About three in ten Republicans want someone other than Donald Trump to be their party’s presidential nominee in 2020 according to the Public Religion Research Institute. It’s easy to see how that number could make some Trump supporters nervous and some anti-Trump Republicans hopeful. If a third of the party prefers someone else to Trump less than a year into his presidency, what will those numbers look like by 2020?
The short answer is that it’s way too early to tell and probably too early to be looking hard at the 2020 Republican primary. But since half a dozen pollsters have already surveyed the 2020 GOP race and will continue to do so until at least 2019, it’s worth looking at the historical data in an effort to provide some context about how Trump stacks up compared to past presidents.
These numbers are neither great nor terrible for Trump
Trump isn’t the first president to have some discontents within his own party.
From early 2010 to late 2011, CNN asked Democrats and independents who lean towards the Democratic party whether they should re-nominate President Obama in 2012, or nominate someone else. The numbers fluctuated a bit, but on average 21.4 percent of respondents said they wanted a different nominee and on average about three quarters said they wanted to re-nominate Obama. In November of 2010, Obama was leading Hillary Clinton 64 percent to 16 percent in a hypothetical Democratic primary election. And yet Obama didn’t have any major competition in his 2012 quest for re-nomination and won every contest.
During President Bill Clinton’s first term, a poll showed him ahead of Jesse Jackson in a hypothetical matchup, 72 percent to 19 percent. Like Obama, Clinton never drew a primary challenger.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter led current and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, 58 percent to 23 percent in a hypothetical matchup, and while Carter did win re-nomination, he eventually drew a serious primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, which wounded him going into the 1980 general election.
None of those numbers are directly comparable to the PRRI figure, but in 2020 polls with named opponents, Trump typically does reasonably well. In matchups with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich or both, Trump has often gotten in the mid-to-high 60s. In this context, Trump’s number stand out less. Democrats were happier with Obama when CNN asked them a question similar to the initial PRRI question, and he fared comparably to some other presidents in head-to-head matchups with competitors. Carter’s numbers should scare Trump a bit—if he declines further in popularity, he might face a challenger like Carter did.
That being said, the precedent here is thin. I had trouble finding comparable polls for George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan. That data might change the story. But for now you shouldn’t put too much stock in these polls either way. There are other data points that are more relevant.
These aren’t the most important numbers
The 31 percent number is interesting to political junkies because it lets us imagine a scenario where Trump draws a credible primary challenger and we get to watch another race. But frankly this number is far from the most important statistic in politics at the moment.
Right now, it’s important to focus on presidential approval. Popular presidents are more able to pass their agendas through Congress than unpopular presidents. Presidential approval also has a strong influence on midterm elections. Trump is very unpopular, and if his approval rating stays low, Democrats will likely benefit in the 2018 midterms. The generic ballot is similarly important—it’s the most direct measure we have of how the 2018 House elections might turn out.
And if Trump is unpopular enough to draw a primary challenge (the polls still could move substantially towards or against him before primary season), it will probably show up in some of these more frequently polled questions.
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