Amy Walter Looks to 2020
It was, for the Trump White House, the best of times and the worst of times. First, there was the wildly unpopular government shutdown, which the president blithely said he would be proud to “own.”
Then came Attorney General William Barr’s release of “top line” findings of the Mueller report, which cleared Trump of criminally conspiring with the Russians.
And you know what? Good news or bad, the president’s approval ratings — and disapproval ratings — held steady. As of early April, Real Clear Politics (RCP) found that 43.7 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, and 52.8 percent disapprove.
“Yet for all polls averaged by RCP for the first two weeks in March, ten days prior to Barr’s announcement,” Frank Donatelli writes in Newsweek, “presidential approval stood at 42.8 percent, less than [1 percentage point] change even after the president’s best media week in memory.” Even after the government shutdown, the president’s approval stood at 41.6 percent.
‘Not a Lot Changes’
None of this surprises Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, who spoke at the Council’s Spring Executive Conference in Washington in April. Walter has observed much the same thing in anecdotal, if not statistical, terms. Consider U.S. relations with North Korea. “We bomb North Korea? We have a treaty? There’s no change in Trump’s approval,” she said. “Not a lot changes. Even the good economy hasn’t improved the president’s ratings.”
And all that makes it difficult to predict what will happen in the 2020 presidential election. While incumbent presidents rarely lose their bids for re-election, “there are 1½ to two times as many people who hate Trump as love him,” Walter said, “and the coming election will be the biggest turnout ever.”
Misreading the Electorate
Whether the Democrats can buck the odds against unseating an incumbent, even with this one’s unpopularity and a record turnout, is anybody’s guess. But Walter believes the Democrats seeking the party’s nomination might be misreading the public mood, just as the media seems to be.
“The majority of the Democrats who won in the 2018 midterms weren’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style socialists,” Walter said. The ones who were elected to the House do not seek revolutionary change. “They were moderates from the suburbs who want to protect the health care system we have today and especially the right of people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage. They did not campaign in support of the Green New Deal.”
Democratic opinion leaders might also be misreading one of their most important constituencies — African Americans. “Democratic voters are not as liberal as the Democratic candidates, and Democratic voters of color are more conservative than white Democrats,” Walter said.
Money in Politics
Sorting out the Democratic aspirants will take many months, and at this time, it isn’t easy to tell some of them apart. “One reason there are so many candidates is that the Democrats brought this on themselves,” Walter said. In part, that’s because high-profile Democrats have portrayed the role of “big money” in campaigns as evidence of deep, systemic corruption.
“It used to be cool, if you were a Democrat running for high office, to have a super PAC that supported you,” Walter said. During the 2016 elections, in fact, super PACs accounted for more than a fifth of all federal campaign spending, reports the FEC.
And raising money from Silicon Valley or the pharmaceutical industry was more socially acceptable too, she added. “But that now smacks of big money. Ditto big donors.”
So the only acceptable way to bankroll your campaign, Walter said, is online from small donors, which levels the fundraising playing field and allows more people to run. The Democrats are getting a lot of publicity “for the amounts they can raise in a hurry, but so far it really isn’t as impressive as you might hear. Beto O’Rourke got a lot of press for raising $9 million early on from online donors. That might sound great until you realize he raised $80 million just for a Senate race.”
While Trump Republicans are characterized as populists, the Democrats are embracing their own version of anti-elitist politics, which Walter thinks might backfire. In August 2018, party officials sought to reduce the power of so-called superdelegates — members of Congress, Democratic National Committee members, and other party officials, who make up about 15 percent of delegates to presidential nominating conventions. In an attempt to win favor with younger voters skeptical of party leadership, the new rules prohibit superdelegates from voting on the first ballot at the convention.
With party leadership weakened in this and other areas, one result is a proliferation of candidates seeking the nomination. This in turn splits up the loyalties of the electorate and can make uniting behind the ultimate nominee problematic. The Republicans of 2016, when 17 of them sought the nomination, know all about this. The upshot of that process was the nomination of a candidate that the GOP establishment had once opposed.
Diminishing the role of the superdelegates also increases the likelihood of a brokered convention. But Walter pointed out that if there is a brokered convention, one that goes beyond that first ballot, then the superdelegates would actually have more power than they did before in picking the party’s nominee. The irony is that in trying to clean up the system, they would end up giving more power to the superdelegates.
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