- - Tuesday, April 16, 2019


The Mueller report made President Trump an unencumbered incumbent for the first time. While that may not seem like much, in presidential re-election politics it has been decisive. Democrats know that, too. It is why they have worked so hard to keep Mr. Trump encumbered with Russian collusion charges, and why they will try to encumber him again going forward.

To understand the importance to Mr. Trump of being no longer encumbered with Russian collusion charges, look at Rasmussen’s daily job performance tracking poll. On March 25, the Monday after the report was sent to the attorney general (March 22) and the attorney general wrote to Congress summarizing its conclusions (March 24), Mr. Trump’s rating was 45 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove. A week later, on April 1, after the conclusions had been widely reported, Mr. Trump’s rating was 51/49 percent — a net 11-point shift from -9 to +2.

If that seems insignificant, consider Rasmussen’s tracking poll for Barack Obama at the same point in his presidency (April 1, 2011) — was 44/54 percent. Mr. Obama had the same rating as Mr. Trump’s before the Mueller report lifted the collusion cloud.

Mr. Obama, without being so encumbered, was where the encumbered Mr. Trump was. Mr. Obama went on to win re-election handily. Where then could the now unencumbered Mr. Trump be when he seeks re-election next year? Certainly Democrats are asking that question, and it is equally certain they do not like the answer.

Democrats are right to be concerned. They have had a right to be since November 2016. The reason is simple: Winning the presidency the first time decidedly tilts the field toward the incumbent winning re-election — so long as they are not encumbered with negative baggage.

The biggest encumbrance an incumbent president can have is a negative economy. Since 1916, only three elected incumbents have lost re-election: Hoover, Carter and Bush I. Each one had negative real GDP growth within a year of their run. Only one bucked the trend: Truman in 1948.

Not only does Mr. Trump not have a weak economy, he has an extremely favorable one — and an extremely favorable comparison here with Mr. Obama. He likely will also have other accomplishments in foreign policy, trade, defense and border security by next November.

With these tailwinds, an unencumbered Trump is likely to run well next November. The early improvement in Mr. Trump’s Rasmussen polling numbers may seem small, but small changes can be really big in presidential politics.

First, put into context the group among whom this small change is likely occurring. These are unaligned voters — the small nonpartisan segment of the electorate. The partisan electorate has already made up their mind on the Mueller report, with each seeing it through their own political lens. They are not moving.

However, the movable nonpartisan portion of the electorate is critical. In the last seven presidential elections, no popular vote winner broke 53 percent. Mr. Obama fell just shy with 52.9 percent in 2008; absent that, none hit even 51 percent. During that span, the average margin of victory has been just 4.3 percent — that means just a 2.16 percent shift in the popular vote would have changed the popular vote winner.

By 4/10, Rasmussen’s tracking poll had Mr. Trump’s rating at 51/47 percent. While 51 percent represents the barest of majorities, it would be 5 percent above his 2016 total, when he won handily won the electoral college vote. If Mr. Trump were to actually win that same percentage of the popular vote in 2020, with the vote placement he had in 2016, he would be essentially unbeatable.

It also is a good reflection of what the Mueller report has meant for Mr. Trump. In itself, it is only a de facto positive in as much as it removed the negative of the Russian collusion allegation. Mr. Trump’s seemingly small bump is indicative of what can happen as positives do occur. By being unencumbered, his ceiling has been raised.

It becomes increasingly clear as 2020 moves increasingly closer, if Democrats want Mr. Trump encumbered, they are going to have to do it themselves. And the Mueller report’s early aftermath shows that Democrats must have Mr. Trump encumbered to win in 2020. Democrats’ best bet then is to try to keep the Russian collusion charge alive if at all possible. It is a safe bet that they will do everything they can to do so.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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