By Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young
Paradigms, sometimes called “worldviews,” are the ways we experience, think about and often measure particular ideas, subjects and institutions.
Paradigms are notorious for “shifting” as described by a generations of scholars dating back to Thomas Kuhn in 1962. Paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in the way we look at, understand, and evaluate a process or institution.
The presidency, for example, comprises a paradigm as certainly do presidential elections, including the way we measure them. Arguably, the Trump presidency and his prospects for re-election confronts us with a classic paradigm shift.
Beyond debate, Donald Trump is the most unconventional president in modern American history. Indeed, traditional ways of perceiving him or his presidency are obsolete or becoming more so every day.
His style and personality have no parallel. In fact, from the start of his presidency that was apparent. He was the first president to win election while actually being more unpopular than popular with voters – and he was the first candidate elected who was more unpopular than the opponent he defeated. Alone these factors represent profound shifts in presidential electability.
But there is more-much more. Throughout his presidency Trump’s job performance has shown less variation than any other president since scientific polling began to track what voters thought of presidential job performance.
For most of Trump’s presidency his job performance has been frozen between 38 and 45 percent positive. At the moment his polling average on Real Clear Politics is 43 percent positive. Before Trump, no president winning reelection has had a positive job performance below 48 percent.
Moreover, Pew Research Center data informs us that the views of the president by opposition party Democrats have remained abnormally negative over time. It’s not uncommon in polls for Democrats to give Trump a negative rating in the plus 90 percent range.
All of this raises a fundamental question: will the president’s job performance ratings or for that matter other traditional means of measuring political viability actually determine his electoral fate – or has Trump shifted the electoral paradigm to such an extent that the old metrics simply don’t work?
Perhaps he has.
Trump’s metrics are particularly unconventional with the disconnect between the economy and his general job approval.
The past 10 years of economic growth, low unemployment rates and a record stock market have produced a booming economy. Traditionally, presidential approval ratings closely track economic conditions: a president’s overall job performance is high if the economy is growing or robust.
But Trump with an anemic 43 percent overall approval rate is not getting the kind of job approval that a roaring economy has bestowed on past presidents. Presidents simply don’t struggle with weak approval ratings when the economy is strong. But Trump is doing exactly that.
The key question then is: can Trump win reelection despite the historical disjunction between his low ratings and the very good economy?
To do this, Trump has to win narrowly enough key battleground states to bring him to the magic 270 electoral votes. Most analysts believe he must win at least two of the three battleground rustbelt states he won in 2016 (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
Conventional wisdom, in other words, the prevailing political paradigm, holds that Trump’s low approval ratings and high negatives makes winning implausible if not impossible.
But as far back as Trump’s unlikely but successful 2016 campaign that paradigm underlying that conventional wisdom has been wobbly. Indeed, Trump’s 2016 success suggests that his electoral prognosis can’t be reliably predicted by the sort of political measures that once determined the fate of presidential candidates.
But we must wait to find out if the electoral paradigm has permanently shifted – or if the last four years represents an anomalous not to be repeated aberration.
If the age of Trump turns out to be as short as Democrats hope, the Trump presidency will probably be remembered as a bizarre interruption in normal American politics, an asterisk rather than an era.
But if Trump wins reelection, he will have ushered in a new political paradigm in American politics – a “new normal” with implications certain to stretch far beyond 2020.
Terry Madonna is a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Michael L. Young is an author and consultant and former political science professor at Penn State University. Their work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary page.
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