A president's approval rating is a guide to the strength of his vote. President Donald Trump's national approval rating has been steady but historically low — ranging between 35 and 45 per cent — which suggests his best chance of winning re-election is through a popular vote/Electoral College split, as in 2016. RealClearPolitics.com has his average approval at 43 per cent. State by state approval varies markedly.
Trump's core base of supporters has stuck with him throughout. CNN and Atlantic analyst Ron Brownstein tweeted: "The evidence is pretty persuasive that for most supporters, it's not economic benefit, it's the sense that Trump expresses their anxieties (and often resentments) about racial, gender, cultural & even economic change. For opponents the reverse."
Centre of attention
At its most basic the general election campaign will be a raw battle for attention, a fight to set the agenda. Trump is an expert at lobbing grenades: to dominate; to rattle opponents; to distract from difficulties; to create a fresh news cycle with a tweet. His relentless chest-beating tends to shut out the sun for opponents. It's hard to see how the Democrats can consistently wrest the spotlight away or have figured out how to deal with Trump.
Presidential candidates collect delegates proportionally during the primary process. There will be 3768 delegates at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, next July. A candidate needs at least 1885 delegates to win the nomination. A CBS/YouGov estimate predicts former Vice-President Joe Biden will lead after the 18 early contests up to and including Super Tuesday on March 3. Based on current polling, Biden will grab 581 of the 1494 delegates available in that crucial period from Iowa on February 3. Senators Elizabeth Warren (430), Bernie Sanders (249) and Kamala Harris (173) are the most competitive alternatives. Trump will stroll to his convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next August.
A total of 538 state electors decides the election rather than the popular vote, with 270 required to win. In 2016 the election came down to margins of 0.77 per cent (Wisconsin), 0.72 per cent (Pennsylvania) and 0.23 per cent (Michigan) for Trump.
From blatant lies and denials that defy all evidence to distortions and deepfakes, 2020 will test the limits of even the most obsessive news junkies. A factchecker will be a reader's best friend.
Grandee of the party
At present the Democratic nomination looks like Biden's to lose. Biden, 76, is popular with older and more moderate voters and many black voters. Party activists are not fans, but he carries a lot of affection with Democrats and Independents after his eight years as President Barack Obama's deputy. Polling shows he can compete for swing state voters who went for both Obama and Trump. He has the status to compete with Trump and is far more likeable. To some he appeals as the person to clean up and restore order. But he needs to deliver the sharpness, ability to nail memorable lines, and brawling energy he had in the past. Biden, after the first debate, looked more like a gaffe-prone pol weighed down with years of baggage whose best days are behind him.
Healthcare and immigration
The two most crucial issues that could mean the winning or losing of the election. They loom as both opportunities and potential traps for primary candidates. Democrats successfully focused on healthcare at last year's midterm elections. But a Marist/NPR poll this week showed a major divide between attitudes towards an optional public health system and a Sanders-style compulsory one. Seventy per cent supported Medicare that allowed "all Americans to choose between a national health insurance programme or their own private health insurance". Yet that dropped to 41 per cent for "a national health insurance programme for all Americans that replaces private health insurance". A pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the US is popular: 64 per cent rate it a good idea. But allowing illegal immigrants to use a national health service was supported by just 33 per cent and "decriminalising illegal border crossings" only had 27 per cent support.
The push towards impeachment proceedings as a symbolic censure of Trump is growing in the House. Any such move would need to happen in the next few months before the 2020 primaries. A House bid would ultimately fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The role of running-mate hasn't always been treated with seriousness — think Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin. But this time could be different. Two of the main Democratic contenders are in their late 70s — a time of life when people are more likely to be cruising the Caribbean or planting agapanthus than running the free world. A particularly strong deputy and heir apparent would be essential for Biden or Sanders to ease concerns. The party's minority wing also can't be taken for granted. It's highly likely one member of the ticket will be a person of colour. Could Trump even be tempted to spruce up his team by dumping Mike Pence for former UN ambassador Nikki Haley?
Keeping Biden honest
Having been written off after becoming the object of Trump's scorn as "Pocahontas", Warren has dug her way into contention with hard work and attention to detail. She has plenty of plans and the chance in debates to show she can also be politically nimble. Presenting controversial ideas before an election didn't work so well for the Australian Labor Party. But Warren has a vison she knows inside out. Harris needs to convince black voters to switch from Biden. Harris has the best chance of pulling together the different strands of the party should Biden stumble, but seems to struggle retaining attention between set-piece spectaculars such as her first debate demolition of the Vice-President. Still, many would like to see the former prosecutor unleashed on Trump in a general election and it's not hard to envision Harris making a positive case — with a touch of fire.
The Marist poll showed that major features of the Democrat agenda were broadly popular. Background checks on gun sales, for instance, were a "good idea" according to 89 per cent. A Green New Deal and a Wealth Tax on income over US$1 million ($1.5m) were supported by 63 and 62 per cent. Sanders, who is seeing some of his ideas dominate party discussion, is doing about as well as pundits expected considering he squared off against Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is now part of a much larger group.
Trump has an early fundraising advantage over the Democrats with his campaign and the Republican National Committee hauling in a combined US$105m in the second quarter.
With more than 20 Democratic candidates, pollsters have been trying to get indications of second leanings. Morning Consult found that Sanders is the top second choice of Biden supporters and vice versa; Harris is the top second choice of Warren supporters and vice versa; and Harris is also the second option for backers of mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Trump is the heavy favourite to win on betting markets. Although Biden leads the Democratic race in polls, Harris rates second to Trump for punters. The generic "which party do you favour" congressional ballot was a good indicator at the midterms. The RCP average has the Democrats ahead by 8 per cent. In match-ups between Trump and leading Democrats, the RCP averages are: Biden +8.5; Warren +2.5; Sanders +4.8 and Harris +2.
Gallup's most recent survey estimated that Republicans made up 29 per cent of the electorate, independents 38 per cent and Democrats 27 per cent. In the Marist poll 33 per cent of Independents said they would vote for Trump, and 54 per cent said they would vote against him but only 15 per cent knew which Democrat they would back.
Questions to be answered
Can Americans elect a female head of state? Can Trump improve on his 2016 result even though he will be seeking a second term? Can he still be the change agent as the incumbent? Can Democrats still pick a candidate in a polarised era who calls for hope as well as change?
In the last election, blacks voted Democratic by an 85-point margin and whites voted Republican by a 15-point gap. The black vote for Clinton was down by about 6 per cent on 2012.
Swing voters and states
The election will depend on whether the Democrats can win back the traditionally blue-leaning Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. As insurance, the party eyes Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa. Morning Consult says that in June, Trump's approval was -9 in Pennsylvania, -14 in Wisconsin and -15 in Michigan. But new analyses by NBC and the New York Times say that a concentration of Trump supporters in these states could doom the Democrats.
Which party will have the more motivated voters? The 2018 midterms produced the highest turnout, at 53.4 per cent, in four decades for that type of election. Both parties were boosted. Turnout was up by 11 per cent on 2014.
The overall jobless figure is just under 4 per cent. A well-performing economy should be the foundation for re-election for an incumbent president. The Marist poll showed that Trump undercuts that advantage. In it, 67 per cent of whites with a university degree said the economy is working for them but 60 per cent would not vote to re-elect Trump.
Trump inspires a great deal of interest but is it a positive or negative for him? Michael McDonald, of the University of Florida, after last year's midterms, compared the situation to other times of US civil upheaval. "Trump is really driving the conversation. He's impassioned people both for and against him."
Unsurprisingly, given Trump's various controversies, polls show Trump has a marked deficit with female voters. In a Hill/HarrisX poll in June, 62 per cent of women voters said they were unlikely to support Trump. That compared to 51 per cent of men saying they were likely to back him. In 2016, women voted Democratic by a 15-point margin, and men voted Republican by an 11-point margin. Female voters outvoted men by 3 per cent last year and 4 per cent in 2016.
Xenophobia and racism
Francis Wilkinson writes in Bloomberg: "The intensifying self-definition of Republicans as a racial tribe, along with the Trump Administration's dehumanisation of immigrants, and delegitimising of non-white political actors, guarantees that race will be the context in which the 2020 campaign is fought. The Democrats' task is to establish the high cost of incompetence, corruption and plutocracy in the White House. That message will be harder to convey when the news is dictated by Trump and it's largely about racial conflict."
Can the Democratic nominee turn out young voters the way Obama did in 2008? Sanders, Warren and Harris have a chance because of their policy positions. Voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds went from 20 per cent in 2014 to 36 per cent last year.
When will the Trump Show reach its climax? And at what stage does it all get too exhausting? The Financial Times' Edward Luce writes: "If you measure a presidency by media saturation, Mr Trump is already on his fourth term. It is entirely plausible that most Americans crave a break from the most towering male ego in memory."