Presidential Election 2020: Who Will Find a Path to the White House?

How helpful are election polls 14 months ahead of the 2020 presidential election? “You can make the case … that President Trump could win in 2020,” Stephen Pastrick, a vice president in the government affairs office of Goldman Sachs, said in mid-October at the 2019 SVIA Fall Forum. “And you can make the case he’ll get absolutely destroyed.”

As the 2016 election showed, polls aren’t infallible. That year, almost all were predicting that Democrat Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Although she would go on to capture nearly three million more votes than Trump, he won in the Electoral College and went to the White House.

It’s too early to predict who Trump’s Democratic challenger will be in 2020, Pastrick said, although he noted that former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are for the moment the tightly bunched frontrunners. Warren also gets tagged as the second choice among many Democratic voters, he noted, suggesting she could capture even more support should any of her opponents drop out.

The challenge of forecasting who will win the Democratic nomination is exacerbated in this election by a split among Democratic voters between those backing a very progressive agenda of the sort espoused by Warren and Sanders, and those backing a more centrist agenda like Biden’s. A further complication: the progressive candidates are drawing the most support from younger Americans, who are less likely to turn out at the polls, while the moderates are drawing much of their backing from older voters, who are more likely to cast ballots.

In contrast with the muddled outlook for Democrats, Pastrick suggested it is pretty clear what Trump will have to do to win reelection, in part because so many states reliably vote one way or the other. Candidates need 270 electoral votes to capture the presidency. Right now, 233 can be considered either solid votes for the Democratic Party, or are at least leaning that way, while a little more than 200 strongly favor the Republican Party. The swing states are Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.

For Trump to get to 270 votes, Pastrick said, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona are “must wins.” If he also wins either Pennsylvania or Michigan, Pastrick said, the president will be reelected. If he wins neither Pennsylvania nor Michigan but wins Wisconsin, he would have 269 votes—a tie that would then be settled by a vote in the House of Representatives. That vote would be based on the 2020 election results, with each state delegation having one vote. While Democrats have a majority of seats in the House at the moment, Pastrick noted, Republicans have more delegations.

Pastrick said Trump believes he can win in Ohio and that he can do well in Michigan and Wisconsin. The president has been campaigning heavily in North Carolina, and even more heavily in Pennsylvania, which Pastrick called the president’s “pride and passion.” “Pennsylvania obviously is the number one state where the Trump team is campaigning,” he said. “If they win that, they win the election. It’s the same for Michigan, the other bellwether state. They win that, they win the election.”

While Trump’s support among the Republican base remains strong, Pastrick suggested there have been some shifts among the electorate that do not favor the president. While the percentage of all voters who think the country is headed in the right direction is about the same right now for Trump as it was for Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at this point in their presidencies—in the mid 30s—the percentage who are adamantly not going to vote for him is much higher—54%. To be fair, Pastrick noted, those are findings from national polls, which could be skewed by highly unfavorably opinions of Trump in large, left-leaning states like New York and California. Still, Pastrick said, “this obviously isn’t a great sign for somebody who wants to be reelected in 2020. And it skews much higher than anybody else who’s been up for reelection after the first term.”

Also troubling for Trump’s campaign, Pastrick said, is that the electorate nationally has been shifting more toward the left, becoming younger and more diverse than Trump’s key base of white, non-college-educated male supporters. Nonetheless, Pastrick said that in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania the electorate still looks much like it did in 2016.

Turning to Congressional races, Pastrick noted that it’s unusual for the House to flip from one party to the next in a presidential election year, and that while Republicans may talk about recapturing the House in 2020, a more realistic goal is to do so in the 2022 midterms. As for the Senate, conventional wisdom is that Republicans will retain control of that chamber of Congress in 2020. If forced to hazard a guess, Pastrick said, he estimates they will hold a slim 51-49 margin.

Pastrick concluded by observing that even if Democrats capture the White House, hold the House and win a slim majority in the Senate in 2020, it will not be easy for them to pass big-ticket legislation with only a narrow edge in the Senate. “You can pass spending bills, you can get your nominees through—your judicial appointments, your Supreme Court nominees,” he said. “What is very difficult to do, still, is pass big-ticket legislation. Can you pass infrastructure? Can you pass health care reform? It’s really hard.”