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Politics

Impeached or not, here’s why Trump is the underdog for 2020

Essential Politics

Election day 2020 is just over a year away, and although evidence continues to mount in the impeachment inquiry, the odds remain strong that President Trump will be on the ballot next Nov. 3 as the Republican candidate.

What do we know about the voters who will decide that election and what the electoral battleground will look like? Two new studies of the electorate this week — one by a nonpartisan academic research group, the other by respected Democratic analysts — highlight Trump’s weakness, despite the continued strength of the economy.

Meanwhile, a couple of the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are coming up on key decision points.

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WHY TRUMP REMAINS THE UNDERDOG

An incumbent president running with the unemployment rate below 4% should be, if not a shoo-in for reelection, at least a heavy favorite. Trump isn’t.

Polls consistently show him running behind, and not just against Joe Biden, but several of his major Democratic challengers.

Just this week, for example, a survey by the University of North Florida showed Trump trailing Biden by five points, 48% to 43%, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren by three points, 46%-43%. Another poll by Marquette University in Wisconsin showed Trump behind Biden in that state by six points, 50%-44%, and narrowly trailing Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, by 47%-46% and 48%-46%, respectively. And a survey for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune showed him losing Minnesota, a state his campaign has targeted, getting 38% of the vote against Biden or that state’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 40% against either Warren or Sanders.

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All the usual caveats remain: A lot can change in a year, the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is, will probably be less popular on election day than today, and all those results show close contests that ultimately could go either way.

But pay particular attention to the consistency of Trump’s numbers in these swing states: 43%, 44%, 46%, 38%, 40%. Regardless of the state or the opponent, one fact remains rock solid for Trump — in battleground states, when tested against credible challengers, he never hits 50%.

A new analysis from the nonpartisan Voter Study Group helps explain why. Using data from 6,779 Americans, most of whom were interviewed more than once over the past several years, Robert Griffin, the research director for the study, found that “only 37% of Americans have consistently held a favorable opinion of the president.”

And the problem for Trump goes deeper, Griffin found. The president’s fervent followers get a lot of attention, in part because they’re extremely visible at his campaign rallies. But that intensity actually cuts against Trump. Just about half of Americans (49% in the latest data) have a very unfavorable view of Trump, while 25% have a very favorable view.

Looking at Voter Study Group surveys for the past four years, Griffin found that just 17% of Americans consistently held a very favorable view of Trump. That’s the base the president consistently caters to. It’s big enough to buy a lot of red MAGA hats, but it’s far too small to rely on for victory.

In 2016, Trump won by adding to his base in two directions: Against Hillary Clinton, he held on to the votes of the vast majority of traditional Republican voters, including those who didn’t approve of him. And he won over just enough people, mostly blue-collar whites, who had voted for Barack Obama to eke out narrow wins in the key battleground states.

Clinton’s failure to inspire a big turnout of African American voters helped Trump too in a couple of those states. Republican efforts to make voting harder probably played a role as well.

The list of battleground states hasn’t changed, and both sides are already hard at work, as Janet Hook reported from Wisconsin, the likely tipping point state this time in the eyes of strategists on both sides.

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There and elsewhere, each aspect of Trump’s 2016 victory seems just a little harder this time around.

In 2018, enough formerly Republican voters in suburban areas like Orange County turned away from Trump to deliver a thumping victory for Democrats, who gained 40 seats en route to taking the House majority. Those suburban Republicans will be hard for Trump to win back.

And among the Obama-Trump voters in the Voter Study Group surveys, about one in four show signs of changing their minds, Griffin found — either saying outright that they plan to vote for the Democrat this time (16%) or that they’re uncertain, but disapprove of Trump (8%).

That’s not a huge number of people. The Obama-Trump voters were only about 5% of the electorate nationwide, and they’re harder for reporters to identify than people at Trump rallies. But they’re disproportionately located in those key industrial states of the mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest, where they are a crucial bloc of voters.

A new study by Democratic analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin looks at the same question through a different lens — demographics.

Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points in 2016. If nothing else changes — if all major racial and ethnic groups in the electorate vote in 2020 the way they did in 2016 — a Democratic candidate would win by 3.2 points, they estimate. That’s because white voters who did not graduate from college — Trump’s strongest group — are a slowly, but steadily, shrinking share of the U.S. population.

Trump’s base of support is sometimes portrayed as blue-collar workers. But for the prototypical Trump voter, it’s really more accurate to think of a blue-collar retiree. There are a lot of them, but the growing parts of the U.S. population are nonwhite or white college graduates — groups among whom Trump does poorly. Matt Pearce wrote about one aspect of that growth in his article about the large number of immigrants becoming naturalized citizens.

If nothing else changed, Teixeira and Halpin project, the growth of the nonwhite population, mostly Asians and Latinos, and the shrinkage of the non-college white population would, alone, be enough to put Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — and the White House — back into the Democratic column.

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The two aren’t arguing that demography is destiny. “If nothing else changed” is never the true case for a political campaign.

Instead, the numbers point to a key weakness for Trump: Because he has never made a serious effort to win over people who didn’t already like him — and it’s too late to start now — he has to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

As the conservative analyst Henry Olsen recently wrote, Trump built his fame by realizing that “you can get rich and powerful marketing to a niche market” even if your niche is shrinking. But it’s very hard to get elected that way.

AS THE IMPEACHMENT CASE BUILDS ...

The House impeachment inquiry took a major step forward this week, with testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

As Jennifer Haberkorn and Eli Stokols wrote, Taylor’s opening statement laid out the key elements of the impeachment case in methodical detail: Trump turned over control of policy toward Ukraine to a back-channel operation run by his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. He tried to hold up security aid to Ukraine appropriated by Congress until Ukrainian officials met certain conditions. And those conditions, laid out by Giuliani, involved a public announcement by Ukraine that they would start investigations of Trump’s political opponents, including Biden.

Taylor’s testimony relied on extensive notes that he took at the time, bolstering his testimony. His background — 72 years old, a career diplomat, military service in Vietnam, a graduate of West Point — all make him the kind of witness congressional committees yearn for. As Tracy Wilkinson noted, he’s the most prominent example of how the State Department, and especially the career foreign service, which Trump has reviled, has become a key source of witnesses against him.

When congressional Democrats move from their current phase of closed-door depositions to public hearings — likely in mid-to-late November — expect to see Taylor in a prominent role.

REPUBLICANS PROTEST THE PROCESS

Most Republicans, especially in the Senate, have been conspicuously quiet when asked about Trump’s conduct.

A few, like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, have criticized Trump. Some House conservatives have picked up the White House line that Trump’s actions, including his July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, were entirely appropriate. A few even endorsed Trump’s likening of the impeachment investigation to a “lynching.”

Most, however, have been conspicuous by their silence.

What the Republicans have been more comfortable with has been objecting to the process the Democrats are using. As Haberkorn and Sarah Wire wrote, a group of mostly conservative House Republicans dramatized their complaints Wednesday by storming the secure basement hearing room in which Intelligence Committee Chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and his colleagues have been taking depositions.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a resolution criticizing the House investigation for excessive secrecy and promptly signed up all but eight GOP senators.

The Republican complaints are exaggerated. Republicans have been present at all the depositions, with more than 40 Republican members eligible to attend. And taking testimony behind closed doors before going to public hearings is pretty standard operating procedure.

But the process argument is a relatively low-risk way for Republicans to show some unity and respond to the pressure from Trump’s supporters without actually stepping out onto the limb of endorsing his substantive arguments.

WARREN’S BIG DECISION

Warren, who tops the polls these days in many of the states with early Democratic primaries and caucuses, has built her campaign around detailed plans on major issues. There’s one conspicuous exception — healthcare.

On that issue, the Massachusetts senator has tried an uncharacteristic straddle which has become increasingly awkward. Now, she promises to release a healthcare plan of her own, sometime in the next few weeks, likely before the next candidate debate on Nov. 20.

Hook and Evan Halper examine why healthcare has become such a difficult issue for Warren.

As Warren has risen, Sen. Kamala Harris has faded, but she’s trying for a comeback in Iowa. Michael Finnegan looked at how California’s tough-on-crime political culture, starting in the 1970s, shaped her career in ways that are now problematic for her candidacy. And Shashank Bengali and Melanie Mason looked at the life of Harris’ charismatic, progressive Indian grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, and his influence on her.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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