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What Impact Will Trump’s Reelection Headwinds Have on the Industry?

The 2020 election stands to have a massive impact on a range of issues facing the fashion industry. From trade relationships to bolstering retail’s reopening, fostering sustainable solutions and bringing manufacturing back stateside, the person who sits behind the Resolute desk come January will face manifold decisions that stand to sway the sector’s future.

What’s more, the country faces a number of Senate races this fall, and the outcome of those contests could serve to underscore or undermine the president’s agenda next year.

With voting day less than four months away, Americans are looking to the polls with increasing interest. At an Outdoor Industry Association virtual luncheon on Thursday, Doug Usher, a pollster and partner at Forbes Tate Partners, weighed in on the state of the campaign season.

According to Usher, data has swung in the Democrats’ direction.

President Trump’s job approval ratings for his first term are significantly lower than any president who has been reelected in the recent past, including Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The current president has hovered below 40 percent, and has now inched just above that mark.

The approval ratings have also shown extremely narrow fluctuations, Usher said, ranging from 45 percent down to 37 percent. Former presidents have seen much more pronounced highs and lows during their first terms in office.

A second factor working against Trump is the fact that he has presided over a period of recession in the two years leading up to an election, Usher said. One would have to go back as far as Calvin Coolidge, the nation’s 30th president, to see that circumstance coincide with a reelection.

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While Trump’s fundraising was high in the first part of the year, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has seen a bump in recent months, mostly due to a grassroots effort to drum up small donations. Trump has big-dollar donors who are interested in seeing him reelected, Usher said, but he also has a strong and devoted base of everyday citizens contributing to his campaign.

Trump will have much more money than he did in 2016, Usher conjectured, and he has a sizeable advantage over Biden in terms of exposure. As the sitting president, Trump is a mainstay of the everyday news cycle, while Biden—like most Americans—has been hunkering down at home as the coronavirus continues to spread. Without the excitement of the campaign trail to cover, the media has been granted few Biden soundbites to replay and analyze.

“You can make the argument that his exposure during COVID has harmed [Trump], and Biden’s strategy has been to keep quiet as [the president] digs the hole deeper,” Usher said. However, Trump leads headlines every day, and he could see returns simply on his unavoidable omnipresence.

Studies of the 2016 election show that Trump had the advantage of multi-millions of dollars’ worth of organic news coverage. Once a long shot for the nomination, his bombastic statements drew eyeballs and helped develop the cult of personality that ultimately won him the election.

Still, Biden is holding an 8-10 point lead, and has for the entire year. “There are only a handful of polls out of the dozens of national polls since the beginning of the year that have shown Trump leading at all,” Usher said. Currently, Biden is trending at or around 50 percent.

The states tell a story of what’s changing this time around. Critical states that make up the so-called “Blue wall,” or Democratic stronghold, include Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—all of which Trump won in 2016 in an upset that toppled Hillary Clinton’s White House ambitions.

This year, though, Biden is leading between 3-7 points in those three states, along with other important battlegrounds like Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. While Clinton was also leading those states at this point during the last election cycle, Biden’s lead is greater.

On a local level, the correlation between the presidential race and Senate races has never been stronger than in recent election cycles, Usher said. In 2016, every single state that had a Senate race voted in a candidate that shared the same party as the presidential candidate who got their vote.

“Presidential sentiments are having an outsized impact on Senate races,” Usher said. “Trump’s energy and the way he’s driven the debate has a strong impact down the ballot.”

It turns out, that “energy” is pushing voters into the arms of Democratic candidates. With more Senate Republican incumbents facing reelection than Democrats, and a strong field of Democratic challengers, the map should favor the would-be’s. “There is a potential vulnerability for those Republicans because there are a number of races that look like toss-ups,” he said, as opposed to sure bets.

But the same forces that propelled Trump in 2016 still exist today, Usher said, and they may be growing under the radar.

Democrats have a significant vote distribution problem, he said, and if that persists, they could lose the Electoral College even while winning the popular vote, as they did in 2016. National numbers will not decide the election, he said—state outcomes will.

“If Biden wins by five percentage points nationally, there’s almost no way that Trump can turn around and win the Electoral College,” he said. “But if it’s only 2-3 percentage points, there could be an issue.

“Another vote in Santa Monica and Brooklyn won’t help him win,” he added.

While the country awaits the former VP’s vice presidential pick, the intrigue surrounding running mate decisions tends to fade quite quickly, Usher said. He admitted, though, that the current cultural landscape is different than it was four years ago.

“There’s a lot of pressure on him to pick an African-American candidate, and he’s said he will choose a woman,” Usher said. And because Biden will turn 78 in November, “they need to be perceived to have the ability to take over for him due to his age.”

Given the fact that no one has seen the two challengers face off in the public sphere, this year’s debates will be extremely important, Usher said. “This year’s debates will be huge,” he said, borrowing one of the president’s favorite descriptors. “Trump draws incredible audiences, and it will be must-see TV.” The incumbent president also tends to do extremely poorly in their first debate against their challenger, he added, referencing Clinton, Bush and Obama as examples.

Bringing the discussion around to the industry, Usher said outdoor recreation has played a pivotal role in some states’ COVID-19 recovery plans. As retail remains locked down across much of the nation, citizens are spending more time enjoying the country’s natural splendor.

That newfound enthusiasm will see candidates being forced to answer the call from everyday Americans who have become more concerned than ever with protecting the country’s parklands. Even as people in the U.S. continue to struggle financially and worry over their employment status, Usher believes they’d be unwilling to see the country backslide with legislation that allows national parks and other areas to fall victim to corporate interests. A candidate’s platform can’t hinge on jobs or the environment, he said—“it has to be both.”

Usher’s perspective was underscored by Thursday’s announcement that Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which will grant permanent funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, enabling deferred maintenance on public lands and allowing the federal government to acquire new lands for public recreation.

Generally, outdoor enthusiasts tend to fall into the Democratic camp, Usher said, but that’s not always the case. “Hunting has a stronger Republican base,” he said, and there are plenty of enthusiasts across the country who are deeply invested in protecting the lands on which they hunt.

No matter where outdoor lovers fall on the political spectrum, Usher said, brands and organizations that care about the environment should work to amass bipartisan support. “Durable, long-term strength will be made up of supporters from both sides of the aisle,” he said.