Perhaps Ginsburg’s passing has reminded women — especially young women — how much is at stake and will inspire them to head for the polls. The angst and energy are certainly on the left. The honors of lying in repose at the Supreme Court and then in state at the U.S. Capitol speaks to Ginsburg’s unique place in the hearts of millions of Americans.
Trump’s insults and intentions to subvert democracy may make matters worse for him, but we see no evidence that might lift him to victory. Indeed, there is reason to surmise that the race is pretty much locked in for his opponent — and has been for some time.
Incumbent presidents are hard — but not impossible — to beat. Indeed, it has happened only twice in recent memory. Challenger Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in 1980 51 percent to 41 percent. In 1992, Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush with 43 percent of the vote; Bush received 37 percent, with 19 percent going to independent Ross Perot.
It is helpful to see how the race in each of those years looked in September. Gallup in 1980 showed Carter dropping to a dismal 29 percent at the beginning of August but staging a steady comeback to tie Reagan in September, going briefly ahead in October and finally collapsing at the end. (Reagan was widely credited with reassuring voters in two debates, one near the end of September and the other at the end of October.) In 1992, Bush trailed consistently from August through Election Day.
In the two modern cases, then, it is evident that once the public lost confidence in the incumbent, the damage was done (although we do not know if a disastrous Reagan performance in the debates would have spurred Carter to victory). Trump trails former vice president Joe Biden by roughly seven points in polling averages. If anything, 1980 suggests that the playing field may tip even further away from the wounded incumbent at the race’s end.
What about incumbent presidents who won? No victorious incumbent president elected on his own (i.e., running for a second or subsequent term) dating back at least to 1936 came back from a deficit as large as Trump’s this late in the race. When you consider that early in-person voting and absentee voting have already begun, the prospects for a Trump comeback are even smaller.
On top of all that, consider how few voters are undecided. Some polls put such voters at as low as 3 percent; a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll (in which Biden leads 51 to 43 percent) shows nearly 90 percent have firmly made up their minds.
Caveats are certainly in order. The polls could be wrong. The electoral college could diverge from the popular vote (although a seven-point popular-vote lead would in all likelihood seal an electoral vote win). If anything, Trump’s standing may get worse thanks to his continued efforts to deflect and ignore a pandemic (the coronavirus was “too big for him,” as Biden said in Wisconsin on Monday), insult the military and working people (e.g., letting a weekly $600 federal subsidy for unemployment benefits lapse because he thinks recipients are lazy and will stay home) and hold potential super-spreader rallies.
Meanwhile, Biden will continue his outreach to Trump’s base. As he put it on Monday: “I know many of you were frustrated. ... You will be seen, heard and respected by me. This campaign isn’t about just winning votes. It’s about restoring the basic dignity in this country that every worker deserves.” There is not anything to send voters scurrying back to Trump.
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