Political context of the impeachment proceedings
Impeachment fever has been rife in Washington, DC for weeks, with new details of Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal coming to light every day. At the same time, the impeachment proceedings are proving how stable the system of checks and balances in the USA, the balance of power between the executive, legislative and the judiciary, still is. On the one hand, the proceedings will have a political influence on the election campaign. On the other, it is already becoming clear how much it will increase the unpredictability of US government policy and therefore also have consequences far beyond the US. This is because, against the backdrop of these proceedings, Trump will do even more to safeguard his power at home at all costs by creating alternative headlines to eclipse the media reports on the impeachment.
There is no historical precedent for these proceedings and therefore no basis to predict what course they will take and how they will influence next year’s presidential elections. No President has ever faced impeachment proceedings during an election campaign. However, it is extremely unlikely that Trump will actually be removed from office, as this would require the support of at least 20 Republican senators. What is much more likely is that it will fall to the people of the United States to judge Trump on his Presidency in the elections of autumn 2020.
Factors in favour of Trump’s re-election
Taking the above into account, there are solid reasons in favour of Trump’s re-election. Historically, the incumbent has won a second term in most cases. Trump’s approval ratings among registered Republican voters are higher today than they were in the 2016 elections and, unlike his first race, almost the entire Republican party stands united behind him. Prominent critics such as Jeff Flake of Arizona have retired from active politics and John McCain, Trump’s major ideological adversary from the same party, has died. Also in Trump’s favour is the fact that the Democrats need to do better than they did in 2016 and, crucially, they need to do so in the Midwestern swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. However, the electorate of these states is disproportionately old, white and poorly educated – all factors that play into Trump’s hands.
Furthermore, due to the gruelling internal pre-election campaign, all of the Democratic candidates will be invested in intra-party struggles until the summer of 2020 and will be faced with the challenge of winning over the other candidates’ supporters. Trump, moreover, has a financial head start and has already bagged record donations. And, last but not least, the fact that the American economy continues to be stable plays in Trump’s favour, a key element in re-elections of previous incumbents.
Ten reasons against Trump’s re-election
And yet, there are also substantial reasons that speak against Trump’s success at the ballot box next year.
- Trump’s approval ratings have been stable for years, but at the extremely meagre level of around 42%. Historically, a President’s approval ratings, together with economic developments in the country, have been the most important indicators of his re-election. A second term is not unheard of for a President with an approval rating of 42%, but it will certainly make it very difficult for him – no candidate with such a low rating has won a second term since Eisenhower. Furthermore, there are no likely developments in the pipeline that could lead to significantly higher approval ratings for Trump, as he continues to focus solely on mobilising his existing voters, with no attempts to recruit new groups of voters.
- This approval rating comes in the context of the longest continual growth period of the US economy in history, low unemployment and rising wages. However, there are early signs of a downturn in the US economy, also due to the smouldering trade wars of the Trump administration. The majority of Americans have not yet felt the effects of this economic downturn, but if it does have an impact on ordinary households in the run-up to the election, the President’s approval ratings could fall even further, making Trump’s re-election a distant prospect.
- In the mid-term elections of autumn 2018, the Democrats won an historic victory, considerably increasing their share of the vote even in the swing states of the Midwest. These elections were effectively a first referendum on Donald Trump, which will be even more the case next year. And although Trump was able to get record numbers of Republican voters out in the mid-terms, the Democrats for their part managed to mobilise even more voters, precisely in the critical constituencies. If Democrats can build on this mobilisation, that will be greatly in their favour.
- Trump continues to dictate the media discourse like no President before him. This, however, is a double-edged sword. Many of his statements and policies in recent years have been damaging to him. With his obsession with putting himself front and centre and his lack of self-control and discipline, he risks putting undecided voters off in a close election race. Surveys have shown that his lack of civil discourse have turned many Americans against him, particularly in the all-important suburbs.
- The age-factor of the electorate will work in the Democrats’ favour. In next year’s elections, the under-39s will be the largest potential group of voters. All surveys indicate that these voters are more demographically diverse than the national average and far more politically progressive. Historically, the turn-out rates of the younger generations in the US have been very low, but this seems to have changed since 2016. The increased support for the Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms is partly credited by these mushrooming participation rates of younger voters. Motivated by influential political youth movements in favour of gun control, stronger climate policy and social equality, they could swing the vote for the Democrats.
- One of the most important socio-political trends in the USA is the growing role of women in American politics. It is principally women who set the tone of the political resistance in the USA, from the Women’s March to the #MeToo movement. Women ran, in record numbers and with great success, in the last mid-terms and have become well-known faces of the Democratic party, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Nancy Pelosi to Elizabeth Warren. Additionally, out of all people under the age of 60 who were eligible to vote, more women turned out than men. There is also a noticeable gender gap in opinions on Trump. In a survey of June 2019, 62% of women respondents said that they had absolutely no intention of voting for Trump next year.
- It is very likely that a self-proclaimed 'outsider' will enter the race on behalf of the Democrats next year. Of the three current front-runners in the primaries, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both fit this bill. Over the last 40 years and with the sole exception of George H. W. Bush, the winning candidate has in all cases been the one who was able to portray himself more so as an outsider, in other words as somebody at a safe distance from the Washington-based “political elite”, in either political or biographical terms. In times of an increasing loss of prestige for the democratic institutions in the USA, such an anti-Washington discourse is certainly problematic as regards the democratic stability of the USA, but could bolster chances in the forthcoming elections.
- Whoever goes into the race for the Democrats, it will not be Hillary Clinton. None of the current Democrat front-runners is as unpopular among the population as Clinton was in 2016, when the majority of Americans viewed her negatively. In current surveys, even those produced by Fox News, all three of the Democrat favourites were ahead of Trump in national surveys. Admittedly, these surveys are of limited significance at this point in time and also fail to take into account the specific situation in the swing states, but it is certainly an advantage for the Democrats to be going into the election race unencumbered by the Clinton-legacy.
- In 2016, most potential Democrat voters assumed that Hillary Clinton would certainly win the elections. Many of them therefore voted emotionally rather than tactically. Large numbers of progressive voters, particularly disappointed supporters of Bernie Sanders, did not even bother to vote. Others voted for Jill Stein, the Green party candidate. In the days of Trumpism and the increased political polarisation of the country, it could be a different story in 2020. Most progressive voters are well aware that every vote counts in these elections, that nothing can be taken for granted. This may push up the turn-out rate on both sides and make it much harder for third parties or independent candidates to get a foothold.
- On many political issues, the Democrats are closer to the political preferences of the majority of the population than Republicans, from affordable healthcare for all to tighter gun laws to reproductive rights of women. If they were to put forward controversial proposals in more hotly-contested socio-political areas, such as a radical reform of immigration policy, this could hurt them. But by and large, the Democrats are closer than the Republicans to the heartbeat of the changing socio-political attitudes of the country.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is half an eternity in American politics today and there will be many political developments in the coming twelve months that could change the nature of the race. But one thing is certain: there are many good reasons to conclude that Trump’s re-election is everything but certain. Whether he will accept his defeat at the ballot box if he should lose, however, is another matter.