One Year Away From Election Day:  Let the Games Begin

Charles Cooper

Signal Managing Director Charles Cooper discusses the five key factors likely to decide the 2020 election.

The White House

The 2020 election is one year away – a political eternity for campaigns that have hundreds of news cycles to go before Election Day. Predictions around outcomes are pretty pointless at this stage with so much unknown about the months ahead and significant political shifts on the horizon.  As history clearly proves, now is the time to analyze what will frame the election in the year ahead, not to determine what the outcomes will be.

One year out from the 2016 election, for example, Ben Carson was competing for the lead in the Republican primary and Hillary Clinton was leading Donald Trump in virtually every poll.  One year out from the 2012 election, President Obama was facing his worst poll numbers yet and Herman Cain was competing for the lead in the Republican primary.  Things changed then and we can expect a lot to change this election cycle as well.

Despite uncertainty around the players, the polls, and the outcome, there are five factors that are likely to define the 2020 election over the next year:

The Economy: Without question, the economy is almost always the biggest policy issue in any election.  In 2020, it may be even more so as President Trump has built his narrative over the last three years around economic growth that has resulted from policies he has implemented (i.e. tax reform).

Of course, this will be a winning argument for the President unless he moves away from his economic message or the economy weakens, which some are predicting could happen.  Democratic presidential candidates are feeling less vulnerable on the economy in recent months given more talk about a downturn and are starting to shift their own messaging to highlight the President’s policies that they believe could lead to a recession.  Furthermore, Democrats will continue to highlight their narrative that a strong economy hasn’t led to larger paychecks for everyday Americans.

This election may come down to where the economy stands on Election Day – politically, the President owns this economy (good or bad) and voters will watch economic progress or decline over the next year closely (and if they don’t, politicians will certainly remind them).

Policy “Wins”: Ironically, getting policy over the finish line isn’t the only factor in determining the next President, but it certainly is an important one.

Candidates will need to build a narrative around their record and their ability to advance policy initiatives.  The usual fights will emerge around who has done more, how many policy promises have been broken, and how advancing policy goals in the past translates to getting things done in the future.

President Trump came into office making big promises on issues ranging from building a border wall to renegotiating trade deals (and many things in between).  He will point to policies like abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, tax reform, China tariffs, and renovating NAFTA (assuming USMCA is finalized in the near-term) to show how he has advanced the promises he outlined during the 2016 campaign.

Democrats will use legislation passed by the new House Democratic majority as a way to show their own vision for the country and will point to the President and Senate Republicans as the reason those proposals haven’t been signed into law.  At the same time, they will highlight President Trump’s campaign promises that haven’t advanced in an effort to regain some of the voters they lost in 2016.

Much of this debate will focus on the President – which policy he has finalized and which he hasn’t.  Democrats will do their best to insert their own policy vision, but will largely make this a referendum on the President’s policies.

Party Unity: Republicans and Democrats continue to face the tough political realities of party factions and 2020 may depend on which side can best keep their political family together on Election Day.

Republicans continue to fight between those who support the President (which polling indicates remains strong) and those who don’t.  Watching which direction those who don’t support the President go over the next 12 months will be critical.  Some may just stay home, some may vote for the Democrat, and some may return and vote for the President.  The months ahead will provide a much clearer picture of that for sure.

Democrats have their own factions as well, which was clearly demonstrated in 2016.  The progressives and moderates in the party remain in a battle for who controls the agenda and this is being clearly reflected in the debates thus far.  Furthermore, it will be interesting to watch whether Democrats who supported President Trump in 2016 return to vote for the Democrat or not, much of which likely depends on who is nominated.

There is certainly enough intra-party disfunction on both sides of the political aisle to be a concern for the candidates in 2020.  Even small adjustments to voter turnout within key states could change this election and the “low hanging fruit” for both parties to watch are those who are fighting internally within their own parties.

The Democratic Candidate: It goes without saying that the candidate at the top of the ticket for Democrats will be a big factor to watch. The Republican playbook will vary widely depending on who that candidate is.  The nomination process and pool of candidates will narrow quickly as funding resources begin to dry-up for many of the candidates remaining low in the polls, which will help to define the race.

While many of these candidates share the same positions for most of the top tier policy issues, a crowded primary space has forced candidates to both connect with the base on issues they traditionally wouldn’t have while also defining themselves by showing differentiation on the policy front – both of which could be a vulnerability in a general election.

The Impeachment: At this point, it appears as though the President is likely to be impeached in the House and not convicted in the Senate (obviously, subject to change).  Both sides are worried about what that means.

Republicans have aggressively built a narrative around the impeachment process usurping debate around meaningful policy, which has resulted in key issues left unresolved by Democrats.  Democrats, who nervously entered the impeachment process, now own it and believe they can investigate and legislate at the same time (and are working to move impeachment forward as quickly as possible).  They will focus on all the legislation House Democrats have passed and sent to the Senate, which has not advanced further.

The one thing we do know will happen in the months ahead is that impeachment will be center stage in the press and everything else (including the election) will be secondary.  Therefore, the impeachment process becomes the messaging platform going forward. President Trump will use the impeachment inquiry to get his message out on how the Democrats are leveraging this process to change outcomes of the 2016 election, while Democrats will use impeachment to advance their own narrative around the President’s actions.  Both do so with some risk, of course.

The next twelve months can be defined in many ways, but “boring” is not one of them.  There will be countless issues that create opportunities and risk for both parties over the next year, and it will be important to watch how the five factors above evolve as Election Day nears, while keeping in mind that predictions today don’t take into account the roller coaster that lies ahead.