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Don’t write off Donald Trump yet

The polls look bad. He can still win

June 26, 2020

8:48 AM

26 June 2020

8:48 AM

New polling this week spells more bad news for President Trump. Nationally, and in battleground states, former Vice President Joe Biden has caught Trump or expanded his lead. Certain pundits are beginning to talk as if November’s election is a fait accompli. That’s a mistake. This election has a long way to go.

From the beginning of his presidency, Trump’s ballot performance has lagged his job approval. Some voters, though satisfied with Trump’s presidency, will not commit to supporting his reelection. If these approvers turn into supporters as Election Day nears, Trump’s position will strengthen. Yes, his job approval numbers have dipped in recent months, but they remain above 40 percent, just below where he started his presidency.

A spate of bad news cycles may be making Republicans reticent to respond to polls even as the likelihood that they will vote Trump remains unchanged. This nonresponse bias is small, and flagging enthusiasm close to Election Day could mean diminished Republican turnout. This far out, however, discrepancies in polling responses could make the situation look worse for Trump than the underlying reality.

There are also structural reasons to think Trump’s standing will improve. High unemployment is hurting Trump, but if the economy continues to recover, even anemically, his polling will improve with it. Absent a second economic drop, Trump should be at or near the bottom in his polling, given the sharpness of the crisis.

Incumbent presidents also enjoy campaigning advantages. The President has the entire executive branch, and all the trappings of a head of state, at his disposal. Used wisely, these present an image of command and competence. That horse may have bolted the barn in Trump’s case — an image badly damaged by Trump’s erratic tweeting, mishandling of the riots and befuddling statements on COVID-19 – but he is still president and he has tools available should he choose to use them.


Finally, Joe Biden is a weak candidate. His speech and his brain falter: just yesterday he said COVD-19 had killed 120 million Americans. His campaign seems to have realized that making their candidate as invisible as possible is their best approach — that will become more difficult as the election draws closer. Poll after poll has shown that Democrats support Biden out of disdain for Trump rather than enthusiasm for their man. This could create mobilization challenges for Biden in November, especially if conventional wisdom decides that the election is a foregone conclusion.

None of the above is evidence that Trump will win in November. The mood of the country is grim. Three recent polls show a widening gap between Americans saying the country is headed in the right direction and those who say it is on the wrong track. A New York Times/Siena College poll has 27 percent more registered voters saying ‘wrong track’ than ‘right direction.’ A Politico/Morning Consult poll puts the gap at 42 percent and a Reuters/Ipsos poll has the gap at an eye-popping 45 percent. These numbers resemble what Obama faced in January of 2012 — but Trump has less than half as much time until Election Day.

Trump’s job approval needs to be going up at this time, not down. By late March, he had narrowed the gap between those who disapproved of his job performance and those who approved to a slim 2.3 percent nationwide — within the range he requires to win reelection. Since then, Trump has lost more than 10 net points in the RealClearPolitics aggregator. Even Republican-friendly Rasmussen recently found the President down four net points. An Economist/YouGov poll had him down 12, a CNBC poll conducted with Democratic pollster Change Research had him down 13, and the aforementioned Reuters/Ipsos poll had him 20 points underwater. Polls of registered voters, like the last three, skew against Republicans; but that cannot account for double digit gaps. Trump is doing measurably worse than a mere three months ago.

Perhaps most worrying for Trump, more voters are now choosing Biden. Biden polled above 50 percent against Trump throughout 2019, but after securing the Democratic nomination, Biden’s overall share of the vote actually dropped. As recently as mid-May, Biden’s lead over Trump remained stable, bouncing between 4 percent and 6 percent even as his average vote share dropped. Since then, after a brief upsurge for both candidates, Biden’s share has climbed and Trump’s has fallen. Now Biden is above 50 percent in the RealClearPolitics aggregator. Trump, by contrast, has fallen to just north of 40 percent.

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Digging into the polling crosstabs reveals a mixed bag. The New York Times/Siena College swing state polls find remarkable stability in Biden’s approval and minority support for the Democratic nominee. Yet white voters are moving sharply away from the President. They haven’t consolidated behind Biden per se, but Trump no longer leads. Given the relatively small samples in each state, we can’t draw too firm a conclusion.

Similarly, the Fox News national poll shows slightly attenuated support for Trump across most demographics, but all within the margin of error. Taken together, they moved Biden’s nationwide lead from eight points to twelve from May to June, but these reflect small shifts across the board rather than a single demographic moving from Trump to Biden.

Trump is on track to lose in November unless he reverses course. However, while his path has narrowed, a path remains.


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