Here’s what we can say about what we’re seeing at this point.
His worst poll number ...
As I wrote Tuesday, the head-to-head polls are troubling enough for Trump, but the more troubling number might be this: the number of Americans who say they definitely won’t vote for him in 2020.
Most polls have shown a majority of Americans — as many as 57 percent in one poll, but usually a slimmer majority — say they will definitely not vote to reelect Trump. It’s one thing to lack appeal to such a large segment of the population; it’s another for them to rule out supporting you entirely. If this segment of the electorate doesn’t budge, it would make Trump’s reelection very difficult; he’d have to hope these people simply don’t turn out to vote, that he could win with a plurality thanks to third-party candidates and/or that he could carry the electoral college without winning the popular vote (again).
... and the low ceiling it’s creating
As problematic for Trump is that this number seems to be bearing out in early polling — in the form of a ceiling. Most matchups in high-quality national polls have him struggling to climb out of the low 40s, no matter who his opponent is. In fact, only one high-quality national poll in recent months has him taking more than 42 percent of the vote in any matchup: a recent CNN poll. The situation is similar in key states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Trump might understandably struggle against the presently well-known and popular Joe Biden, but he’s also stuck in the low 40s against the likes of the lesser-known Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. The reason Biden and Bernie Sanders lead by more than other Democrats against Trump appears to be mostly a function of their supporters declining to embrace the other Democratic candidates (whom they may not know much about) and moving to the undecided column, rather than moving over to Trump.
By contrast, even when President Barack Obama was quite unpopular through much of 2011 — the year before his reelection year — he dipped below 45 percent in only 7 of the 77 matchups with Mitt Romney in high-quality polls logged by RealClearPolitics. And he only trailed Romney in 12 of them.
Even during the 2016 general election, when Trump was the underdog, he regularly polled in the mid-to-high 40s. This is very unusual territory for an incumbent president.
And here are the ‘buts’
The biggest “but” is that it’s early. Things have a tendency to change in presidential elections, especially relative to 16-plus months before the general election. Predicting anything at this point is a fool’s errand.
The focus on Trump’s deficits against Biden is especially overwrought. Biden is quite popular — more so than at most other points in his political career. He’s not far removed from an eight-year stint as Obama’s vice president that he closed on a strong note, with his approval rating double-digits higher than his disapproval. That holds in most polls to this date.
But being vice president is a job that allows you to pick your spots. You will be tied to the president you served under, yes, but you also have an opportunity to craft your own brand. And it’s very difficult to believe that Biden will win the Democratic presidential nomination, proceed to the general election and somehow remain as popular as he is now.
That’s both because of our polarized political environment, in which it’s difficult for any politician under scrutiny to earn the approval of even half of people, and also in light of his past presidential campaigns, which haven’t gone particularly well. Even early in the 2020 campaign, there are signs that Biden will struggle to remain so broadly liked, thanks to his off-the-cuff style.
Perhaps the more accurate measure is how Trump does against Democrats like Sanders and the rest, whose images ratings are closer to where you’d expect a major party nominee to be by November 2020. Sanders leads in almost all matchups by a fair amount, and others have also led, but often around or within the margin of error.
And the ‘but but’
Even if the Democratic nominee — up to and including Biden — sees their image take a hit, the question is whether that will bring them low enough for Trump to win.
Trump won the 2016 election in large part because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, wound up being about as unpopular as he was. Only about 40 percent of voters viewed her favorably. Even though she won the popular vote by two points, he was able to manage an electoral college win by eking out key states in which her campaign hadn’t devoted as much time or resources. It was something of a perfect storm.
There is no guarantee that Trump would win in a similar circumstance, in which the Democratic nominee is liked by about as much of the country as he is.
What we can say, though, is that it’s likely he’ll have to pull the Democratic nominee down to his level. Trump’s approval rating has remained remarkably static — more so than any president in modern history. Sometimes it’s crept up to around 45 percent, but rarely more than that. Previous presidents have been as unpopular as Trump at this juncture, but never without showing at least the potential to rise up.
It seems the most likely recipe for Trump’s reelection is that he will somehow pull his Democratic opponent down to near his own level. He did it with Clinton; we’ll see if he can do it again. Get ready for an ugly one.