By Terry Madonna and Michael Young
While Democrats wade through a marathon of intra-party debates, the national punditocracy is increasingly asking two urgent questions about the impending 2020 presidential contest: Can President Trump win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin again? And can he win a second term without those three states?
Both questions reflect a stark reality in American presidential elections: The presidency is won or lost in the Electoral College — a body dominated by a handful of large so-called battleground states that can determine the outcome.
Donald Trump triumphed in 2016 by winning narrowly these three Rust Belt states, which he was expected to lose. Pennsylvania was the biggest surprise as well as the biggest prize among them. In theory, Trump can win without these three — either by replacing them with three other large states — or by picking up several smaller states that equal their combined 46 electoral votes.
But where will those replacement states come from? Presently, according to the New York Times, Trump is far behind in Pennsylvania (16 percentage points), Wisconsin (10 points) and Michigan (11 points). According to the Morning Consult, Trump’s current approval rating in Pennsylvania has plummeted 19 points since Inauguration Day.
The president could go after states he narrowly lost in 2016, including New Hampshire, Nevada and Minnesota. But combined these would not nearly make up a loss in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In addition, Trump may be on the defensive in states he won in 2016 and must win again in 2020. Florida and even Texas are wobbly while North Carolina, a Trump stronghold in 2016, is trending blue in statewide elections. Even winning all three again won’t make up a loss in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Inarguably then, Trump almost certainly cannot win the Electoral College without winning these three crucial Rust Belt states, which have voted as a bloc seven elections in a row — supporting Democrats in six consecutive elections before shifting to Trump and the GOP in 2016. As goes Wisconsin and Michigan also goes Pennsylvania; and in 2020, as goes Pennsylvania, so goes the election.
But can Trump win Pennsylvania again? What are the keys to the Keystone State?
- Increase the turnout among his base. Trump’s strength is rooted in rural and small-town western Pennsylvania with its long tradition of old economy “smokestack industries,” as well as the old mining and mill towns in the northeast and southwest. To win he may need a historically high turnout in these areas to overcome an expected anti-Trump surge in the suburbs.
- Make it a referendum. The president must convince his supporters that he kept his promises: bringing back jobs and business lost to globalism; ending “bad” trade deals; and “fixing” the immigration problem. Presidential elections are almost always a referendum on the incumbent, and these are the issues still important to Trump voters.
- Be a cultural warrior. Trump must continue to appeal to culturally conservative Democrats, who remain strongly pro-abortion rights and anti-gun control. Trump’s 2016 cultural message resonated strongest in western, rural, and small-town Pennsylvania and those voters still feel strongly about cultural issues.
- Expand the base. Republicans must attract new voters who did not support the GOP ticket in 2016. Trump is running with a good economy at his back and no new wars. These conditions strongly favor incumbents and are attractive to independent voters who prefer the status quo.
Democrats, who have won six of the last seven presidential contests in Pennsylvania, still think they can beat Trump.
Here’s how they expect to do it:
- Nominate a moderate candidate. While Pennsylvania can temporarily lean left or right, its instincts are moderate and centrist. If the Democrats choose a candidate perceived to be “far left,” Pennsylvania will be difficult for Democrats to win.
- Produce the widely predicted “Democrat surge.” Certainly, there were strong indications during the 2018 midterms and special elections that state Democrats are locked and loaded for 2020. To beat Trump, however, Democrats must now translate 2018’s promise to 2020’s results. If they fail to galvanize the Philadelphia suburbs, Trump will win Pennsylvania in 2020.
- Tend to the base. Democrats must recover some of the previously Democratic Party voters who now support Trump. Former Democratic strongholds such as Luzerne, Northampton, and Erie went for Trump in 2016, sealing his sliver-thin win. Democrats must address the fears and hopes of these lapsed party voters, especially white males.
- Engage younger voters. Finally, Democrats must pull younger voters to the polls in 2020. Voters under age 35 have been among Trump’s fiercest critics. Yet this cohort normally votes at a rate about half that of older Pennsylvanians. Increasing youth turnout could spell the difference between defeat and victory in 2020 for Democrats.
The Democrats’ impressive opportunities notwithstanding, it is foolish to conclude Trump cannot win Pennsylvania – just as it was foolish to write him off in 2016. Trump’s base in rural and western Pennsylvania will support him at least as strongly as in 2016. Furthermore, no incumbent in modern times has lost re-election in an era of economic prosperity such as we are now experiencing.
Undoubtedly the greatest threat to Trump is a Democrat turnout tsunami in Philadelphia and its suburbs. The suburbs and city were disaster areas for Republican candidates in the last midterms – and early polling suggests the anti-Trump sentiment continues.
Right now, Pennsylvania is the Democrats to lose in 2020. But that was also true in 2016. How did that turn out?
Terry Madonna is a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Michael Young, a former Penn State politics professor, is an author, consultant, and speaker. Their work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.