WASHINGTON — The U.S. political year will begin with 100 senators deciding the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency and end with 150 million voters or more doing the same in November.
Trump’s acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate is a sure bet. His re-election is not.
No president has ever run in a general election after being impeached, so there’s no precedent for how the Senate trial will affect Trump’s re-election chances. Trump added even more unpredictability last week by ordering a drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, increasing the risk of war and causing oil prices to spike not even 48 hours into an election year.
The political picture is so cloudy that one professor who has correctly predicted seven of the last eight U.S. presidential elections — including Trump’s upset win in 2016 — isn’t sure his model is up to the task this time out.
“Trump really has broken patterns of American history that have held since the Civil War,” said Allan Lichtman, a political history professor at American University. “That makes political analysis perilous and that makes this impeachment different.”
Trump is heading into the impeachment trial, expected to start as early as this week, with only a tenuous grip on his possible re-election, despite having one of the strongest economies in years. Head-to-head national polling shows Joe Biden consistently beating Trump in the popular vote and other major Democratic candidates largely within the margin of error.
Polling in battleground states is less reliable, but shows Trump largely behind in Midwestern states that were the key to his victory in 2016 — despite an improving economy.
“The fact that we have the strongest economy in 50 years and he’s stuck at 43% approval ought to scream volumes for his language and his overreach,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and communications strategist.
And that is even before his impeachment trial, which will put some the Democratic allegations about his handling of Ukraine back into the headlines. Polling shows Americans are essentially split, according to RealClearPolitics, with an average of 47.3% in favor and the same number opposed.
Those polls also show significant numbers who oppose impeachment — but still believe that Trump did something wrong when he asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden, his chief rival for the presidency.
Trump, who once predicted that President Barack Obama would start a war with Iran to help his re-election, clearly sees political benefits to his Iran response.
“President Trump has sent an unmistakable message: Terrorists will pay a heavy price for attacking Americans,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany in a statement. “American strength has been restored under the leadership of President Trump.”
The escalation of conflict gives Trump’s Republican allies one more attack line against his impeachment — and it has also forced Democrats into the position of lamenting the killing of a terrorist. Biden called the attack “incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.” Another presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, backed off on calling Soleimani a “murderer” and is now calling his killing by a U.S. drone attack an “assassination.”
“Both Trump and the Democrats have overcaffeinated their rhetoric,” said Luntz. “The Democrats are being driven so far to the left by their base that they risk alienating the center.”
The result of the Nov. 3 election will either vindicate Trump as a two-term, transformational president or repudiate him as a one-term wonder.
Further complicating the picture is that House and Senate negotiators haven’t even decided on a timetable for impeachment. There’s less than a month before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, followed by Trump’s State of the Union address the following night.
The stakes are likely to long outlive the Trump presidency. If he wins, he’ll blunt the threat of impeachment as a congressional power. If he loses, future Congresses may be more willing to use it to rebuke a president of the opposite party.
The Senate needs 67 votes to convict Trump on the House charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in the Ukraine affair. That means at least 20 Republicans would have to break ranks to remove Trump from office.
Still, a televised impeachment trial with Chief Justice John Roberts presiding would provide no shortage of drama, especially if the Senate calls witnesses.
There are risks for both sides. With five Democratic senators running for president, a January or February trial would take them off the campaign trail for jury duty during crucial early primaries. For Trump, an impeachment trial could bring forward key witnesses from his inner circle, and make the president’s Twitter feed a real-time rebuttal of the allegations.
His re-election campaign will be a war fought under new rules of engagement — many of which were broken in Trump’s upset victory in 2016 and some of which are yet to be written.
Trump has even suggested he may boycott the standard three presidential debates, becoming the first president to refuse to debate since Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Or, he says, he might just seek an end run around the Commission on Presidential Debates and seek more than three debates.
Advertising Analytics, a political ad-tracking company, projects a record-shattering $6 billion in political ad spending in the 2020 cycle. Much of that will be in traditional media — broadcast and cable television and radio — but $1.6 billion will be on digital platforms like Facebook and Google.
Almost $1 billion of that will come in the Democratic primary alone — a 71% increase from 2016, when both parties had presidential primaries. That spending is being driven by an exceptionally large field of Democratic candidates and the candidacy of two billionaires.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent $163 million on broadcast, cable and digital ads, according to Advertising Analytics, while former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has spent $86 million. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
The spending is also being helped by data-driven fundraising operations that have made small-donor solicitations much more efficient.
The two most liberal major candidates — Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders — have largely renounced traditional fund-raising in favor of large networks of small-dollar donors. The two New Englanders have home-field advantage in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
Pete Buttigieg joins Sanders and Biden for a three-way lead in Iowa.
Beating them all in the national polls is Biden, who’s betting on big wins among African-American voters in South Carolina and again on Super Tuesday, March 3, when 15 states will hold primaries.
Still, the divided field could produce a prolonged nomination fight for Democrats going into their July convention in Milwaukee.
Trump, having navigated his own crowded field of challengers in 2016, now has token opposition in his own party and remains overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters. He, too, has targeted small contributors but has also buttressed his massive war chest with $250,000-a-couple fundraisers at his resort home in Palm Beach, Florida.
Michael McDonald, an expert on voting patterns, says unprecedented fundraising numbers are yet another indicator that voter turnout could match or even exceed the all-time record set in the 1960 election.
Turnout in congressional, state and local elections has surged since 2016 — even in races seemingly far removed from presidential politics. Surveys of voter engagement show that voters are already paying attention. “They look like numbers from October of 2020, not January of 2020,” said McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the United States Election Project.
Conventional wisdom is that high turnout benefits Democrats, but Trump showed in 2016 that’s not always the case. And his campaign seems to be running the same playbook in 2020, looking to mobilizing his base — especially non-college-educated white men — in swing states rather than wooing undecided voters.
Impeachment is certainly helping to fuel that interest, but there’s little evidence that it’s changing anyone’s mind. But McDonald said it could still be a factor in November if it distracts Trump from running on what ought to be his greatest political asset.
“The parallels are there to the 2000 election. Al Gore tried to distance himself from President Clinton at a time when the economy was doing quite well,” he said. “Trump, if he would just shut up and stop tweeting, could win just on the economy.”
But Amy Fried, a University of Maine professor who’s studied presidential scandals and public opinion, said Trump will be Trump, impeachment or not.
“It’s very hard to parse out the short-term and long-term effects of impeachment,” she said. “It’s not that he’s going to run this completely disciplined campaign that focuses on bread-and-butter kinds of issues, if only he wasn’t being impeached.”
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