The president’s polling retains a rock-hard ceiling, too low
At the start of February, Donald Trump looked well set for re-election. True, his personal ratings weren’t great and nor were his head-to-heads against both Biden and Sanders, the two Democrats who’d shared the lead in the race for their party’s nomination for the previous three months. Even so, the economy was roaring ahead with record job numbers, America was near-enough out of foreign wars, and the attempt to impeach him had not only failed but failed to land any serious blows. For all his personal pettiness and boorishness, he had a saleable case to put to the people. And he’s good at self-promotion.
The historic record would have supported such an expectation. Since 1900, only five sitting presidents have been defeated: Taft (1912, party split), Hoover (1932, recession), Ford (1976, economy, Vietnam defeat, Nixon pardon), Carter (1980, recession), and GHW Bush (1992, recession). Two others withdrew during primaries: Truman (1952, Korea) and Johnson (1968, Vietnam). In general, if you can avoid a recession or a bad war, you should be fine – and Trump had.
Against that, Trump is something of sui generis. He plays by his own rules, for better and worse. He was also fortunate to win in the first place, beating an unpopular opponent (although he had a significant hand in fostering that unpopularity), and only just scraping in – and has done little to broaden his appeal since.
In one sense, that not only doesn’t matter but is actually a positive benefit. A deeply divided country needs champions on each side; people the public think will stand up strongly and effectively for their values and way of life. Trump has tens of millions of people who think he will do that. His ratings among Republicans is off the scale – support which ensured both his acquittal on impeachment and his re-nomination, all but unchallenged.
In another way though, it does matter. Trump’s base has made him unassailable within the Republican Party, which is now for practical purposes a subsidiary of the Trump Organisation. But dominating a party does not win you an election: you need to gain swing voters for that – which is where Trump is failing.
Ever since the question was first asked around a year ago, Trump has never got within 4% of Biden on the RCP head-to-head question against Biden. That’s in marked contrast with the 2016 race, where he led Hillary at times. Biden’s lead might not be all that big but it does look extremely solid.
Much the same can be said of Trump’s job approval rating, which for almost all the last 20 months has fluctuated between -15 and -5. In the last six weeks, it’s improved from the outer edge of that range back into the middle (which, along with other related polling, may in part explain the improvement in his betting odds), but that’s nothing like breaking into new territory.
To be clear: even if Trump lands on a deficit of 4%, that’s still short of where he needs to be to win. He trailed Hillary by 2.1% in 2016 and won four states, representing a mighty 75 Electoral College votes, by 1.2% or less. On a uniform swing, a 4% deficit sees the lot flip and hand Biden victory.
At present, he does trail in all of them, albeit by less than he did and not in every poll. RCP gives Biden leads of 1.8% in Florida, 2.6% in Michigan, 4% in Wisconsin, and 4.2% in Pennsylvania. Those might all seem close – and they are – but remember that tiny number of floating voters and Trump’s granite ceiling. Eking out those final few percent will be harder than those small gaps make it look.
So how could he do it and what are the chances?
One option is to revert to Plan A: run on the economy pre-2020, blame China and Democrats for the Covid-19 disruption, and point to the recovery in growth and jobs over the summer. There’s certainly a superficially plausible case to be made there and it’s clearly what Trump still wants to do. But would those claims be accepted beyond identifying Republicans? After months of decline (though in positive territory), Trump’s rating on the economy has taken an uptick in August but can that be maintained with new Covid-19 cases still over 40,000 per day and deaths racking up much faster than in most other countries? Restrictions are likely to remain through to November.
As an aside, the US is also playing loose with inflation. It’s been that long since inflation was an issue that it’s barely mentioned these days never mind treated seriously but broad money supply in the US grew by an astonishing 23% over the last year. It’s difficult to see how that doesn’t lead to inflation eventually (though not by November); it’s almost certainly a reason behind the rapid recovery in the stock market, which regained nearly all the 10,000 points it lost during its crash in Feb/March, and also the falling value of the US dollar (which came within an ace of a 28-month low against Sterling this week). But serious effects are for 2021 and beyond.
Another option is to play a different card to create a dividing line and wage a culture war. He’s been doing that too, trying to pose as the Law & Order candidate (which of itself is quite audacious given how many of his close associates have been charged, convicted and in some cases, jailed). But to wage that war – indeed, to wage any culture war – requires an opponent willing to engage. Biden isn’t, which makes it far harder for Trump to attract floating voters out of fear of his opponent.
Finally, there’s the third strand to the strategy, to claim that Biden simply isn’t fit for office; that he’s an old, tired, declining man with serious memory and comprehension problems. However, he’s been trying that line for around a year and it’s not obviously working beyond those who wouldn’t vote for the Democrat anyway. Further, there’s a serious risk that making Biden out to be virtually senile sets the bar extremely low for the debates (the first of which takes place in 24 days). In truth, Biden was an effective performer in most of the debates for the Democratic nomination and is likely to be similarly so in the general election. And in a candidate as unpredictable as Trump, there’s always the risk that his criticism of his opponent could rebound on him.
So while it’s easy enough to work out what Trump’s up to and how it might work, the raw numbers remain stubbornly against him, if by fractions at times.
By contrast, the betting markets remain bullish, with punters on the Betfair exchange rating Trump a 2.1 chance, against Biden at 1.96. This looks far too short to me. Biden’s position is stronger than the narrowness of the polls suggests, simply because of the consistency of the polls. There’s also the likelihood that the markets are being excessively influenced by 2016, which was a different race with different candidates in different conditions and with a different incumbent. This is not a near-evens race and Trump looks a clear lay.