challenger attrition are looming — even if not yet clearly visible.
On May 3, Gallup released its latest poll (of 1,024 adults) on Trump’s performance. Absent context, the President’s 46 percent approval rating would seem low; however, with it, the rating appears surprisingly strong.
As Gallup notes, it “extends the upper limits of [his] narrow approval rating by one percentage point.” Further, Trump received a 91 percent rating from Republicans — 3 percent above what exit polling showed he received in 2016. He also received a 12 percent rating from Democrats — 4 percent above his 2016 exit polling. Together, Republicans and Democrats comprised 69 percent of 2016 voters.
Scoffers will say that even with these gains in seven-tenths of the electorate, Trump’s 37 percent approval rating among Independents is 9 points below his 2016 level, and his overall 46 percent rating merely matches his 2016 popular vote percentage — still a decided minority.
First, lest we forget, Trump won 2016 with 46 percent of the popular vote — so, it is hardly inconsequential. Second, simply looking back and seeing his current rating matches his past vote percentage, fails to look ahead and recognize his likely bump from incumbent advantage, while challenger attrition will ensure his seeming 54 percent opposition does not fully transfer to a Democrat — after all, Gallup found Trump’s disapproval rating was 50 percent.
To understand a president’s incumbent advantage for re-election: Trump’s current 46 percent is higher than Obama’s at the same time — 43 percent (4/18-4/24) in 2011. Obama went on to win re-election handily, despite a lackluster economy. Trump is currently ahead of Obama in polling and the economy.
To understand the challenger attrition, also look back to Obama’s 43 percent rating at this point in 2011. Despite an implicit 57 percent “opportunity” and a weak economy, Republicans came nowhere close to realizing it — Romney would win just 47 percent of 2012’s popular vote.
A big chunk of the attrition comes from incumbents doing better. Obama would win 51 percent of 2012’s popular vote, an 8-percentage point gain from where he was at this time in 2011.
Some simply goes away; or more accurately, into third parties. In 2016, 6 percent of the popular vote went to various candidates there. Hardly an anomaly, third parties have averaged 6.2 percent of the popular vote since 1992 — the last time an incumbent president lost re-election.
Because of this, candidates do not need popular vote majorities to win — Trump did not, nor have three others in the last seven presidential elections.
In sum, job approval numbers eighteen months out does not predict what they seem to show. They do not take into account the incumbent advantage that usually increases a president’s advantage. Nor do they account for the attrition that whittles away a challenger’s apparent opportunity: An actual challenger being less appealing than a generic ideal; a challenger being less compelling than incumbency’s status quo; and its disappearance into third parties.
For a glimpse how this could transpire, another May 3 poll is instructive. Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll showed Trump with a 50-47 approval margin. Rasmussen is currently a polling outlier because it questions Likely Voters (others will not until nearer the election). However, looking at it now gives a possible view over the horizon.
The difference between Gallup and Rasmussen’s findings is not dramatic, but would be significant. Obviously, at 50 percent, and with his 2016 geographic pattern, Trump would be unbeatable. The difference is also significant because it cogently demonstrates the usual incumbent advantage and challenger attrition.
If anything, 47 percent could be high for 2020’s Democratic challenger. Should their early primary trajectory hold, Democrats will nominate a candidate further to the left than any American major party ever has. Changing re-election from the normal referendum on incumbency, to one on ideology, could inflict even greater attrition — potentially alienating some Democratic voters, plus Independents.
Eighteen months out, we have the first indications that 2020 will be more and less of what we see now. It will be more than what Trump now appears to have. And it will be less than the potential opportunity seems to promise Democrats.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.