Aaron Blake raises a point that really deserves some careful consideration:
Most polls have shown a majority of Americans — as many as 57 percent in one poll, but usually a slimmer majority — say they will definitely not vote to reelect Trump. It’s one thing to lack appeal to such a large segment of the population; it’s another for them to rule out supporting you entirely. If this segment of the electorate doesn’t budge, it would make Trump’s reelection very difficult; he’d have to hope these people simply don’t turn out to vote, that he could win with a plurality thanks to third-party candidates and/or that he could carry the electoral college without winning the popular vote (again).
When half or more of the country says it’s already certain it won’t vote to reelect you, you are headed for defeat. This is not a case of people lying about being undecided when they actually intend to vote for you but are too ashamed to admit it to a stranger on the phone, either. That phenomenon was widespread enough in 2016 to explain how Trump could win a state like Pennsylvania despite almost never leading there in a reputable opinion poll. People generally don’t go so far as to say that they’ve ruled out voting for you if there’s still a chance in their mind that they actually will.
For Blake, the conclusion is obvious. Trump must make his opponent equally unacceptable and hope that some third party bleeds off more of their votes than his. He might be able to repeat his 2016 performance and win the Electoral College even while coming in second in the popular vote. After all, just because someone concludes that they’ll never cast a vote for him doesn’t mean that they’ll cast a vote for the Democrat.
Another way of looking at this is that the eventual Democratic Party presidential nominee will win unless something goes catastrophically wrong. But, as Edward Luce of the Financial Times puts it, “The thing about freak accidents is that they do not keep happening.” If 2016 was really just a low probability fluke, betting on a repeat is a loser’s bet. Trump would be crazy to deliberately pursue a strategy that depends on lightning striking twice on the same spot.
On the other hand, if 2016 happened because the Democrats presented a uniquely vulnerable alternative to Trump, things could repeat themselves in a predictable manner. For Luce, the problem with Clinton was that she “offered a living, breathing picture of America’s reviled establishment.” For others, the problem was that she was uniquely unlikable or a victim of sexism or that she didn’t campaign in Wisconsin or that she ran a lousy campaign or that she was a victim of foreign and domestic intelligence agencies ganging up against her. Figuring out what was made her so weak as a candidate might help people choose the right candidate to go up against Trump in 2020.
Right now, a strong plurality of Democratic voters think Joe Biden is the least likely to blow a winnable race. If Clinton’s problem was that she was “a living, breathing picture of America’s reviled establishment,” then those Democrats are dead wrong about Biden. If her problem was more that she didn’t have an endearing personality, then perhaps those voters are right.
One thing that seems more certain is that third-party candidates are likely to help Trump more than the Democrat regardless of their ideological tilt. In a two-way race, Trump is virtually doomed. Every vote that might have gone to the Democrat but instead goes to someone else is a win for the president. These votes make it possible to win a plurality of the vote even when a majority is ruled out. They also increase his potential for running another inside straight with the Electoral College. An attractive Libertarian candidate would ordinarily split the right and help the Democrat, just as Green Party votes tend to help the Republican. But with Trump already above fifty percent in the “hard no” category, the split on the right is baked in the cake. What he needs is as many of his defectors to settle on a third-party alternative rather than doubling his troubles by casting a vote for his main opponent. Conversely, the Democrat needs to be as welcoming as possible to these Republican defectors.
A big part of Trump’s strategy will, by necessity, involve making the Democrat seem like an unacceptable alternative. This is why the Democrat will have a big motive to position themselves in the middle and will probably welcome attacks from their left that make them look like a moderate choice.
Joe Biden’s strategy seems to anticipate this, but it presents two risks. The first is that he’ll wind up alienating too much of the Democratic base to win the nomination. The second is that he’ll tamp down enthusiasm on the left and lose a turnout battle against Trump. All signs presently indicate that 2020 will be one of the highest turnout elections in history, and it will be a referendum on Trump rather than on the Democrat. I don’t think Biden needs to worry about people turning out to vote in 2020. But he does have to win the nomination before he can begin running a general election campaign. I’m not sure he fully understands that the election he’s most at risk of blowing is the nomination fight.