By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – If The Gipper - President Ronald Wilson Reagan - were still alive, you might hear his echoes emanating through the Simi Valley smoke and embers: “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

That would be an apt description of the looming 2020 presidential race that will take place a year from now. It is shaping up to be a historic stew and brew of impeachment, where decorated military and intelligence personnel are labeled “human scum,” replete with a whirling lazy susan of alternative facts, all documented by enemies of the American people and slung like Seattle market fish on Facebook and Twitter.

Trump is defying congressional subpoenas. What happens if he defies court orders? If President Trump were to lose, will he leave the White House voluntarily (jailed fixer Michael Cohen doesn’t believe he will)? If Trump wins, at this point a viable 50/50 proposition despite his historic low approval, does he lose the popular vote again and return with a second Electoral College degree? Does this “strongman” wannabe set America on an authoritarian course? Will Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen be along for the ride, which will almost certainly include racist torts and tropes and other crudities?

Will they face the gay mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, potentially the first Hoosier to win a Democratic presidential nomination? Or will this be the last hurrah for the Baby Boom generation? Will Elizabeth Warren be prepared to explain the middle class her $20.5 trillion health care plan?

Will the nominees even talk about Mitch Daniels’ all-but-certain “red menace” of bloody ink poised to devour our entitlements, catapulting the nation toward insolvency? In the almost certain next recession, will the current trillion dollar deficits explode like a Weimar political disaster? Will climate change be seriously debated, or is American on the precipice of a second era of coal?

We’re a year away from what looks to be the most volatile and explosive presidential race in history, conducted by a president who spews invective and insult on an hourly basis via social media. Anyone standing here today with a straight face telling you they know what will happen will also sell you a bridge in the Arizona desert.

In the next year, we may not only see “nuthin’,” as Reagan would put it, we may see everything. 

One year out, what should we be watching?

1. Keep an eye on the state polls. We saw an array of national polls last weekend, with President Trump mired in the 42-45% job approval range, while the septuagenarian Democrats (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders still leading, with Mayor Pete still in the single digits). But operatives and journalists on the ground see a wave building for the mayor in Iowa, and according to today’s Quinnipiac Poll, Buttigieg trails only Warren and Biden is in fourth. NYT/Siena also published an eye-opening poll on Monday, showing key battleground states (PA, MI, WI, NC, FLA, AZ) all highly competitive and within the margin of error in head-to-heads between Trump and the 70-somethings. It burnishes the notion that Trump has a shot at winning a second term without the popular vote; he can afford to tell California to burn in hell.

2. Will polling be accurate? Most of the 2016 polls failed to pick up President Trump’s true support, thus he was able to crack the MI, PA, WI “blue wall.” Taegan Goddard observes in Sunday’s “Political Wire” of the latest Fox Poll, which showed 41% of registered voters are against impeaching President Trump and of those, 57% say no new evidence could cause them to change their minds. “That would put Trump’s true base at around 23% of registered voters,” Goddard explains.

3. How will impeachment play? The two modern impeachment sagas played out during President Nixon and Clinton’s second terms. This will be the first impeachment of a first-term president seeking reelection. So this is utterly new territory, without historic telltales on how it will turn out. We know that Clinton’s job approval was above 70% in Gallup Polling during week of his 1999 acquittal. Will impeachment be a reelection lifeline for Trump? Or will the coming televised testimony that half the nation doesn’t care about fatally damage the president’s reelection hopes? Or will the public see this as an epic Democratic overreach? Will Democrats gain some sense, and instead of impeaching Trump with no hope for a Senate conviction, vote for censure? Don’t expect Senate Republicans to ever abandon the president. If they did and even with “President Pence” on the ticket in 2020, a huge part of Trump’s base wouldn’t show up at the polls.

4. A polarized electorate: NBC/Wall Street Journal had this fascinating nugget, with 46% of registered voters saying they are “certain” to vote against Trump in 2020, versus 34% who are certain to vote for him. According to NBC’s “Meet The Press” team, that leaves “17% – made up disproportionately of independents, soft Republicans and younger voters – who say they might vote either way depending on the nominee.”

5. Will Pence remain on the ticket? Mike and Karen Pence are “all in” on the reelect. Despite Trump’s persistent curiosity about Pence’s loyalty, it’s hard to think Trump would risk his evangelical support by jettisoning the pliant Pences. That Karen Pence is ready to hit the campaign trail for the president she once found offensive is an important telltale. The risk for the Pences is that their epic ambition will forever be defined by whatever Donald Trump believes is necessary to win. Most believe he will be willing to throw in the kitchen sink, the toilet, and hell, the whole damn septic system if that’s what it takes.

6. The economy, stupid: As we’ve long observed, with historic low unemployment and high stock markets, President Trump’s approval should be 20% higher than it is. He has never escaped the lower- to mid-40 percentile because he is so undisciplined, offensive, crude and his White House is utterly chaotic. His base loves it. But there are a array of interesting telltales:

a. Last month, Moody’s Analytics revealed that once again Trump could lose the popular vote but easily win the Electoral College vote by focusing on strategically positioned strongholds.

b. The U.S. national debt at roughly $22 trillion reached 100% of our gross domestic product for the first time in American history. Yahoo News: “Despite the fact that our economy generates an incredible $20 trillion annually, we borrow at least that amount in addition to our income to finance our current expenditures.”

c. Steel tariffs are backfiring: When President Trump slapped 25% tariffs on foreign steel in March 2018, panicky U.S. buyers rushed to place new orders ahead of feared supply interruptions, driving prices up sharply, according to Yahoo News. By the end of this year, benchmark steel prices have fallen well below their level before the tariffs took effect and are now about half their peak in July 2018. The industry has responded with production cutbacks. US Steel has begun laying off scores of workers at two other old blast furnaces, near Detroit and in East Chicago. Will Trump be able to hang on to his Democratic union support?

d. Manufacturing contraction: Three years after Donald Trump campaigned for president pledging a factory renaissance, the opposite appears to be happening. Bloomberg/Quint reported that manufacturing is now at its smallest share of the U.S. economy in 72 years. Manufacturing made up 11% of gross domestic product in the second quarter, the smallest share since 1947.

7. Coal is not making a comeback: In July 2017, Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement (Forbes Magazine). He almost single-handedly tried to roll back rules on climate change adopted during the Obama administration to fulfill pledges to voters in coal mining states like West Virginia, Montana, Kentucky, Indiana and Wyoming. Yet for all of that, more coal-fired power plants have shut stateside in Trump’s first two years than were decommissioned in the entirety of Obama’s first term in office, according to a collation of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and Reuters data. Readings point to 23,400 MW of U.S. coal-fired generation being taken out of the grid in 2017-18, versus 14,900 MW in 2009-12. 

8. Farmers losing markets due to trade war: John Brinkley of Forbes Magazine reported in July, “Thanks to his trade war, exports of American soybeans to China fell from $14.2 billion worth in 2016 to $3.1 billion worth in 2018. That’s a 78% drop, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.”The Agriculture Department projects that farm incomes will reach $88 billion in 2019 but nearly 40% of that, $33 billion, will come from trade aid, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities, according to a new report by the American Farm Bureau Federation. Farm aid from Trump’s trade war has cost more than double the 2009 auto bailout. While Trump and Pence say they oppose “socialism,” it is expanding in the bean and cornbelt.

9. Trump losing suburban voters: Recent polls show Trump’s numbers have slipped substantially among suburban voters, who Trump carried in 2016 by a 49-45% margin over Hillary Clinton. According to The Hill, just 32% of all suburban voters now say they would definitely vote to reelect the president, according to a new Grinnell College poll conducted by the Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer. Another 14% said they would consider someone else, and 51% said they would definitely vote for a candidate other than Trump. Among suburban women, only a quarter, 26%, approve of Trump. Suburban women especially appear motivated to make their disapproval felt; 86% of suburban women said they would definitely vote in the 2020 presidential election, 10 points higher than voters overall. 

Want an Indiana example? Look at Emily Styron’s upset mayoral win in Zionsville and Democrats on the Carmel and Fishers city councils.

“This to me is striking not so much in that they are aligning against President Trump, but the degree to which they are aligning against President Trump,” Selzer told The Hill. “That is sort of the pin in the hand grenade. GOP pollster Chris Wilson is more cautionary: “The problem with doing these kinds of polls now is that they offer voters a choice between Trump, who is incredibly well-defined, and some imaginary Democratic nominee who they can imbue with whatever characteristics and proposals they would like best. That’s just not reality.”

10. Trump very viable in swing states: In contrast to recent national surveys, the New York Times/Siena College polls find that the president’s lead among white, working-class voters nearly matches his decisive advantage from 2016. This group represents nearly half of registered voters in these states, and a majority in the Northern battlegrounds that decided the last election. Most of the electorate is for any Democrat or for Trump, but about one in six voters say that they don’t know or that their vote depends on whether Biden or Warren is the nominee. An analysis of the 205 respondents from the six core battleground states who support Biden but not Warren suggests that she might struggle to win many of them over. Over all, 26% of these voters say they have a favorable view of Warren, compared with 47% who have an unfavorable view. 

Epilogue

My brain tells me that an incumbent president mired in the lower 40th percentile of job approval and who has done little to expand his base, is doomed. But in 2012, with the U.S. still only partially recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-09, President Obama won a second term that was a true historic anomaly. So beating the economic odds has already happened once in the last decade. Trump should have a hurricane-force tailwind.

Much will depend on who the Democrats nominate. The septuagenarian class for Democrats all have significant disadvantages. Joe Biden looks and acts old. Bernie Sanders just had a heart attack and is a socialist, which Trump and Pence will exploit to no end if he’s nominated. If either is nominated and has a major health episode next fall, that could cost them the election.

Warren’s “Medicare For All” plan is a policy debacle that will never sell to moderate and independent voters, let alone Republicans who just can’t vote for Trump. Her monstrosity hasn’t been reflected in the polls. 

I’m not trying to be a homey, but the two Democrats who match up best with Trump/Pence would be Mayor Pete and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is just now getting some traction in her neighboring state of Iowa. For Buttigieg, the fact that he’s gay will be seen by some as a barrier, just as many saw Barack Obama’s race as a problem in 2007, and yet Obama carried Indiana. What Hoosier in 2007 was predicting Barack Hussein Obama would get Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes?

Buttigieg’s other problem is that he doesn’t bring a state in with him. I doubt he could carry Indiana, particularly with Pence on the ticket. He plays well in the blue coastal states, but the key question is whether he can restore the “blue wall” of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He might. And many of Buttigieg’s fellow Hoosier mayors believe he would have a distinct debate advantage over the president; in fact they relish that showdown.

A best case scenario for Democrats would be a ticket combination of Buttigieg and Klobuchar. 

Having said that, there is so much we don’t know at this point to even begin to fathom an accurate forecast of what’s to come. It could be anything and everything.Fasten up, hold on to your seat and as they say on the ferry in high seas, take the damn Dramamine.