We are more than 137 days until the election (or, if you prefer, “We’re only 137 days from the election!”), so it is way too early to suggest that former vice president Joe Biden has the race locked up. There is plenty of time for him to stumble, or for Trump to find some way to slip through the electoral college. It nevertheless is fair to say that if something does not materially change for the better for Trump, he is going to get wiped out.
FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average shows Trump’s net approval rating at nearly negative 15. It would be hard to find a legitimate pollster or strategist to argue that a president can win reelection with a 40 percent-to-55 percent approval deficit. Moreover, Trump’s disapproval rating has floated up to the high 50s, meaning Trump will have to win back a significant chunk of the electorate that thinks he is doing a bad job.
The head-to-head polls are just as awful for Trump. Biden is ahead by a whole lot in the most recent polls from CNN (14 points), CNBC (9 points), Reuters/Ipsos (13 points) and YouGov (10 points). For those who have grown accustomed to the conventional wisdom that we are a deeply and evenly divided country, these seem almost unbelievable.
When you look deeper, however, you can see why Biden has opened up a large lead in national and key swing state polls. Take the CNBC poll (the least awful for Trump of the most recent batch), In which Trump is declining nationally and in battleground states in sync with ratings for his handling of the pandemic (where his disapproval has inched up three points). “[Biden] leads by 10 points nationally (51% Biden, 41% Trump), a 3-point gain since we last fielded, and he leads by 3 points in the battleground (48% Biden, 45% Trump), a 2-point gain since we last fielded,” the pollsters found. “Biden is also leading in all six states in the battleground.”
Does anyone think Trump’s handling of the pandemic will get better? Not with a president who insists on going to Oklahoma in the middle of a surge and who has moved his convention acceptance to Florida, where cases are also on the increase. (The Miami Herald editorial board writes, “How in the world will those tens of thousands of attendees be protected? Not well, not when they might have to sign a waiver freeing the party of liability should they catch COVID-19. Not, in an example of pretzel logic, when so many of their elected leaders are denying the coronavirus is a big deal.”) It is not going to go down well with voters, especially extra-vulnerable seniors in Florida and other sunshine states, if Trump leaves a trail of disease and death behind him.
Likewise, Trump suffers from the perception he handled the killing of George Floyd and the demands for police reform poorly: “A 52% majority of voters in the battleground and 56% nationally say ‘Donald Trump’s response to the killing of George Floyd and protests for criminal justice reform’ were mostly harmful. Just 23% of voters in the battleground and 21% nationally say Trump’s response was helpful.” Views on race seem also to have unleashed progressive impulses. (“A stunning 64% of voters nationally and 61% of voters in the competitive battleground agree that ‘We should invest more in education, mental health, and social services and spend less on policing.’”)
Does anyone really think Trump is going to get on the bandwagon to champion real police reform or stop flaunting his unqualified support for police? It is unlikely, judging from the Republican Senate’s aversion to another stimulus bill, that we will get an outpouring of support for “education, mental health, and social services” from Trump and his congressional allies. The chances of him reinforcing his racist image, ignoring systemic racism and refusing to rein in police are much higher than the chances of reinventing himself as a model of inclusion and fairness.
In short, Trump is in deep, deep trouble despite the advantages of incumbency, and despite a media spending spree. Unless he materially changes how he is handling the pandemic — not to mention the economy and race relations — there is not much reason to think he is going to improve his standing. In their wisdom, Democrats selected a well-liked nominee whose gaffes seem “baked in” to voters’ evaluation of him.
Meanwhile, former national security adviser John Bolton’s book reminds us that Trump is a know-nothing (e.g., allegedly unsure whether Russia owned Finland), is utterly corrupt (e.g., seeking to enlist the Chinese president’s help to win the election) and lacks any appreciation for American values (e.g., allegedly giving the Chinese the thumbs-up to build concentration camps). They also remind us that the craven, simpering Senate Republicans who kept him in office need to go as well.
The question, then, is not whether Democrats will get complacent. The real question is why Republicans are not in high panic and looking for a way either to dump Trump or distance themselves from him. Time is running out.