Mike Kulisheck, PhD and VP of Benenson Strategy Group, gave a presentation at September’s Meeting on Preparing for the 2020 elections. Here’s a summary for those who weren’t able to attend.
We’re hearing the word “electability” tossed around a lot and used as the standard for which candidate we should all get behind. Kulisheck pointed out that the daily outrages engaged democrats experience don’t penetrate most people’s daily lives. Democrats need to run a campaign that isn’t focused on “Trump is bad” but rather communicates to voters what democrats can do for them.
Electability is an ephemeral concept. Several things can undermine or improve the idea of electability: missteps and gaffes can undermine, a strong performance can help. The idea of electability can also be used as an excuse to sideline certain policy debates and discussions. Still, there is a long history of “unelectable” candidates winning. Most recently, we can look to Obama and Trump. Ultimately, electability is decided on election day.
Breaking down electability: it’s driven by feelings and preferences towards candidates, as well as name recognition. There are electability feedback loops: for example, if common wisdom says one candidate can’t win, that candidate will receive less support. Also in play are self-perpetuating electability effects: The frontrunner gets more media coverage. That candidate is better known. So that candidate appears more electable.
Here’s some good news: two-thirds of Democrats are enthusiastic about multiple 2020 contenders, which is a good sign that democratic voters will coalesce around the eventual nominee. There are more similarities than differences among the democratic candidates. And once we move past our hang-ups over electability, we can have a rich debate about other things that matter greatly to voters: personal characteristics of the candidates, policy, and ideology.
Election 2020: Will it be a Wave or a Nail Biter?
Kulisheck joked that “Either scenario will make complete sense the day after the election,” and pointed out that prediction is a fool’s errand. However, he did go on to outline support for either scenario, with the caveat that the numbers and indicators he is using depend on economic, international, and political conditions holding steady.
Indications of a possible wave: Trump is deeply unpopular. A number of democratic candidates poll favorably against Trump. Sixty percent of voters say the country is heading in the wrong direction. The trade war is starting to hit home for a lot of people. And more Americans say that the economy is getting worse. Sixty percent of voters say that Trump does not deserve to be re-elected.
Nail-Biter Scenarios: We’re all aware at this point that Trump and the Republican party benefit from electoral college favorability; therefore national polling is less meaningful that state polling. Turnout and levels of support among key voters will be crucial in 2020. There is some evidence that our GOTV efforts in 2016 turned out some of the wrong people: independents who voted for Trump. Our efforts in 2020 need to be persuasive and targeted to the right voters.
Several scenarios come down to a tight race in Wisconsin. It’s possible that the longtime-red Arizona could flip. However Iowa, who went to Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016, doesn’t look as promising. Other states that could potentially flip are North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire went to Clinton in 2016; Trump is targeting these states.
The Issues that Will Define the Election
Economy and Trade
Economy will probably be the decider in the next election. Perceptions of economy are often more important than reality. Americans are fundamentally pro-trade, they see Trump’s trade policies as risky, and they are taking an increasingly pessimistic view of the economy.
Voters support a greater role for government in health care, and they tend to take an incremental approach to change.
Seventy percent of Americans say that immigration is good for the country, and 59% disapprove of Trump’s handling of immigration. However, “giveaways,” such as national health insurance for undocumented immigrants, is seen as a bad idea by 62% of voters. Overall, Trump is not trusted on the issue of immigration.
Americans support gun reform. Eighty-nine percent of voters support universal background checks and 86% support red flag laws. Fifty-six percent support the banning assault weapons. A thin majority of voters trust Democrats more on this issue, but intensity on the issue has tended to favor Republicans.
Bottom Line: The Democrats hold the popular viewpoints on the majority of these issues. However, some of the less popular positions taken up by some candidates such as health insurance for undocumented immigrants, decriminalizing the border, and an assault weapons ban will be used against us by Trump.
Kulisheck points out that there is a general sense that presidents deserve a second term, and they are more often than not elected to one. If people aren’t offended by Trump yet, they won’t be. However, Trump ran as a “different kind” of president, but his record in office shows that he’s a typical Republican. Since he’s no longer the economic populist he ran as, can he win on divisiveness and racism alone?
Kulisheck also included a few words on polling. Polling, as we all know, has changed! In the 90s, people actually answered their phones – all landlines. Now there’s a multimode approach that includes landlines, cell phones, SMS, and online. This mix provides the most representative sampling. Kulisheck believes we should be in a better spot with polls in 2020 vs 2016. He advises us to watch one poll for change instead of comparing polls, and to watch for direction of movement vs absolute numbers.
The case against Trump includes pointing out that his policies pull the rug out from under us all; he’s not working for the people. In 2016, a lot of suburban women voted for Trump and then voted for Democrats in 2018. We need these voters, as well as people of color, to turn out to vote. The Democrats need an umbrella message to pull voters in in 2020.