Early Returns

2020 Election Shapes Up to Be a Wild Ride

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Just you wait.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Uh-oh. Think partisanship has been bad in recent U.S. political history? It might be about to get much worse.

Over at the Crystal Ball, Kyle Kondik looks at Senate elections -- not just in 2018, but in 2020 and 2022 as well. The basic story is that after Republicans have excellent opportunities in 2018, they'll still have a pretty good map in the 2020 elections. It's the 2022 elections that will finally give Democrats plenty of excellent targets. 

That's all correct, but it's easy to overdo it. Right now, the Cook Report has five toss-up Senate seats for 2018, three currently held by Democrats and two by Republicans. Democrats have several other seats they hold that are rated as "leaning" or "likely" their way, so if 2018 winds up a good Republican year, there's still a possibility of big Republican gains. But with an unpopular Republican president, the odds are it will be a good year for Democrats, which probably translates into a break-even year plus or minus a couple of seats. And then if Donald Trump loses in 2020, Democrats will be well within range of reaching at least 50, and therefore organizing the Senate. 

Meanwhile, Democrats are likely to make at least some gains in 2018 in the House -- after all, Republicans have more exposure there because they will be defending an unusually large Republican majority. That's easily visible in the Cook Report House ratings, which count 56 vulnerable Republican seats and only 19 vulnerable Democratic seats. Again, it's always possible Trump will surge and wipe out most of those potential Democratic gains. But if he remains unpopular, Democrats will come close or even attain a House majority in the 2018 elections -- and if a Democrat is elected president in 2020, his or her coattails should be long enough to mean a Democratic House in 2021.

Now, the huge "if" is the 2020 presidential election. It's way too early to make even a wild guess about the outcome. Trump's awful polling numbers have already begun to lock in problems for his party in the midterm elections, but there's more than enough time for him to bounce back and win easily in 2020. Trump's a little bit south of 40 percent approval right now. That's lower than Barack Obama ever reached, and lower than Bill Clinton would hit after October 1993; Clinton's low point in the mid-30s was already in the rear-view mirror by this point of his presidency. But Harry Truman was in the low 30s during his second year in the White House, and Ronald Reagan bottomed out at around 35 percent approval in early 1983.

To put it another way: Almost every president during the polling era had at least a 10-point surge over his polling low point at some time during his first term. Perhaps Trump will be an exception; perhaps, like George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, he'll move up but fail to retain it; perhaps he still has further down to go before he hits his low point. There's simply no way to know -- or to know whether a recession will strike, what the outcome of the Russian scandal will be, or any number of other events that might affect the election. 

What does seem quite likely to me is that neither party will hold a large majority in either chamber going into the 2020 elections. Which means unified government in 2021 for whichever party wins the White House in 2020 is quite likely -- an election year, remember, that will precede a round of redistricting after the 2020 census, which will also make both parties especially eager to contest gubernatorial and state legislative elections. 

And all of that means one more thing: strong structural incentives for both parties to be especially vicious partisans over the next three years. Everyone always says that the current election is unusually important, but it looks as if there will be strong empirical evidence that it's not just a cliche in 2020. 

1. At the Monkey Cage, Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth on the advantages democracies have over polities governed by technocrats when it comes to delivering good policy. 

2. Jared Bernstein on scoring the Republican tax proposal

3. Matt Yglesias on the dangers of a president who prefers gathering flattery to gathering information. Yup. 

4. Here at Bloomberg View, Victoria Bateman on what the Tories in the U.K. can do to reclaim the youth vote

5. And David Litt on working and doing politics in the nation's capital. I still think it would be a great project for some political scientist to find out what effect a stint in Washington has on the long-term political lives of young people. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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