2020 could be another ‘lesser of two evils’ election

Posted at 3:15 PM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-25 13:29:09-04

Last weekend, I wrote about President Donald Trump’s recipe to win a second term in office.

He, of course, has had an approval rating well below 50% throughout his first term. Therefore, Trump has to hope the Democratic nominee ends up being unpopular. This in turn would allow the 2020 election to be a contest between two disliked candidates, just like the 2016 election, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

A new Marist College poll suggests that Trump may, indeed, get his wish for a Democratic candidate who is unpopular.

Marist asked voters whether they thought the ideas being put forth by the Democratic presidential candidates were generally good or bad. Just 43% of voters said they were generally good compared to 48% who said they were generally bad. This 5-point gap is nearly equally to the 8-point difference between Trump’s approval rating (44%) and disapproval rating (52%) in the Marist poll.

In other words, 2020 could become another election where a large portion of the electorate doesn’t like their choices.

Now, to be clear, a candidate may end up being popular even if voters aren’t in love with their ideas. The Marist poll, though, is indicating that the average Democrat does not hold popular policy stances with the electorate, which is not good by any stretch for the Democrats and is likely to hurt the Democratic nominee’s popularity eventually.

A deeper dive into the Marist poll hints at what is probably making voters think the Democrats have generally bad ideas: health care and immigration.

All the leading Democratic candidates (except former Vice President Joe Biden) have backed “Medicare for All,” which would mean everybody would get their health care from the government. In the Marist poll, 55% of voters said implementing such a system would be a bad idea. A mere 40% said it was a good idea.

In proposing Medicare for All, Democrats are forfeiting a big advantage on a major issue. In the 2018 midterms, 41% of voters said health carewas their top issue. Democrats won those voters by 52 points. This came after Trump and the Republicans tried to gut the Affordable Care Act in 2017.

Democrats could retain the political edge on health care if they proposed a public option (like Biden is doing). The vast majority of voters (69%) say this would be a good idea. If they don’t propose an idea like the public option, this poll (and others) suggests that voters could be left with two unpopular choices on health care and will have to make a lesser of two evils decision.

Voters may also need to make a lesser-of-two-evils decision on immigration as well. Poll after poll has found that voters don’t want to build Trump’s wall along the US-Mexico border. The Marist poll shows that at least some of what Democrats are proposing on illegal immigration isn’t popular either.

In the second night of the first Democratic presidential debates, every Democrat raised their hands when asked whether their “government [health care] plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.”

A large majority (62%) told Marist pollsters that this would be a bad idea. Only about a third (32%) said it would be a good idea.

Immigration was perhaps the most important reason Trump won the 2016 election. It’s not just what helped him curry favor with primary voters. It’s that immigration views were highly correlated with voters switching their allegiance from the Democratic presidential nominee in 2012 (Barack Obama) to the Republican nominee in 2016 (Trump).

According to an analysis of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study by The New York Times’ Nate Cohn, this link was especially strong in the key northern swing states of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

For example, 73% of all Trump voters nationally and 58% of Obama-Trump voters in the northern swing states said immigration was of very high importance. This dropped 24% among Clinton voters. Further, 71% of all Trump voters and 65% of Obama-Trump voters in the northern swing states said that immigrants in the country illegally should be deported. For Clinton voters, it was only 20%.

Democrats are likely hurting their chance to win back Obama-Trump voters by running to the left on illegal immigration. That on its own probably doesn’t hurt Democrats too much. But combining it with other unpopular positions (such as on health care) may be a bridge too far to cross.

The end result of all this could be that Trump is able to win, yet again, despite being unpopular.