With the 2020 election quickly approaching and more than 20 Democratic candidates looking to take on President Donald Trump next November, voters across the country are already being asked by pollsters and strategists to provide their election opinions. To keep things a little different, we thought it would be interesting to jump forward to November 4, 2020 to get a glimpse of potential outcomes and results once the votes across the country have all been tallied.
As we have pointed out in the past, our two-party system unfortunately oversimplifies meaningful complexities existing within our Republic. In our current political dynamic, perspectives and views of the American people are essentially reduced to Republican or Democratic. This system lacks true diversity of ideals and values, and leaves most Americans disappointed with the divisions it creates. According to our research, it would take 11 political parties to truly demonstrate the myriad of political ideologies that are held by the American people.
Over the course of America’s development, political parties have come and gone, however, it is still quite rare to see an election where three or more parties are able to co-exist and have a chance at success.
As we found in our past research, there are a few centers of ideology that emerge across the political spectrum. About a quarter of Americans are firmly on the liberal end of the ideological spectrum and about 1 in 5 are solidly on the conservative end. This leaves a little over half of would be voters living somewhere in between the two ends of the political spectrum. The last two elections have both increased and magnified the divide growing over the past decade, and unfortunately, there’s little evidence pointing to this dynamic changing over the next few years.
This dynamic has shifted the makeup of the base voters for each party. In general, the Democratic Party’s base largely consists of racial minorities joined by white, college educated urban and suburban voters. On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party, while trying to retain its traditional pro-business, small government cohorts, has, in general, become the home of white, non-college working class voters.
Given the fact that we have always reduced the American public into two distinct brackets, it is no wonder that dissatisfaction with both parties is consistently at a high level and makes our two existing coalitions feel precarious, even in the best of times. With this in mind, we started thinking about what the outcome of the 2020 election could mean for the two parties moving forward. With well over a year before any votes are cast in the general election, this of course is not a prediction, but instead is a look into plausible outcomes. We broke this piece down into two parts, where week 1 is our probe into the Republican Party, and Week 2 focuses on the Democratic Party.
Part I: The Future of the Republican Party
The Republican party is hardly one party at all – but rather a coalition of different voting blocs whose most important policy solutions are championed by various members of the party. One of the bigger voting blocks consists of President Trump’s most ardent supporters. Those voters who believe that our country needs to “Make America Great Again”. The narrative around this cohort is that these voters have experienced a decrease in financial viability, and rather successfully, the Republican Party has capitalized on these economic anxieties. Whether by pushing the narrative that fewer government regulations and tax cuts will help reopen mines and factories, or that undocumented immigrants are to blame for their issues – many white, rural working-class voters have been able to find a home in Trump’s Republican party.
Along with this base group, the current GOP coalition brings together a group that seems to care less about fiscal policy but sees Republican leaders as preservers of their religiously based social and moral values. Additionally, there are those who have a particular amendment in the Constitution that is their main motivation for voting. Voters in this cohort generally feel the Republican party shares their constitutionalists interpretations of our founding documents and find solace in the party’s passionate defense of the second amendment, hardline immigration policies, definition of marriage, and its anti-abortion stances.
The final group are the more “traditional” GOP voters who describe themselves as pro-business while being generally indifferent on social issues. These voters have become increasingly uncomfortable with further shift to the right on social issues, as well as the President’s approach to economic issues, making more and more members finding the party less palatable.
This is a bit of an oversimplification of the different cohorts in the party, and there is a good amount of overlap in many of the groups described above, however, if we accept these characterizations, then presumably, the GOP has enjoyed their success by joining just enough voters from of each of these cohorts to ensure a majority of support-- or in the case of the President, enough voters in key states to win the Electoral College. This coalition, so to speak, can work in some parts of the country but, as we saw in the 2018 election results, remains prone to fractures which can complicate election outcomes for the Republican Party (see Orange County, California).
While some GOP voters clearly have had enough with the party and voted for Democratic candidates in 2018 (or at a minimum staying home on Election Day) for now, Republicans are still enjoying success in many parts of the country by utilizing mindful strategies that continue to appeal to their base voters. For example, when analyzing data on immigration policy and border wall legislation, we see a high level of approval ratings by Republican base voters, but those considered socially moderate appear to be a bit uneasy at best. According to our analysis, this group of detractors, or those uncomfortable with the policies, makes up about a quarter of GOP voters (24%). This is seemingly low to some, however, if a quarter of the coalition is unhappy and decided to vote in opposition to the GOP, the path to reelection becomes very tricky for the President and GOP Senators in many states.
Trump’s recent trade war with China (and threats to Mexico, Iran, and recently France) may be leading to a decisive fracture of Trump’s remaining supporters. The effects of the trade dispute have been felt most by those who work in the steel and agriculture industries. The industries that rely on the exportation of products across the globe and those that rely on cheaper material imports to keep prices down for consumers. Our data indicates that a majority of voters don’t believe the trade war is good for the US. Indeed, 75% of American voters believe the US is being hurt by the trade war, making this among the most significant rebukes of Trump by Republicans since the President’s time in office (at least when answering surveys).
With all that being said, there is a lot going on within the party and with no credible opposition to the President in the primary, it will be up to the President to bring a successful coalition together. With this in mind, we feel there are four scenarios that could unfold for the Republicans in 2020:
Trump wins in spite of losing support from moderate Republicans.
In scenario one, if Trump targets only his core base, it would present challenges for his reelection. First, key swing states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) were already narrowly won in 2016. Losing these states in the 2020 election would make a win virtually impossible for the President. First, the math points to the fact that in order to win the President will need to appeal not just to the rural and working-class voters he is expected to win, but also to voters in the more affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Second, without moderates, Trump may not be able to count on enough support from key Southern states. In 2018 states such as North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and Texas saw competitive races where historical Republican advantages are considered to be the norm. If Trump loses Florida (let alone Texas) an Electoral College win seems very unlikely. Without Trump appealing to a broader constituency, a Democrat could easily tap into the increasingly progressive and ethnically diverse voter base in these states which could spell trouble for the president’s re-election.
In 2016, among the 20 states which Trump lost, his approval rating was at or below 40%. Today, with Trump’s national approval rating hovering in the low 40’s, without appealing to a broader (more moderate) base, his reelection would be an uphill battle. Though Trump’s approval ratings in the key midwestern states of Michigan (43%), Wisconsin (42%), and Pennsylvania (45%) are somewhat low, they are above the 40% threshold that was the key in 2016, he does not have a lot of room to spare. It should also be noted that being above 40% approval did not guarantee success, however the fact remains that the math without a decent share of moderate Republicans supporting his re-election will make it tough on the President.
As improbable as it seems, we are not going to completely rule out this scenario. If he does win with basically just his base, the far right would be even more emboldened, and the GOP would officially become the party of Trump. Additionally, if this scenario happens it also appears unlikely that the GOP would lose control of the Senate. The few remaining moderate Republicans would be completely sidelined and success in many areas of the country would become nearly impossible for the Republican Party. This all feels like a low probability outcome, but not impossible.
Trump retains enough support from moderates Republicans and Independents to win.
In scenario two, moderate Republicans and Independents will have chosen to overlook their disagreements with Trump and vote for his reelection. This would basically be a replay of the 2016 election and Trump would hold the three key mid-western states (or at least Pennsylvania and one other) and have four more years on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In this scenario the current trajectory of the party would continue to exist. Moderate elected officials in DC will have very little power to effect change, even though voters that share their views will have provided Trump with his victory. A Trump re-election would be Trump-ism’s litmus test and would essentially put the final nail in the coffin of the Republican Party as the Party of Lincoln and establish it as the Party of Trump. In his first three years as president, Trump has already made two Supreme Court appointments and deregulated industry and environmental protections. Trump’s election to a second term would represent a turning point in national politics. Not only could a second term allow for more lifetime judicial appointments handpicked by the President –but his executive orders and reshaping of government will have impacts that reach far into the future exceeding well beyond his presidency.
Given what we have seen in his first three years in office, Trump's reelection would represent not just a transformation of the Republican Party but would make those same transformations incredibly hard to reverse. If this scenario plays out, it is not unreasonable to think that the “establishment” wing of the party will be completely sidelined and unlikely to yield any real power. Many members of the moderate wing of the party are likely to have lost in the primaries against candidates that are more in line with Trump, and those left are likely to be too scared of a primary loss to challenge the President.
Clearly this scenario cannot be ruled out given the President’s victory in 2016. At this point in time, the percent chance of Trump winning the popular vote feels incredibly low, but if he can pull together enough support in a few key states, it is not unreasonable to think a replay of the last election could take place. If this happens it is hard to picture how the GOP is anything but the party of Trump.
Trump loses, Republicans across the spectrum quickly back establishment candidates.
Within this scenario, while the Republicans would lose the White House, it would provide an opportunity for the Establishment wing to reclaim the party. It might be challenging to reunite the party back under traditional conservative ideals, but if Trump’s supporters show they are ready to move on, his leadership of the party would end quickly. Given the fact that he is in power, it is hard to picture exactly how this scenario would play out especially given the fact that survey after survey shows a loyal set of supporters for the President and it doesn’t seem plausible that they would quickly abandon their current leader. Additionally, many media figures on the right are all in on trying to jettison members of the caucus that are viewed as not conservative enough.
For those hoping that this is the outcome for the GOP, one of the challenges ahead is the fact that the Republican Party has for all intents and purposes purged itself of nearly all of its moderate candidates and instead has increased its concentration of its hardcore base. Former Republican senator Jeff Flake even described his party as “race to the bottom to see who can be meaner, madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.”
Without Trump at the top of the ticket, if he followed President George W Bush’s lead and left the office and remained out of the public eye, it is possible that there could be a return of more moderate and measured Republican candidates. There are moderate Republican leaders like Governors Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland who seem to be setting themselves up to be the flag bearer of the “new” GOP after a Trump defeat, and while these two governors are incredibly popular in Blue States, it would take the base to come around and support the new leadership to make this scenario possible.
Ultimately the question becomes, would the hatred of the hard-core conservative base for whoever ends up in the White House be greater than their desire for a continuation of Trump’s policies and approach? If opposing the new President is enough then this scenario could certainly be the outcome after 2020.
Trump loses yet keeps supporters.
Of the two scenarios where Trump loses in 2020, this scenario seems most probable to us. In this version of the future, the President loses at least two of the three Great Lakes states (PA, MI, and WI) and as a result, fails to win reelection. After the election, the moderate or “Establishment” wing attempts to regain control of the party and Trump’s support base revolts.
If this scenario were to happen, it would spell trouble for the establishment. With Donald Trump’s incredible influence over rural America and the rust belt, his iconic methodical connection to the plights of this voting bloc is enough to spur fractures that could lead to the development of a new party focusing only on the far-right end of the spectrum.
The math on the national level, and in many states, would become nearly impossible, but this would keep Trump with a group of followers, keep him in the news, and create a longer lasting legacy for Trump but would spell the end of the GOP as we know it. Ultimately it would mean that Trump would be putting himself above what is good for the party, which does not seem like a stretch given the behavior we have seen from him over the past four years.
Those trying to take control of the party, such as Baker and Hogan, would have to offset a rebuke of the President and potential angering of a substantial voting bloc by trying to win back suburban, white, educated voters lost throughout the Trump presidency. This would be a tricky balancing act to say the least. However, it is possible the Democrats could nominate someone so hated by both factions that they come back together quickly, but this would basically need the blessing of the current President to happen effectively and a power share between Trump and a moderate wing seems unworkable.
In pursuit of maintaining the status quo, Republican voters have demonstrated a proven ability to continue to support their party, despite strong policy disagreements and character complaints about the President. In the general election, Republican voters will again have to choose to deny or give a stamp of approval to having Trump at the heart of their party.
In three of our four plausible scenarios, the GOP will either fully become the party of Trump, or the party is unlikely to hold together in a meaningful way. In one of the four scenarios the “establishment” wing of the party could take back control. This outcome is fully dependent on Trump’s base supporters and likely will have a lot to do with who the Democratic nominee ends up being and ends up winning.
Based on our thinking, the outcome for the Republican party, appears rocky at best, but before this potential demise leads to left-leaning celebration, it should be noted that, the path ahead is not exactly smooth for Democrats either (more on that in the next installment). Democrats will soon have to decide whether a more progressive candidate is going to be their standard bearer, or a more moderate candidate. For both parties, a more vocal, and powerful base, is making it increasingly difficult to appeal to a broad political base. There will likely come a breaking point when various factions within the parties will no longer go along with ideas that reflects the diversity in America and instead focus solely on policies that are more to the far left and far right view of the world.
It is true that voters in Red States have proved that they’re not against progressive economic policies – several states raised the minimum wage or expanded Medicaid through referendums – but this is a far cry from a wholesale shift in party allegiance. All of this raises a question: is this the end of the Republican Party or the beginning of a new one?