Welcome to Popular Information, a political newsletter for people who give a damn — written by me, Judd Legum. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet your thoughts using #popularinfo.
If you like Popular Information, forward it to someone who might like it too. If you’ve been forwarded this newsletter, sign up at popular.info.
Trump can win again
If you spend any time online, you’ve probably heard about the coming “blue wave.”
The theory is that Democrats, motivated by anti-Trump fervor, will recapture control of Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020. Each special election and primary is dissected to bolster the case that a “blue wave” is coming.
Perhaps the optimists are correct, and we are on the verge of a massive backlash to the Trump presidency. It’s possible.
But it’s also important to consider another possibility: Trump can win again.
Trump’s considerable strengths as a candidate for reelection are often ignored, and his weaknesses exaggerated. From the moment he declared his candidacy in June 2015, Trump has been underestimated politically. No one should make that mistake again.
This is not a prediction that Trump will be reelected. But the possibility should not be dismissed as far-fetched.
The best way to defeat Trump is to be clear-eyed about the challenge.
The power of incumbency
In American politics, there is no greater advantage than incumbency. As the incumbent president, Trump won’t have any trouble raising money and can get all the exposure he wants. He also has the full resources of the federal government at his disposal, enabling him to shift the political conversation at any time.
Four of the last five presidents who ran for reelection -- Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Reagan -- won a second term. Those are pretty good odds.
Not all presidents who won reelection were particularly popular heading into election day. Trump is usually described as a historically unpopular president. But Trump, with a 42% approval rating, is slightly more popular than Clinton (41.8%) and Reagan (40.9%) were at this point in their presidencies and only a few points lower than Obama (45.7%).
The one candidate since 1980 that lost his campaign for reelection, Bush I, had a 73.9% approval rating at this stage of his first term.
Sean Trende, a prominent political analyst with RealClearPolitics, cites incumbency as Trump’s key advantage.
Depending how you count, incumbents win re-election ~2/3 of the time.Trump's job approval is roughly where Obama's, Clinton's, Reagan's, Carter's, Ford's, and Truman's were at this point in their terms; 2/3 of them won.Given his "issues," I'd downgrade him, but only to even odds.August 19, 2018It’s the economy, stupid
Depending how you count, incumbents win re-election ~2/3 of the time.Trump's job approval is roughly where Obama's, Clinton's, Reagan's, Carter's, Ford's, and Truman's were at this point in their terms; 2/3 of them won.Given his "issues," I'd downgrade him, but only to even odds.August 19, 2018
The data on the state of the aggregate economy, at the moment, is positive. Unemployment is at 3.9%, which is historically low. GDP is expected to grow at about 3% in 2018, which is solid.
It’s possible that these numbers will weaken in advance of the 2020 election. But it would take a significant economic shock to prevent Trump from making a straight-forward case that he is an effective steward of the economy.
This is a powerful message to run on for reelection.
Barring an economic shock, the unemployment rate when Trump faces reelection is likely to be lower than recent presidents who sought a second term, including Obama (8.2%), Bush II (5.6%), Clinton (5.4%), Bush I (7.5%) and Reagan (7.7%).
Much of the growth, as I’ve documented, is flowing to the very wealthy. Real wages are declining. But that is a more complex argument to advance in a chaotic general election campaign.
Ezra Klein, asked to assess Trump’s chances, zeroed in on incumbency and a strong economy as his key advantages:
Incumbents usually win, and they almost always win amidst strong economies. The thinness of his 2016 victory, and the way he's governed in office, keeps me from calling him a favorite — which I would do for virtually any other president governing amidst these circumstances — but there's no doubt a Trump reelection is possible.
Trump will have an actual opponent
Much of the scrutiny from the media and the public now focuses on Trump, since he does not have a clear opponent in 2020. That will change.
Eventually, Trump will have a defined challenger. The way the media infrastructure works, whatever scandals or weakness that challenger has will be treated as equal or greater to whatever issues Trump is facing near election day.
We saw this clearly in 2016 when Trump’s scandals were swamped by exhaustive coverage of Clinton’s email security practices. This chart from a Harvard study details coverage from May 2015 to November 2016.
The New York Times and The Washington Post formally partnered with Peter Schweizer, an associate of Steve Bannon, to allege serious improprieties by the Clinton Foundation. (Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash, was riddled with errors.)
While these publications may or may not have learned lessons from the excesses of 2016, there will (rightly) be intense scrutiny of whoever emerges from a crowded Democratic primary field.
Asked to assess Trump’s chances as president, pollster Jim Gerstein said Trump’s eventual opponent was key:
Yes, Trump can win. Today, he is weak, and he has failed to expand his support beyond the 46 percent that he received in 2016. But 2020 is a very long way off, and many things will take place over the next 2 years that will shape the political environment. One of the most important factors is who emerges from a crowded Democratic primary. The credibility and appeal of the Democratic candidate will have an enormous impact on the outcome of the general election.
The nature of Trump’s opponent is largely unknown at this point. It could be a well-known member of the Democratic establishment, like Joe Biden, or someone looking to push the Democratic Party to the left, like Bernie Sanders. It could be someone who has little national recognition, like Kamala Harris or a political outsider, like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
The eventual nominee could ultimately have weaknesses that pave the way for Trump’s reelection.
Strong base impervious to negative news
Trump has separated thousands of children from their families, praised participants in a white supremacist march as “very fine people,” and publicly sided with Putin over his own administration.
Yet, Trump maintains nearly 90% approval from the Republican Party and 40% approval from the public overall. It’s hard to imagine what might emerge, at this point, that could shake these voters’ allegiance to Trump. These are most, but not all, of the votes Trump needs to win.
Even if something dramatic emerges between now and election day -- a reasonable possibility with the Mueller probe still active -- Trump has largely inoculated his base from negative information. This is why, on a daily basis, Trump rails against “fake news.”
“I do it to discredit you all, and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you,” Trump told 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl. Among Trump supporters, 91% trust Trump as an accurate source of information and just 11% trust the “mainstream media.”
Trump can also lean on Fox News, the most popular cable television network, to consistently push the view that his presidency has been a smashing success and he has done nothing wrong. Fox News has effectively become a state-run propaganda network, with current and former Fox News staff operating as Trump’s communications infrastructure, an advantage no previous incumbent has enjoyed.
There are many people, of course, who oppose Trump. But their views don’t count if they don’t vote.
Trump and his Republican allies have launched a systematic campaign to make it as difficult as possible for them. In Georgia, for example, Republicans are advancing “a proposal to close about 75 percent of polling locations in a predominantly black south Georgia county.” Franklin County, where the proposal is being considered, lacks public transportation and 22% of residents do not own a car.
Voter suppression efforts played a key role in delivering Wisconsin to Trump in 2016.
Trump created a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was widely seen as an effort to advance voter suppression efforts on a national level. That effort was abandoned, but efforts continue at the state level.
The next frontier in voter suppression is purging voter rolls to make it more difficult for infrequent voters to go to the polls. Ohio, for example, purged 1.2 million names from its voter database -- a move that was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The Department of Justice sent a letter to 44 states asking them to detail their efforts to purge voters. This was seen as the first step in pressuring more states to purge their rolls. These efforts are likely to intensify as election day nears.
The Russia factor
Russia played an active role in the 2016 election, hacking emails and then orchestrating their release to damage the Clinton campaign. Trump urged them to do more.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, Russia is aiming for a repeat performance. “My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” FBI Director Christopher Wray warned in July. Wray described Russia’s efforts as “very active.”
Florida Senator Bill Nelson recently claimed that Russian hackers had already infiltrated his state's election systems. Nelson was initially derided for making an unsupported claim. But “three people familiar with the intelligence [told] NBC News that there is a classified basis for Nelson's assertion.”
What do we know about 2020?
Will Trump win? We do not know. Can Trump win? Absolutely.
For the next 806 days, progressives can seek comfort in polls and analysis arguing that Trump’s reelection is unlikely. Or they can accept the reality of the situation and get to work.
Rudy Giuliani, the worst lawyer in America
Rudy Giuliani, the attorney for the most powerful man in the world, took to the airwaves on Sunday and gave a series of interviews on national TV that was almost incomprehensibly inept.
Giuliani appears unfamiliar with basic facts related to Trump’s legal problems.
Ignorance is not bliss
In an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Giuliani claimed that before the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign aides were not aware they were meeting with representatives of the Russian government.
“[A]ll they knew is that a woman with a Russian name [Natalia Veselnitskaya] wanted to meet with them. They didn’t know she was a representative of the Russian government,” Giuliani said.
Trump Jr. has said he didn’t know Veselnitskaya’s name before attending the meeting.
The more significant problem with Giuliani’s argument is that Trump Jr. has published the emails setting up the meeting where he was told that the purpose of the meeting was to pass on dirt about Hillary Clinton that was collected by the Russian government.
Rod Goldstone, an agent for a Kremlin-connected Russian pop star, told Trump Jr. the information was “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.”
‘A private citizen’
Guiliani also described Veselnitskaya as “a private citizen” and “not a representative of the Russian government.”
Even Veselnitskaya has dropped this story.
In April, Veselnitskaya “acknowledged that she was not merely a private lawyer but a source of information for a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, the prosecutor general.”
“Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general,” Veselinitskaya admitted in an interview with NBC News.
Then things got ugly
In a separate interview on Fox Business, Giuliani launched a nasty attack on former CIA chief John Brennan. Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance last week in retaliation for Brennan’s public criticisms of Trump’s presidency.
Giuliani attacked Brennan as “a great lover of Islam,” adding that Brennan said, “the Hajj was one of the most beautiful things he ever saw.”
Back on Meet the Press, Giuliani repeated his claim that Trump was unlikely to agree to an interview with Mueller because it would be a perjury trap.
“Truth is truth,” Todd replied, referring to the fact that if Trump told the truth, there was no way he could be successfully prosecuted for perjury.
“Truth isn’t truth,” Giuliani replied.
The cheerleaders for Trump’s tax cut
Trump’s massive tax cut is very unpopular. Recent polling shows support for the measure below 40%.
But there is a group of people that is ecstatic: billionaires and corporations. They are using their tax windfall to bankroll Republicans in the upcoming election.
Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC with ties to Paul Ryan, has been the recipient of huge donations. The New York Times has the story:
[P]arty leaders say the passage of the law appeased wealthy donors, who had been frustrated by Republicans’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and had threatened to sit out the 2018 campaign. Now, flush with big checks from a handful of deep-pocketed donors, the Congressional Leadership Fund is serving as the party’s best hope of a defense against an electoral defeat in November.
Some of the group’s ads for Republican candidates praise the tax cuts, focusing on benefits to the lower and middle class, even though most of the cuts went to corporations and the wealthy.
Other ads focus on attacking Democratic candidates, painting them as “left-wing radicals” and playing on racial stereotypes.
Thanks for reading! Please send your feedback and hate mail to email@example.com. Or tweet your thoughts using the hashtag #popularinfo.
If you like Popular Information, tell someone about it! Here are a few nice things readers posted over the weekend:
Favorite part of @JuddLegum's #popularinfo is the bitesize history lesson to contextualize the current event(s) of his topic of the day. Those background lessons are succinct, relevant, and well-populated with references; therefore *supremely* useful.August 16, 2018