The recent wave of Democratic debates has reminded the country that, astoundingly, another presidential election is upon us. (A full 15 months away, but upon us nevertheless.) Maybe it’s the crowded field of candidates or the lingering trauma from 2016, but I am observing a troubling refrain from Democrats as the wild rumpus starts. It goes something like: “Whatever, Trump’s probably going to win again, anyway.”
I heard it at my extended family breakfast table, effectively killing a spirited discussion about Kamala Harris vs. Joe Biden—and indeed my appetite. I read the same sense of defeatism? resignation? in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s aptly-titled recent op-ed, “‘Trump’s Going to Get Re-elected, Isn’t He?’” The headline quotes the striking number of people Friedman says are coming up to him and saying as much.
Shaniqua McClendon, political director at Crooked Media, sees the sentiment as less fatalism, more fear. “I don’t believe people are resigned to Trump’s reelection. I think after being told so many times that he’d lose in 2016, that they’re afraid, and rightfully so,” McClendon told me. “He won by inviting a foreign adversary to interfere in our election and stoking the underbelly of this country… His presidency has literally exposed vulnerable populations to extreme danger, putting their humanity and actual lives at risk.”
The nature of our national nightmare is such that it feels, in some ways, like Trump just got elected. Now, the anxiety rises anew that he may be re-elected. But what are the chances of that happening, really? In an effort to wade beyond fear and assess the facts, I asked the experts—gloriously geeky, data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight—just how much we know about Trump’s chances.
The refreshingly honest answer from managing editor Micah Cohen? Um, not much. “A resignation from the left that Trump will win again is just as off-base as a high confidence that Trump will lose,” Cohen said. “Anybody who tells you they know how this election is going to go with any degree of competence doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.”
Not quite the sweet relief some Democrats are seeking, but the sobering truth is that several key factors are simply impossible to assess 15 months out from Election Day (yet another glaring sign that the presidential race is an insanely long, glorified Real Housewives reunion episode). For one, we have no idea how the economy will be faring in the months leading up to November 2020, or the pretty relevant tidbit of who Trump’s opponent will be.
As of now, “the betting markets have [Trump’s chances] at about 50/50 and that seems about right,” Cohen said. The economy is faring well, by many standards—which benefits the president as an incumbent. “And yet Trump is still net unpopular with the public,” he added. “That’s ahistorical.”
Trump is the rare president who can boast about the economy, but not his low approval rating—blame it on his hateful rhetoric and Twitter tomfoolery. This paradox makes his reelection chances trickier to assess. “The economy is his trump card. It’s his strong suit and that eclipses a lot of things to people,” said Tim Malloy, a polling analyst at the Quinnipiac University Poll. At the same time, according to Quinnipiac, Trump’s approval rating has hovered between 38 and 42 percent. “That’s a terrible approval rating and he's had that his entire presidency,” Malloy said. “It's not enough to necessarily win.” Furthermore, “when we poll the more from-the-gut issues. Is he a leader? Is he a good example for your children? Is he strong in foreign policy? He gets very negative numbers.”
Another source of Trump reelection anxiety: the sense that the Democratic field is not mythically “electable” enough to beat him. In his op-ed, Friedman argued that bold, progressive plans from Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders—as opposed to playing it safe with more moderate policies—will hurt Dems’ chances of unseating Trump. But Quinnipiac found in June that five 2020 candidates could handily beat the president, Biden by double-digit, landslide proportions, Sanders by nine points, Harris by eight, Warren by seven and Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker edging the president by thinner five-point margins.
The poll suggested “the Democrats have a pretty deep team,” Malloy said. “When five of the people who could be running against him would beat him, that shows that there’s strength in the Democratic Party.”
Of course, polls are imperfect snapshots in time and they have margins of error for a reason, as we all learned so well in 2016. “I think people just have to get comfortable with the idea that there is going to be uncertainty about who will win,” Cohen said. But in one regard, he notes that voters are already wiser than they were last time around. “For Democrats, having voters taking the possibility of Trump winning seriously is much better than them not taking it seriously.”
Rather than being resigned to a merry MAGA victory party at Mar-a-Lago, Democrats need to act. “Anyone resigned to believe that Trump has already won has made a deliberate decision to let him win,” McClendon said. “Elections are not sporting events where we sit in the stands and hope our star player is in good enough shape to deliver a victory. We can actually participate in the process and deliver the victory ourselves.”
Crooked’s political strategy for 2020, she says, is bigger than the probability of Trump, round two; McClendon is thinking about how Democrats can win in important Senate, House, gubernatorial, state legislature, and other down-ballot races “that are just as important as the presidential election,” in addition to key races happening this year in Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky. McClendon spearheaded the launch of Crooked’s Vote Save America initiative to show voters how to get involved and get out the vote.
“With more than a year before November 3, 2020, each of us should be approaching the election by determining what individual role we plan on taking,” McClendon asked. “As of today, the only thing we know is that Trump’s name will be on the ballot on November 3, 2020. But so will some amazing Democratic candidates, and whether or not we win depends on what action we take between now and then.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue