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2020 Foresight

“This is the most important election of our lifetime.” We hear that every four years. Sometimes, the phrase is even used to describe midterm elections. Obviously, not every election can be “the most important.”

We don’t know how important an election is until years later. When Americans went to the polls in 2000 to choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush, no one knew that the president they were electing was going to deal with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. We didn’t know we were electing the person who would decide whether to invade Iraq and then, after the invasion, stabilize that country.

We didn’t know in 2004 that we were electing a leader to deal with the collapse of the real estate market in the United States and the global financial crisis that became the Great Recession.

We did know that the winner of the 2008 election would face the Great Recession, but mostly we don’t know in advance what crisis a president will face. In that light, every election should be considered crucial.

The election of 2020 is more than a year away. We’ll probably have a nasty campaign with unpredictable results.

After more than two years in office, President Trump has approval numbers that have remained mostly unchanged. It’s been a term with two sides.

On the economy, the country has had record unemployment numbers, including for minorities, and strong GDP growth with falling adult and child poverty rates.

At the same time, Trump has endured midterm gains for Democrats, the Robert Mueller investigation, negative press coverage and a tariff war with China.

The curious result of all that has been a stalemate in the polls. Positive and negative factors appear to cancel each other when it comes to the president’s approval numbers. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates an overall job approval of 44 percent, a record high for Trump, but still similar to his job approval rate throughout his administration.

The approval numbers aren’t predictions. At this point in his first administration, Richard Nixon had an approval job rating of 48 percent, and he was reelected in a landslide. At a similar point, George H.W. Bush had an approval rate of 72 percent, and he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

The way Trump got elected in 2016 doesn’t necessarily offer an indication for 2020. While he got almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton nationally, Trump won three swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — by a total of 107,000 votes, representing 0.09 percent of all votes cast in the election. The 46 electoral votes of these three states gave Trump the White House.

It wasn’t a statistical miracle, but rather the result of a well-planned strategy on the Republican side. The Clinton campaign, convinced that the battleground states had already been won, decided to concentrate its efforts and resources during the last weeks of the campaign trying to turn Texas blue and achieving a more overwhelming victory in California. In a sense, the Clinton team were victims of its own propaganda.

What are the possibilities of repeating that victory with the poll numbers we see today? It is impossible to predict. People tend to support or reject Trump in a very passionate, consistent way. The number of voters ready to change their opinion on the president based on his performance seems to be lower than in any recent election.

That won’t change in the coming year. Unless we have an international crisis or an economic meltdown that dramatically affects the overall perception of Trump before November 2020, the next election will be a nail-biter up to the wee hours of Nov. 4, 2020.

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