According to capital-P polls, Trump says, he would “do even better today!”
Okay. So. About that.
It’s very hard to compare one presidential election to the next when you’re dealing with the key abstraction that one of the candidates is unidentified. If he’s talking about a repeat of his campaign against Clinton specifically, there was a Post-ABC poll last November that showed Trump retaining more of his support than did Clinton. Of course, it’s hard to say how that would affect the outcome of a do-over presidential race, given that Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. If Clinton’s support faded in California and New York and Trump’s dropped in Michigan and Wisconsin, the result of that contest could be very different.
But Trump said he would do better today, not last November, and it’s not clear that he’s talking about running against Clinton. That’s important. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released in April found that 16 percent of 2016 voters said they supported Trump out of opposition to Clinton. A higher percentage — 20 percent — backed Clinton out of opposition to Trump. That opposition would remain, while another Democratic candidate might be viewed more favorably by the electorate. (As has been noted repeatedly, Clinton and Trump were the two least popular major-party presidential candidates on record.)
Polling from Politico and Morning Consult shows Trump trailing various Democrats in a head-to-head contest. Former vice president Joe Biden leads Trump by 12 points, as does Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Those are not numbers that suggest Trump is on a glide path to reelection, much less evidence that he would win an election if it were held today.
In the abstract, there are a number of other warning signs. A poll from CNN and SSRS conducted in March found that only about 8 in 10 Republicans even thought Trump should get their party’s nomination in two years’ time. A month later, Gallup found that only 37 percent of Americans thought Trump deserved reelection. That’s comparable to where Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were at the same point in their presidencies. But Obama and Clinton had approval ratings over 50 percent by the time their reelections rolled around. Trump’s approval has never been that high in Gallup polling — and certainly isn’t now.
That matters because approval ratings correlate to reelection results. In 2011, writing for the New York Times, Nate Silver estimated that the break point between reelection and losing was about 48 percent. Approval above that level correlated to winning reelection. At or below 48, a loss. It’s a small sample size of presidents up for reelection, but that’s what the data showed.
Trump’s approval in Gallup polling sits at 42 percent.
In the three states where Trump’s narrow margins of victory gave him the presidency, results vary. A recent poll in Wisconsin had him at 45 percent approval; he won 47 percent of the vote in the state. In Michigan, his approval is at only 36 percent among registered voters. In Pennsylvania, only 37 percent of voters approve of Trump. Those are not good numbers for reelection.
In one area, Trump is doing better than on Election Day 2016. He is viewed favorably by a bit over 40 percent of Americans, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls. Two years ago, he was under 40 percent. Unfortunately for Trump’s case, this metric and that subtle change probably don’t tell us much.
Regardless: Things can change. Like Obama and Clinton, Trump could certainly see improvement before the 2020 election. By then, he’ll be running against someone whose own track record and comments could be problematic. Trump has drawn robust, unflagging support from his own party, too.
But we’re not talking about whether Trump can win reelection. We’re evaluating Trump’s claim that he is better positioned politically now than he was on Nov. 8, 2016.
He is not. When you’re tweeting after midnight, though, mistakes are bound to happen.