Donald Trump upset the odds in 2016, but this time the negative polling numbers are more conclusive
The true power of the president, Richard Neustadt observed in the Sixties, is the power to persuade. But if recent opinion polls are accurate, Donald Trump is failing to exercise this power. Unless something changes soon, he is on track to become the first one-term president since George Bush Snr was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Trump has spent much of this summer in a far weaker position than at the same point in the cycle in 2016.
Joe Biden might have been unusually quiet for a presidential candidate, but this has not stopped him averaging a lead of 7-9 points in the national polls (compared to a five-point lead in February, before the crisis). Biden is also enjoying an average six-point lead across the key ‘battleground states’ – he holds comfortable leads in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, all of which were won by Trump four years ago.
One of the reasons I went against the grain in 2016 and suggested that Trump might win was because many analysts were too obsessed with the national polls while ignoring the state-level polls. But Biden is holding impressive leads at both the national and state level.
His lead over Trump has also been more consistent than Hillary Clinton’s ever was. He has led in every single poll since early June, when they were briefly tied, and has often done so while holding double-digit leads that are well outside the margin of error. Trump’s ratings both as president and manager of the coronavirus crisis have also crashed.
At the time of writing, his presidential approval rating has slumped to 43 per cent. No president with a disapproval rating as high as Trump’s at this point in the cycle has ever won a second term. And Covid-19 has been managed disastrously. A surge of cases in southern and western states reflect a health crisis that is being poorly managed and a social fabric that is coming apart more generally.
It looks incredibly unlikely that the virus will be in full retreat come November, and the longer this goes on, the more it hurts Trump. Just 39 per cent of Americans approve of how he is handling the outbreak, and he only has minority support among Americans who have a high school education or less, are living on low incomes, and are white. These groups are all central to his re-election hopes.
The crisis is also deeply entwined with something else that will play a big role in determining the outcome in November: the economy. The US has plunged into its fi rst recession for more than a decade and saw its economy contract by a record 33 per cent between April and June. The country is still down by somewhere around 15 million jobs, while unemployment looks set to hover around 10 per cent.
Public confidence in the economy, once Trump’s strong suit, has crashed. He used to enjoy a significant lead over Biden when it came to the economy, but no more. But while the race might be Biden’s to lose, there are warning signs. Only people who failed to learn the lesson of the past decade would completely rule Trump out. He is a good campaigner. With two elderly contenders, the debates may carry greater significance than at earlier elections.
And what if the polls are wrong? Then comes the same ‘enthusiasm gap’ that we saw ahead of the Brexit vote and Trump victory in 2016. Trump voters are ten points more likely than Biden voters to say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in November.
Amid the Covid-19 crisis Trump is struggling to stage the mass rallies that he and his team considered central to their 2016 victory. But will his voters still turn out at greater rates? Nor does there appear to be much enthusiasm for Biden. Only four in ten Democrats say they feel enthusiastic about their candidate; and a majority say they are voting against Trump rather than for the Democrat.
Clearly, an anti-Trump platform might be enough, but this is also a world away from the kind of grassroots mobilisation that we saw with Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Nonetheless, the deck looks stacked against Trump. Some argue that the protests after the death of George Floyd might help Trump – that he could use the disorder and calls to ‘defund the police’ to appeal to the ‘silent majority’, much like Richard Nixon’s law-and-order campaign in 1968.
But a majority of Americans today support the protests, including a not insignificant number of Republicans, and on questions about race relations and bringing America together, Trump trails Biden by huge margins.
If I am right, then this raises an obvious question: why are the betting markets only giving Biden an implied 62 per cent chance of winning? The answer is the memory of 2016. But for those who fancy a flutter, the odds-on favourite looks like very good value.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics and associate fellow at Chatham House
Photo Credit: Michael Vadon