With the 2020 presidential contest increasingly looking like a matchup between Sen. Sanders and President Trump, the pundits are divided over the expected outcome.
"Trump has an excellent chance to win re-election," David Leonhardt reassures readers of The New York Times.
"The evidence doesn’t back Democrats’ panic that Bernie can’t win," Jim VandeHei writes at Axios.
I’m past the "who will win" question and have moved on to the question of "how big a victory landslide can Trump expect?"
Recent history provides some impressive precedents.
In 1984, President Reagan was re-elected by a 525 to 13 electoral vote margin, with Walter Mondale carrying only Minnesota and the District of Columbia. In 1972, President Nixon won re-election over Senator George McGovern by a similarly lopsided margin, 520 to 17, with McGovern carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
It sure doesn’t look at the moment, though, as if Trump is headed for a Reagan or Nixon-level landslide. That’s true despite the fact that Sanders, a 78-year-old socialist from Vermont, looks like a weak opponent. An incumbent president hasn’t lost a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush was defeated in 1992.
A northeasterner hasn’t won the presidency since John F. Kennedy (no, the Bushes don’t count). Dukakis, Kerry, Romney — they all lost. And Trump has the additional tailwind of relative peace and prosperity.
A glimpse of the Trump campaign’s current thinking about the electoral map can be seen by the political events it has scheduled. The campaign is focused on states Trump won last time around — Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida.
The Republican National Convention will be in North Carolina. Potential pickups where events are scheduled include Colorado and Virginia. If Trump holds all the states he won last time around, including Pennsylvania, and adds Colorado and Virginia, he’d wind up with 326 electoral votes. That’s nowhere near Reagan or Nixon landslide level; it’s even short of Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory over Bob Dole. It’s in the neighborhood of President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Trump’s campaign has been paying to air television commercials and has had in-person rallies in Nevada and New Hampshire, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016. It’s hard to tell, though, whether he considers those states, with an additional 10 electoral votes, real pick-up opportunities, or whether he was just counterprogramming the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucus.
No Republican has carried California in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and no Republican has carried New York in a presidential election since Reagan in 1984. Census data indicate that these two states, with 84 electoral votes between them, have the highest percentage of foreign-born population.
They are also high when it comes to percentage of the workforce that are union members. Democratic efforts to depict Republicans, accurately or inaccurately, as hostile to immigrants and to organized labor have made it difficult for Republicans to compete in those states.
Reagan was a popular former governor of California, and Nixon was also a Californian. But since the Reagan era, because buying television ads in New York and Los Angeles is so expensive, Republicans have mostly given up on even competing for the presidency in the nation’s two largest cities.
Trump’s decision to end the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes hit high-tax New York and California especially hard, suggesting he viewed them as political enemies to be punished rather than potential voters to be wooed. Trump moved his own official residence to Florida from New York after being elected.
Other factors to consider?
Polls showing Sanders beating Trump are mostly of registered voters, not likely voters, a smaller group that usually tilts somewhat more Republican. Trump and his allies have yet to unleash what will likely be a devastating wave of advertisements featuring Democrats denouncing Sanders as extreme, with Hillary Clinton saying, "Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done."
Some people may say that as long as Trump gets to 270 electoral votes, the margin of victory will be irrelevant. But with a big enough victory, Trump and the Republicans might win back the House of Representatives from the Democrats and be assured of keeping a majority in the Senate.
Returning to Reagan or Nixon-era margins requires a Republican Party comeback in New York and California. George W. Bush made noises in that direction during the 2004 New York City Republican convention featuring speeches by Governors Pataki and Schwarzenegger, but nothing came of it.
As a political matter, it would be a worthy project for Trump’s second term, requiring policy adjustments on the immigration or tax fronts. New York has lost congressional seats and electoral votes, and California’s growth has slowed, but the two states still loom large in business and culture.
Until and unless some Republican politician, Trump or someone else, repairs relations between the party and those two big states, Reagan-scale landslides will be impossible to reproduce.
Ira Stoll is author of "J.F.K. Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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