May 8, 2020
Donald Trump has defied expectations throughout his short political career. Heading into the 2020 presidential election, most polls suggest that Trump is a slight underdog, but he still retains the ability to command attention and drive the media narrative today. Incumbency offers powerful advantages, particularly when traditional campaigning may be limited. However, one of Trump’s chief assets — his reputation as an independent-minded outsider — will be more difficult to sell to voters this time around.
In 2016, Trump campaigned as an apolitical businessman, and this image served as a useful foil in his run against Hillary Clinton, a political mainstay since the early 1990s. In former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump again will face off against a career politician, but the public’s views about Trump’s political persona have undergone a significant shift over the last several years.
A new poll by The Economist finds that nearly half of Americans view Trump as conservative, twice as many who say he is moderate. During the 2016 campaign, less than one-third of Americans viewed Trump as conservative, while roughly as many said he was moderate.
How much does this matter? Research has shown that political moderates tend to fare better than more extreme candidates in general elections. An examination of congressional elections over the past 30 years showed that more ideologically extreme candidates pay a price at the polls.
Trump’s transformation into a conservative culture warrior will also pose a problem for him in his attempt to woo fiscally conservative, but socially moderate voters. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight suggests that these voters supported Trump over Clinton in 2016 by a substantial margin. During the 2018 midterm elections, these voters, disproportionately located in the suburbs, swung hard in support of Democratic congressional candidates allowing the party to take back the house. They will be a critical constituency this year.
Finally, Trump has shown an inability to work across the aisle. His distaste of Democratic congressional leaders and disinterest in compromise are both well known. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, most Americans said Trump was doing too little to compromise with Democratic leaders in Congress.
One common refrain about the Trump presidency is that public opinion largely is settled when it comes to the president and has been for some time. But, as The Economist surveys show, Americans’ attitudes about Trump’s politics and governing philosophy evolved recently. Americans who thought they were voting for a problem-solving pragmatist instead got an uncompromising conservative culture warrior.