In the first nine months of his presidency, Donald Trump has made a name for himself with big moves designed to satisfy his voters and embarrass fellow Republicans nationwide. His pet hobbies of relentlessly attacking the media, putting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in political jams, and tweeting inaccurate, inflammatory, and downright weird things has fed into a trend of all politics being national.
But the truth is, politics in America remains heavily focused on local and regional concerns. Trump knows it. He ran a campaign with this front of mind, and won. And now, he may be setting himself up to lose in 2020, thanks to actions he’s taken that could cause significant problems for him in crucial states.
Let’s accept that the Trump administration’s handling of the still dire situation in Puerto Rico has been poor. Trump himself has inflamed things with comments seeming to blame the island territory for its predicament. His administration has worsened things through its failure to provide ongoing waivers from the Jones Act, or even to lift drone regulations impeding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to provide small-level disaster relief the way the Red Cross did in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Trump has picked fights with Puerto Rican leaders and appeared boorish and insensitive to a group of U.S. citizens who are now fleeing the island in droves and moving to—you guessed it—Florida, where they will presumably vote in the next presidential election. Earlier this week, HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery noted that the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York’s Hunter College is projecting that 200,000 people will leave Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath, with most of them resettling in the Sunshine State. Two hundred thousand is more than Trump’s margin of victory there over Hillary Clinton, a shockingly weak opponent (he won the state by a mere 113,000).
Bear in mind, too, that Trump probably got more Puerto Rican votes than observers were expecting, and kept some Puerto Ricans in Florida from voting in the presidential race at all, by making a statement ahead of Election Day that was interpreted in Florida’s Puerto Rican community as supportive of statehood. Most of those voters probably actively oppose him today.
In Pennsylvania, Trump has also created a problem for himself in the past week. Little noticed—except by people like me who consult on ethanol-related policy—is the fact that the Trump administration just took regulatory steps to placate King Corn that have enraged a key tranche of the manufacturing sector in Pennsylvania. Sure, Trump may have solidified his hold on Iowa’s six Electoral College votes with the move (although considering that in the 2016 caucuses, Iowans delivered a win to the most anti-ethanol-mandate candidate ever, maybe not). But now you have manufacturing worker unions who supported Trump in 2016 telling the The Wall Street Journal things like “I voted Donald Trump, I urged my members to vote for Donald Trump, and I urged them to ask their families and friends to vote for Donald Trump… And now we’re left out in the cold… Hopefully he changes his mind and goes with workers.” Trump won Pennsylvania by about 44,000 votes. Alienating these voters in particular seems like a bad move that may not be outweighed by attacks on CNN as #fakenews.
In Arizona, Trump beat Clinton by four points, contrasted with Mitt Romney’s nine-point victory over President Obama. It’s manifestly obvious to any observer that Hispanic voter numbers are quickly increasing in the state. Stephen Nuño, an associate professor of politics at Northern Arizona University, and Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate, peg the growth rate at 89 percent between 2008 and 2016, using Census Bureau data. But it’s also manifestly obvious, to anyone who vaguely knows Arizona, that a good chunk of white voters entering the state are coming in from more liberal California. Combine the two trends, bearing in mind Trump’s noxious-to-Latino-voters anti-immigration and anti-Mexican rhetoric and actions, and you almost certainly have more of a ballgame than in 2016.
Meanwhile, if Democrats choose a less ethically tainted candidate than Clinton, in view of numerous Trump administration scandals, most recently including lavish spending of taxpayer dollars on ritzy travel for Cabinet secretaries, Wisconsin could be a goner for Trump. The Badger State is unique in its political tendencies, managing to elect both rock-ribbed conservative Scott Walker and very liberal Tammy Baldwin. But one thing it seems to have trouble abiding is candidates who are obviously ethically challenged.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton looked like an experienced hand but an untrustworthy and dishonest liar to many voters. The way the Trump administration is handling itself on many counts, by 2020, he could look much the same. That’s potentially a big problem in a state like Wisconsin, which Trump only won by 23,000 votes, and which punishes people that look just plain swampy.
In its last published survey of voters in “Trump Country”—much of which encompasses Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but which also includes a few counties in Florida—GOP Polling Firm Echelon Insights showed Trump’s approval and disapproval numbers to be just about even (46 percent approve to 45.7 percent disapprove). What are the odds that these actions, with regard to fuel policy, immigration, ethics, and perhaps most critically his handling of Puerto Rico and how it may reverberate in and around Florida’s I-4 corridor, drive them down further?
It’s something the president ought to be considering because without either Florida, which Obama won twice, or Pennsylvania, which Republicans typically do not carry, his electoral math gets considerably harder—and winning presidential elections isn’t exactly an easy thing in the first place.