Donald Trump is never going to win a popularity contest. But he might just win a two-term presidency.
On the day of his election, Trump boasted a 38.6 percent approval rating — the lowest of any major party nominee since the advent of opinion polling. A wide variety of factors enabled Trump to win the White House while alienating a supermajority of the American public. The Electoral College, the exceptionally low approval rating of his Democratic rival, and the relatively low turnout rates of low-income voters were among the major ones.
But the unusually strong performance of third-party candidates was a significant minor factor. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein did not cost Hillary Clinton the election. But by collectively capturing a disproportionately left-leaning 4.3 percent of the vote (roughly 3 percent more than they’d won in 2012), they made Trump’s task considerably easier.
In 2020, Trump is all-but certain to be an unusually unpopular incumbent president. And his campaign has given every signal that it intends to run a base-centric reelection campaign, wagering that a narrow — but intense — band of support will be sufficient for eking out another Electoral College majority. The better third party candidates perform in 2020, the more viable that strategy will be: Anything that reduces the percentage of the vote a major-party nominee needs to secure pluralities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan is likely to be good news for the man whose approval rating hasn’t cracked 44 percent since the third month of his presidency.