With nine weeks until the 2020 presidential election, several factors are unfolding that will likely determine whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpDHS to label white supremacists as the ‘most persistent and lethal threat’ to the US: report Buttigieg slams Trump over comments on fallen soldiers: ‘He must think we’re all suckers’ White House tells federal agencies to cancel ‘divisive’ racial sensitivity training: report MORE will be reelected. One major factor is how the electorate has changed since 2016.
First, consider that the share of voters supporting third-party candidates is much smaller in 2020 than it was in 2016. In 2020, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense: Critics continue to swipe at Trump over his alleged comments on fallen troops l Trump says he won’t cut funding for Stars and Stripes Trump rips media for soft treatment of Biden: Questions ‘meant for a child’ Poll: 2 in 3 voters say it’s ‘likely’ that people lie when taking political surveys MORE has a 2-to-1 lead over Trump among those who voted for Jill Stein and Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonPresidential race tightens in Minnesota as Trump plows resources into state The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden condemns violence, blames Trump for fomenting it l Bitter Mass. primaries reach the end l Super PAC spending set to explode Biden holds commanding lead among third-party voters from 2016, polls show MORE in 2016. One survey shows that 47 percent of Stein and Johnson supporters will vote for Biden, while 20 percent plan to vote for Trump or support another third-party candidate in 2020. If that lead for Biden holds, Trump could lose in November.
Things look particularly ominous for Trump in key states that will likely determine his electoral fate in 2020. In 2016, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLargest police union endorses Trump for reelection Trump skewers Biden, suggests again supporters vote twice in Pennsylvania Biden seeks somber contrast to Trump in Kenosha MORE lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined 77,744 votes with 558,001 having voted for Stein or Johnson in all three states. Another survey indicates that Biden leads Trump among third-party voters 55 percent to 39 percent, with 13 percent strong supporting Biden and 8 percent strong supporting Trump.
If Biden can maintain his advantage among Stein and Johnson voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then those states will return to the Democratic column in 2020 and Biden will be elected president. However, it is difficult to predict how third-party voters will break in 2020 and who they will break for in these three states. At least we know why the Trump campaign is actively supporting Kanye West for president.
A second troubling sign for Trump is that the president’s support among active-duty military personnel, a key group seen as essential to his reelection, is diminishing. A Military Times survey shows Biden leads Trump 41 percent to 37 percent among active-duty troops, with 49.9 percent holding unfavorable views of Trump. This is compared to a survey taken in October 2016, when Trump led Clinton by 20 points.
Stronger support within the military should not be interpreted as political realignment in favor of Democrats. Rather, this may be more of a reflection of a surge of dissatisfaction with the president among military personnel. Take, for example, Trump’s use of National Guard troops in response to protesters. The Military Times poll revealed that 74 percent of troops and officers opposed Trump’s use of troops to quell anti-racism protests this summer.
The third worrying sign for Trump is the significant demographic alterations that have taken place since 2016. Over the last four years, Trump has done little to expand his base that delivered him the Electoral College. The voters who constitute Trump’s base, white voters without college degrees, will constitute a smaller percentage of the electorate in 2020 than they did in 2016. A recent report by the Brookings Institution revealed that these voters declined from 45 percent in 2016 to 41 percent in 2020. In 2016, white voters without college degrees led white voters with college degrees and Latino voters by 9 points. In 2020, that lead has shrunk to 1 point, with Latino voters constituting 14 percent of the electorate, compared to 12 percent in 2016.
Trump is under pressure to boost his lead over Biden among white voters without college degrees. This is especially the case in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If Trump can maintain his lead among white voters without college degrees and drive up voter turnout on issues that appeal to this group in these three pivotal states, then he could win in November even if he loses Florida (as long as he wins all other states he won in 2016). It is a risky gamble and a very narrow strategy.
Most who voted for Trump and Clinton four years ago will remain with Trump and Biden this year, as 94 percent of Republicans say they will vote for Trump and 96 percent of Democrats say they will vote for Biden. This level of partisan commitment may be a given. However, Trump was elected in 2016 by only 77,774 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If just enough third-party voters vote for Biden in these three states and active-duty troops and officers express their dissatisfaction with Trump, then the president could lose reelection, especially since white voters without college degrees are representing less of a share of the electorate.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.