Trump Is Stumbling Into a Primary Fight in 2020

He enjoys solid support among Republicans. But what if they had a choice?

Is it Mitt?

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In early 1983, President Ronald Reagan dropped to 35 percent approval. By the end of the year, he was up nearly 20 percentage points, renominated by acclamation and won a second term with 49 states behind him. So anything's possible for President Donald Trump, who is currently the least popular president at this point in the polling age at 38 percent. It's very, very early, and there's plenty of time for him to recover.

But it's also quite likely that he will draw a fairly serious primary challenge in 2020. It's even possible it will rival the challenges to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which came close to defeating them for re-nomination. 

Yes, he still has the support of most Republicans, although 80 percent same-party approval is nothing special, and his strong support is far less than that. Think about that 80 percent for a minute. Are those Republicans absolutely committed to voting for Trump in a primary election? Or is it possible to imagine a situation where a voter would approve of the job a president is doing, but also prefer another same-party replacement if one is available? 

Polling simply doesn't work for questions like these -- that is, ones that are hypothetical and concerning events two years in the future. But we've seen primary challenges in the past fueled either by discontent inside the party, or overall unpopularity, or both. 

Pat Buchanan's challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992 is a good place to start this conversation. Bush began 1991 very popular, but fell steadily, dipping under the 50 percent mark late in the year. Buchanan, who had never before run for any office and who no one took seriously as a potential president at the time, then made plenty of noise in Republican Party primaries. While he didn't actually win any of them, Bush's approval ratings eventually dipped under the 30 percent mark. 1  

Perhaps Trump would remain popular enough among Republican primary voters to prevent any serious number of them from supporting a "send them a message" type of challenge. But it's also possible that primary voters could be presented with a real choice, as Republicans were between President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Democrats were between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ted Kennedy in 1980.

This is where party actors at the national and state level make a big difference. There really is no Reagan or Kennedy available to 2020 Republicans, with the possible exceptions of Mitt Romney and, far less plausibly, Vice President Mike Pence. So in order for Republican voters to be presented with a choice between plausible presidents, many of the most visible party actors -- anyone from leading politicians to talk show hosts -- would probably have to treat a Senator Ben Sasse or whoever as a serious prospect, and not just as a send-them-a-message spoiler. 

Whether that happens or not depends on lots of things. Where is Trump's overall approval and approval among Republicans sitting in late 2018 and early 2019? What happens in the 2018 midterm elections? How loyal has Trump been to the Republican policy agenda (so far very loyal) and how disruptive has he been to achieving that agenda (so far quite disruptive)? How scared are party actors of Trump's bark, or will they believe by then that it's much worse than his bite? How frightened are they of the dangers of a hotly contested nomination -- compared with how helpful they believe it will be to more closely tie Trump or any candidate who defeats him to the Republican policy agenda? And which candidate or candidates actually take the leap into running? It's hard to believe Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ran as a moderate in 2016 (and ran a flaky campaign anyway) would gather much support. An orthodox conservative has a much stronger case against Trump in a primary setting.  

What we can say now is that Trump's polling numbers clearly put him into the danger zone. If he remains at this level in 2019, he would have the second-lowest support level in the year before the election of any elected president, behind only Jimmy Carter. That Trump never won the full support of Republican Party actors adds to his vulnerability.

It's hard to make historical comparisons here because the parties are so different now, far more homogeneous than they were in the 1970s and earlier. But there's certainly nothing similar to the opposition of several mainstream same-party senators to a first-year president in any recent administration. Or the opposition from almost all living former presidential nominees of the party. 

All of this precedes the midterm elections, which are shaping up as somewhere between bad and a shellacking for Republicans. A bad midterm certainly doesn't predict a nomination challenge, as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan found out. But each of them had improving approval ratings beginning in at least the middle of their third years in office, and none of them were as unpopular halfway through year three as Trump is now. A bad midterm for Trump would remove most lingering doubts that he has some special magic beyond what the approval ratings say. 

Like Jimmy Carter, Trump was an outsider candidate who surprised everyone by winning the nomination. Like Carter, Trump was a plurality winner, and like Carter, Trump was helped at the end by party actors who decided to settle for the plurality winner rather than fight an ugly but possibly winnable last-minute fight against him. Like Carter, Trump had same-party majorities in both chambers of Congress but spent his first year feuding with them and getting little of the party agenda passed. 

It wouldn't be surprising if Trump continues on the same course that he'll get a serious nomination challenge. 

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

  1. The same was probably true for Eugene McCarthy's challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. 

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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