President Donald Trump has just announced his quest for a second term and he faces a strong head wind as things now stand. In nationwide polls he trails former Vice President Joe Biden by as many 10 points and is down against several other leading Democratic contenders by almost as much. Perhaps more ominous is the polling in several states that Mr. Trump won in 2016 where he is now behind substantially against Mr. Biden and a few of the other candidates – notably Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida. Traditionally Republican states like Arizona and huge Texas show Biden in the lead as well.
The Democrats enter the race with some distinct advantages. First, history is on their side. They have won the popular vote in six of the past seven nationwide elections. Second, the Democrats have considerably more support among Hispanics and Asians, young people (many of whom are non-white), and suburban independents. In fact, Mr. Trump is even losing against independents as a whole in every poll. The Democrats won the off year elections in 2018 and showed they can bring out to vote these groups in larger numbers than before in non-presidential elections.
Third, the top issue in the country thus far is health care and the Democrats simply own this issue. Mr. Trump has sided exclusively with conservatives in forcing an end to his predecessor’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) at a time when both that law and Mr. Obama himself are at peak popularity. And fourth, the Democrats do benefit from the overall unpopularity of Mr. Trump. A solid 57% of voters say they will definitely not vote for him. The burden, of course, will be for the Democrats to show that they have a candidate and a program that they want to vote for.
But the Democrats also have a few significant disadvantages that they will have to surmount. First, is the economy which is growing at a 3.2% rate and an unemployment rate that is the lowest in over 50 years (3.6%). More Americans are earning a paycheck today than ever before. There will be arguments about whether these are good jobs or not, but more Americans are saying that they are doing better financially than they were four years ago than those who are not. A President normally receives the blame when things are bad; he should get some credit when things are good.
Second, the Democrats have to get hold of their internal wars. Going back to the 1960s, the battle for the heart and soul of the party has been between left-leaning progressives (as best represented by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and the more establishment moderate-liberals (Mr. Biden and Senator Kamala Harris). This is not a new split and has not always gone well in general elections when the breach is not healed. Even today, lesser candidates are challenging Mr. Biden’s statements that he has worked with Senators in the past who were considered racist. This edginess between factions promises to not be helpful for the party.
At the same time there is the specter of identity politics. The party is very diverse and there will be demands to have a woman, an Hispanic, an African American, a member of the LGBTQ community and so on. I can see this becoming a battle royal and causing potentially fatal damage to party unity. Simply being anti-Trump will not be enough for the Democrats to win.
The Democrats also suffer from elitism, a sense that they are the party of college-bred, coastal liberals who are in full possession of the truth. This has hurt them in previous elections – 2000, 2004, and 2016 come to mind.
President Trump has decided to not appeal to independents or moderates. His announcement revealed that he will build intensity among his base by tossing red meat on issues like building a wall along the US-Mexico border, raising tariffs against China (even if they hurt American workers and consumers in several of those battleground states), and picking a fight with Iran (when he could have bragged that the US has fewer troops in combat zones than before). The flip side of that strategy will be to belittle, embarrass, and try to drag his opponent into some kind of adolescent argument. It is a curious strategy but Donald Trump often wins.
So, if the election were held today, the polls are clear that Mr. Trump would lose – perhaps in a landslide. But the election is not today.
John Zogby is the founder of the Zogby Poll and senior partner at John Zogby Strategies. He is the author of three books on trends and forecasts.