Before looking ahead to 2020, we first need to look back at 2016.
In my 2014 book Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again, which was endorsed by Donald Trump, I laid out a three-pronged path for a Republican to recapture the White House in 2016:
1) Higher turnout of white evangelicals, perhaps the biggest voting bloc within the GOP base, than McCain or Romney could generate.
2) Win middle-class voters, because post-WWII, whoever has won middle-class voters has won the presidency, except for the infamous 2000 Florida recount election. And I pointed out that would require a message of economic populism more than the “reform and growth” talking points favored by GOP consultants.
3) Win Catholic voters, because since Roe v. Wade, no Republican has won the White House without winning the Catholic vote.
This was nothing revolutionary. All I suggested is that Republicans rebuild the coalition that helped them win the White House in four of the six previous presidential elections, before they nominated two milquetoast standard-bearers who eroded it. However, while the suggestion wasn’t radical, it’s controversial to the Republican establishment, which either opposes or isn’t willing to do and say the things required to rebuild and maintain that coalition. Trump was willing, and that’s one of the major reasons he won.
The other major reason Trump won was he got to run against Hillary Clinton, a widely unpopular corruptocrat with the highest negatives of any Democrat presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter. That’s why I decided a year in advance to forgo milking the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses happening in my backyard for exposure and instead leverage every contact in my network to coalesce behind a non-establishment candidate capable of capturing the nomination early on. Because Hillary was such a weak opponent, we had a chance to get a non-swamp creature into the White House.
I was right; I just had the wrong candidate. I preferred Ted Cruz, the trusted conservative. The GOP base preferred Trump. The rest is history. Trump defeated Hillary and is president now.
Along the way, he violated several social norms: tawdry videos advocating vile groping, singling out judges for their ethnicity, mocking disabled reporters, and so on and so forth. The violation of these norms convinced a lot of analysts that Trump had no chance to win on Election Day. And they were wrong, because they assumed that since the frosting on the cake had changed, the cake had changed with it.
But cakes still require all the same ingredients and baking instructions they always have. The fundamentals of cake-making haven’t changed. The flavor of the frosting can alter the taste, but it doesn’t change the essence of the cake itself.
Granted, Trump’s ego and bombastic use of social media are a frosting we’ve never tried before and likely limited the potential voters he could reach. But it was still the same cake. Trump’s winning 2016 coalition was fundamentally pretty much the same as every other successful GOP presidential run the past few decades.
We in the media and analysis business have convinced ourselves that because of his persona, Trump is the outlier — and we’re wrong. Trump won with the same formula that has always worked for the GOP in this era. Any of the other 16 GOP candidates who contested the nomination would have needed the same exact formula to win in November had they won the primary.
It’s actually Obama who was the outlier.
Obama swept the traditional crucial swing states that have decided things for decades – Florida and Ohio. But along the way he became the first Democrat to win North Carolina since Reagan built his coalition and the first Democrat to win Indiana since LBJ’s historic romp in 1964. And Obama turned Virginia, which had gone Republican in every presidential election but one since Eisenhower, into a swing state.
While Trump may have violated norms, Obama changed the Electoral College map. Trump simply reset it, while adding different states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – than anticipated. But it started with reclaiming Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. Had Trump not won those states that have always vaulted a Republican to the presidency, he wouldn’t have won. He could have swept those Rust Belt states filled with former Obama voters and still lost to Hillary.
Because Obama’s persona and politics are more favored by the media and analysis industry, they don’t see this, preferring to tilt at Trumpian windmills while breathlessly clutching their pearls as they “can’t even” on cable news every night.
But this also explains what happened in the 2018 midterms.
For the first time in two-party history, a political party lost control of one chamber while gaining seats in the other. The Republicans lost more House seats in 2018 than they did in 2006, which was considered a “wave” election. At the same time, the GOP gained two seats in the Senate.
This may seem shocking, but we probably should have predicted this all along. There were too many swing districts and House retirements in places where Hillary won in 2016 and too many Senate races in states Trump won. We basically got the outcome we should always have expected.
It’s just that because Trump’s persona changes the flavor of the frosting, we keep missing that the making of the actual cake hasn’t changed. Trump really hasn’t changed things as much as we’re led to believe. He’s just offending a bunch of people who aren’t used to someone so effortlessly offending them.
This means we already know what will happen in 2020, too. Right now, two years before that election. Forget all the annoying ads and all the controversies, real or pretend, that we’ll suffer through. I can tell you right now what will happen, not because I’m a prophet, but because I’m actually paying attention to the electorate rather than projecting my preferences upon them.
Barring something unforeseen from the Mueller or any future probe, or something none of us wish to happen, like another 9/11, the result is already known. Those are the potential game-changers, not a Trump tweet or CNN’s kvetching over it.
Minus those, the 2020 election comes down to this: If Democrats nominate a likable candidate, they will win, but if they don’t, they won’t.
If the 2020 Democrat nominee is a likable and inspirational figure, like Obama was, Democrats can take advantage of those voters Trump turns off with his ego and persona. But if not, then the Democrat nominee will suffer the same fate under Trump’s master trolling as Hillary did.
A celebrity with high favorables like Michelle Obama, or a progressive businessman who’s also a capitalist with no prior political record for Republicans to attack, would be tough for Trump to beat.
However, should Democrats nominate a known and unlikable leftist like an Elizabeth Warren, a Cory Booker, or a Kamala Harris, they will feel the wrath of Trump successfully exploiting the culture war divisions these unlikable Leftists are known for. This will help him turn out another mass of white evangelicals, hold onto offended Catholics, and retain those middle-class voters who don’t fit in at a Berkeley faculty meeting.
Save this for the next two years and see if I’m right.