Worst of all, internal polls from the RNC and his reelection campaign showed him trailing former vice president Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, in swing states:
Aides described Trump as in a particularly foul mood last week because of the polling data and news coverage of his administration’s response to the pandemic, according to two of the people familiar with the discussions. In one call, he berated [campaign manager Brad] Parscale over the polling data, the two people said.
Other reports describe Trump “shouting” or “erupt[ing]” at Parscale and blaming the campaign manager for his poor standing, because it couldn’t possibly be Trump’s own fault. “I am not f---ing losing to Joe Biden,” he reportedly said. Yet the reality is that he will probably trail Biden in polls from here to November, though that doesn’t mean he’s going to lose.
There’s something unusual in the story of Trump reacting so strongly to this “grim” polling data from his advisers. For the entirety of the primary campaign, in trail heats Trump has run behind not only Biden but the other Democrats who ran for president as well. Him trailing Biden would not be news to his campaign, or even to Trump himself, despite his ample powers of denial. Which means that those polls must have been really bad for Trump.
The most hilarious part of the story is that in order to make amends, Parscale later came to the White House with “polling numbers that were more positive for Trump, and the president seemed in a far better mood.” The most powerful person on earth is essentially a toddler whose volatile moods need to be carefully managed by those around him. Perhaps Parscale also brought him a lollipop to soothe his tender feelings.
Thus placated, Trump was soon back to his old self. “I don’t believe the polls,” he told Reuters on Wednesday. “I believe the people of this country are smart. And I don’t think that they will put a man in who’s incompetent.” That’s certainly an interesting way to think about it.
So this seems to be the pattern: Trump learns of bad polling data, yells at his aides and blames them for his poor standing, then convinces himself that the bad polls are all invented as part of a scheme to undermine him — “FAKE POLLING, just like 2016 (but worse)!” he tweeted Thursday morning — and goes back to being sure his victory is all but certain.
He’s likely to repeat that cycle many times between now and November, since the essential shape of the race — a Biden lead in the mid-single digits — has been unchanged since the beginning of the year.
Of course, there are things we can’t anticipate that might alter the race: a shocking revelation, a campaign meltdown, a foreign crisis, a second wave of covid-19 infections. But in the end, nearly all Democrats will stick with Biden and nearly all Republicans will come home to Trump. Even if the economy fails to recover significantly by November, the race will still be close, which means that no outcome is assured. It took an extraordinary confluence of factors to enable Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, but it’s entirely possible something similar will happen this year.
In our polarized era, there will be no blowouts on the order of Ronald Reagan’s 18-point margin in 1984 or Richard Nixon’s 23-point win in 1972. A blowout would be more like the 7-point win Barack Obama managed in 2008 — and that required a hugely unpopular departing Republican president, a disastrous war, and a collapsing economy.
Right now we’re in the midst of a pandemic being grossly mismanaged by the president and an economic crisis even worse than what was in progress in 2008. The fact that Trump isn’t trailing by 15 or 20 points shows how resilient partisan attachments are; while there are certainly Republicans who could abandon Trump, as a proportion of the entire electorate their numbers are relatively small. And I’d remind you that Hillary Clinton led Trump in polls for almost the entirety of the 2016 campaign (and, of course, she did end up winning the popular vote by 2 points — very close to what polls had predicted).
Trump may take reassurance from that — but he can’t be reassured for long. It’s clear that he exists in a state of agitation and anxiety, flipping back and forth between terror at the prospect of losing and absurd overconfidence at his certainty of victory.
But if Trump has done any angry shouting at aides over his administration’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed 60,000 Americans and counting — we have not heard about it. Some low poll numbers, on the other hand? That’s worth a tantrum.