Conventional analysis would say that Trump’s goose is probably cooked. Presidents who polled this poorly less than five months before Election Day have always lost. The continuing furor over George Floyd’s killing is not helping him, and the economy remains mired in a deep recession despite the comparatively fabulous May jobs report. Biden remains off the stump, preventing him from committing the unforced errors for which the former vice president is famous. The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic is also impeding Trump’s ability to campaign. Put all of the factors together, and Biden looks like a shoo-in.
That, however, would be too hasty. Trump’s polling has displayed a strong pattern of decline and jump ever since he became the de facto Republican nominee in May 2016. He tweets or says something objectionable, his numbers drop, and then they bounce right back close to where they were before the event. That happened three times during the 2016 race, most notably after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape that many thought ruined his candidacy. It’s also happened four notable times since January 2018: when he floated pardoning his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; during the government shutdown; during the summer months of 2019 as he took on “the Squad”; and then later in the fall as impeachment became a reality. Trump weathered each storm and bounced back as strong or stronger than he had previously been.
This pattern indicates that a small but crucial part of his coalition wavers when controversy hits. Presumably these people are reluctant Trump voters who generally like Republican policies but have strong misgivings about Trump. When his character flaws become the news, they shy away from him. When those flaws aren’t as present on a daily basis, they come right back.
The one exception to this rule actually proves the point. Trump’s job approval ratings were in a continuous slide throughout 2017. This was also a period when Trump’s flaws and aggressive and obnoxious tweets were on full display. It was time of the failed Obamacare repeal, Trump’s tweets against Republican congressional leadership under then-House speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). It was the summer of MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski’s alleged face-lift, the attacks against Colin Kaepernick and NFL players taking a knee on the field. The year ended with Trump’s embrace of Roy Moore, the disgraced Republican nominee for the Senate seat once held by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions. Trump hit his all-time low job approval rating, 37.0 percent, on Dec. 13, 2017, the day after Moore lost in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones.
Trump caused that near-continuous drop by making his bizarre and offensive behavior the focus of daily political news. Hardly a day passed by without a new, often hyperpersonal, attack or screed coming from the president. Perhaps the most bizarre was his November 2017 tweet attacking three black men who played basketball for UCLA for failing to sufficiently thank him for purportedly arranging their release from a Chinese jail. Almost everything that makes people dislike Trump — the pettiness, the unseemly desire for praise, the racial insensitivity, the inappropriateness — is present in this one tweet. It’s no wonder Trump’s ratings sank like a stone even as the economy shifted into overdrive.
But those episodes also show that Trump could recover from his current slump if he lets the controversies play themselves out. The economy could come back swiftly if allowed, even if unemployment won’t be back to pre-pandemic levels by Election Day. The daily protest marches can’t continue en masse for another five months. Biden has to campaign sometime, and he often slips up when he does. None of this means Trump is poised to become the favorite, but it would make his reelection thinkable.
That dream will die, however, if Trump keeps up his current activities. Tweeting about unfounded and disgusting rumors that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough committed murder and calling a 75-year-old man an antifa activist is just the sort of things that got Trump into trouble in 2017. If he doesn’t change course soon, he will likely find that this time he can’t dig himself out of the hole he’s created.