Is Donald Trump Already Doomed? Episode II
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The presumptive Republican nominee for president trails badly in the polls.
His Democratic counterpart has a solid lead that has barely budged all year.
State data is equally grim, showing the likely GOP standard bearer in precarious position in red states he must hold onto if he’s to have any hope of claiming the purple states he’d need to win the presidency.
Republicans down the ballot, fearful of a wipeout at the top of the ticket, have begun distancing themselves from the nominee and taking other steps they hope will preserve them from the expected carnage.
Everyone can see what’s coming — November may be six months away, but Donald Trump, it would seem, is already doomed.
So I presumed in 2016 when I penned an article for Ordinary Times entitled “Is Donald Trump Already Doomed?” And I was hardly alone. Obituaries and pre-mortems for the Trump campaign were blooming like spring flowers.
Why shouldn’t they have been? On May 4, the day after Trump won the Indiana primary and effectively clinched the nomination, CNN released a poll which showed Clinton leading him by 13 points. Trump to all appearances was in big trouble.
Especially if you consulted history. “Trump’s problem,” I wrote, “is that polls from this stage of the election cycle have a strong correlation with the eventual result.” Which was bad news for him, since candidates who are behind at this point rarely come back to win.
Trump appeared likely to join John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney in the Hall of Presidential Also-Rans. Yet his position was even more perilous than theirs. They “led in a random poll here and there in April of their election years.” Trump didn’t lead a non-Rasmussen poll from mid-February to mid-May. His fortunes looked bleak.
They needn’t have worried, as we now know. But at the time their fears were perfectly valid. Candidates who are losing in April don’t win. There was no reason to think Trump would be an exception. Especially as he sported the worst favorability ratings for a nominee in history. The election would be a formality — a funeral.
Perhaps it was merely postponed four years. Forecasters and prognosticators today, their shovels already piled with dirt (left over from 2016?), certainly give that impression.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics likened Trump’s situation to Jimmy Carter’s. CNN’s Harry Enten proclaimed earlier this month that “Trump’s in more danger of losing than any incumbent at this point since probably [Herbert] Hoover in 32.” Jimmy Carter is bad enough. But no incumbent wants to be tarred with the Hoover brush.
Viewed at a glance, Trump’s standing now bears a more than passing resemblance to his standing at this point four years ago. On May 4, 2016 — the date of the aforementioned CNN poll — Hillary Clinton’s advantage in the Real Clear Politics average was +6.5. On May 4 this year, Biden’s lead was 5.7 points.
The parallels are striking. Clinton led almost every one in this period, often by double digits. Biden’s advantage is equally robust, it not more so. In both years, finding a survey with Trump on top was like looking for the proverbial needle in a very blue haystack.
Trump was in bad shape in 2016, Trump is in bad shape in 2020. Plus ça change? Perhaps not. Despite superficial similarities, Trump’s position now is arguably much worse than it was four years ago, having deteriorated on several fronts.
Older voters have taken a pronounced dislike to the president. Internal campaign polling shows him trailing Biden by double digits with that crucial demographic, which he won by a comparable margin in 2016. Public data reveals the same.
He’s slipped recently in battleground states. At the end of April, Fox News found Biden leading by 8 points in Michigan and Pennsylvania and 3 points in Florida. Trump won all three last time, the first two famously as part of his conquest of the so-called blue wall, yet is currently behind in the RCP average in all three. He’s also down in Wisconsin, a state he can’t do without. Trump’s own polling shows him losing in swing states.
Even more worrisome, the presumptive Democratic nominee seems to be gaining in traditionally red states. Two recent GOP polls of Georgia have the candidates tied. Trump’s edge is a meager 1.4 percent in the RCP average of Texas. A Trump victory in that GOP bastion by such a slim margin would mean a Biden landslide. North Carolina is also flirting with Biden. Trump barely leads the RCP average, and he has been on the wrong end of most polls of the Tarheel State in 2020. If this troika is trending blue November 3, it will be a very long night for Republicans.
Voters seem to be locked in much earlier than usual and that’s bad news for Trump. According to CNN election analyst Harry Enten, fully 69 percent of voters have either strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable views of Trump, the most for an incumbent “since pollsters started asking this type of question in 1980.” Only 46 percent have equally firm opinions of Biden. These polarized views of Trump may make it hard for him to move his numbers. National polls so far, suggests Enten, look like those from 2004 and 2012, races in which the polls remained static and the winner led essentially wire-to-wire. If that holds, say hello to President Biden.
Enten sounds another alarm. It’s not news that voters don’t like Trump. But voters’ antipathy seems to be hurting him against Biden. Enten notes that in many recent polls, Trump’s share of the vote lags his job approval, often by several points. What it doesn’t lag is his favorability numbers. This “likability deficit,” as he labels it, could be a significant problem come November, as “presidents’ net favorability ratings have tended to be more predictive of the outcome” than job approval in recent elections with an incumbent running for another term.
Last but far from least, Trump’s main selling point, the economy, has evaporated thanks to the coronavirus. Whereas two months ago Trump was preparing to campaign on the best jobs numbers in decades, he now has to run on the worst unemployment rate since the 1930s and an economy on the verge of a depression. Presidents facing such conditions are normally evicted from the White House.
The situation looks dire indeed. No wonder Republicans are panicking like it’s 2016. Trump himself is reportedly “glum and shell-shocked” at the realization that he’s losing (though articles about what Trump feels and thinks are best taken with a pillar of Morton’s).
A sinking economy and sinking polls. A foundering candidate. A party afraid it will go down with the ship. All of which is true. As is this: we’ve been here before.
“A candidate in Biden’s position,” Enten observed in March, “would win the popular vote about two-thirds of the time if historical trends hold.” Two-thirds is a lot. You’d certainly take those odds. Which makes the media’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” approach to the election understandable. Until you remember those were Hillary Clinton’s odds four years ago.
Will history repeat this November in the form of an epic Twitter dunk from the tweeter-in-chief? There’s no telling. But despite the dismal prognosis, there are some signs of life which hint he may yet get the chance.
Trump hasn’t been completely whitewashed in national polls. April surveys from Fox News and Investor’s Business Daily had them tied, while Pew had Biden ahead only 2 points. Trump’s deficit has also narrowed this month in online tracking polls, though it’s unclear if this is genuine movement or noise.
Surveys of battleground states also provide Trump glimmers of optimism. The aforementioned Pew poll had Trump leading by an aggregate 47–45 in six battleground states he won in 2016 (FL, PA, MI, WI, AZ, NC). A CNBC poll from early May had Trump in front 48–45 in the same states. And CNN’s latest has Trump up a surprising 52–45 in a larger set of battlegrounds.
As discussed above, Trump’s job approval tends to outstrip his vote share in head-to-head ballot tests. This is a worrying sign, but it also indicates he has room to grow. In Fox News surveys of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, he received a meager 42, 41, and 43 percent of the vote, respectively. Yet his job approval was 47 percent in the first two and 51 percent in Florida. His ability to close this gap may determine whether he wins or loses.
A recent analysis by former Democratic consultant Dan Guild demonstrates why this is so important. Historically, there has been a strong relationship between job approval and vote share. According to Guild, if the pattern holds, Trump’s two-party share of the vote, based on his performance in 2016 and his current state approval numbers, would hit 50 percent in states with 289 electoral votes (more than the 270 required for victory). Whether his vote share rises to match his approval or his approval drops to meet his vote share could be the difference between a Trump triumph and a Biden landslide.
All of which is to say that Trump remains well-poised in the states that put him in the White House. “A reasonable estimate is that Mr. Biden is performing four or five points worse among likely voters in the critical states than he is among registered voters nationwide. As a result, he holds only a narrow and tenuous edge in the race for the Electoral College, if he holds one at all,” posited New York Times elections analyst Nate Cohn last month. Because Biden has not cut into Trump’s massive support from working-class white voters, the president “appears to retain his relative advantage in the disproportionately white working-class battleground states that decided the 2016 presidential election.”
Consequently, Trump maintains the Electoral College advantage that put him in the White House. As both Cohn and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report proposed last year, Trump could lose the popular vote by an even larger margin than he did in 2016 (thanks to Biden running up the score in blue states like California and New York), yet once again come out ahead in the Electoral College.
Compared to 2016, Trump has made inroads with nonwhite voters, especially men, while Biden isn’t as dominant with younger voters as Clinton was. The changes are modest, to be sure; Biden will win both groups comfortably. But if the election is close, even small shifts could be decisive.
The economy remains a strength for Trump. His economic approval is +8 in the RCP average. Respondents in a recent Morning Consult poll trusted him more than Biden to handle both jobs and the economy, by 4 and 9 points, respectively. In the new CNN poll, the latter figure was 12 points. If the election becomes a question of who is better suited to lead the post-pandemic recovery, Trump could have a leg up.
Trump is less unpopular now than he was in 2016. His favorability rating was -21 in the RCP average on November 8, 2016. Today it’s half that. He’s by no means popular, but voters find him less objectionable than they did in 2016. Biden himself sports a negative rating, albeit in the single digits. Trump may not win a popularity contest, but he can win an unpopularity contest.
Trump has a huge fundraising edge over Biden. The coronavirus upended plans for targeting his Democratic foe, but Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, promised recently that his “Death Star” was fully operational and about to come online.
Finally, Americans expect Trump to defeat Biden. In poll after poll, majorities, when asked who they think will win, pick Trump. Perhaps this proves that polls are “broken.” Or maybe it shows that they remember 2016, which more than a few pundits seem to have already forgotten.
Will Trump be Dewey or will he be Truman? One thing in Trump’s favor is that it’s hard to beat an incumbent president. It’s happened only five times since 1900. Which would appear to bode well for him. But that’s the problem with history. It tells you lots of things — until it doesn’t.
The data points to one conclusion: if the election were held next Tuesday, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., would be elected the 46th president of the United States. According to the election forecaster Samuel Minter, Biden’s odds of winning are 99.8 percent right now. In Minter’s model, Biden leads by 166 electoral votes and 4.2 percent in his “tipping point metric,” which measures race volatility. That’s how things stood 179 days from the election, the date Minter plugged the numbers in.
At that point in the 2016 cycle, Clinton was ahead by 156 EVs and 6.4 percent. Her lead fluctuated, but her “final collapse didn’t start until the second week of October.”
With six months to go, Joe Biden looks like a sure thing. Hillary Clinton looked like one with six weeks to go. Indeed, six weeks ago, Biden was barely a month removed from the most dramatic comeback in primary history.
In the middle of February, he was left for dead while Trump, coming off his impeachment triumph (does anyone remember impeachment?) and enjoying a historically low jobless rate and growing economy, looked to be in excellent position to win a second term. Three months later, everything has been turned upside down.
And that’s just it. No one knows what’s going to happen. “Always in motion is the future,” a wise philosopher once said. It’s bumpier and more turbulent than we think.
Or to put it another way, history isn’t a thing of the past. Who would’ve guessed on January 1 that by the end of April global civilization would be brought to its knees by a pandemic? That’s the kind of thing that happens in 1920 or 1720, not 2020. Yet here we are.
Historians throw the word “contingency” around a lot. Maybe too much. But it really is something we should heed more. You wouldn’t think that Henri II getting a splinter in his eye during a joust from a broken lance and dying of the ensuing infection would set off the French Wars of Religion; or that George Washington’s blundering about the woods of western Pennsylvania would precipitate two world wars and two revolutions; but they did. That’s contingency. Or to put it in more colloquial terms, shit happens. Six months is enough for an Augean stables’ worth.
Last time, I let my political science background overrule my history background. I didn’t believe Trump could win, and that is why I failed. I don’t intend to make that mistake again. Not everyone is so circumspect.
Not that we should be surprised. As Hegel wrote, the only thing we learn from history is that no one learns anything from history.
History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Trump must hope the 2020 election rhymes with the last one with him on the ballot (notwithstanding the difference between running as the ultimate outsider then and as an incumbent with an incumbent’s baggage now), and not all the others in which a candidate in his position in May was a sure goner. That he did it before may be the best — may be the only — reason to think he can do it again.
Trump may in fact be doomed already. But that’s something we won’t know until November (if ever). No one has any idea today what’s going to happen. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool or a liar.
When I asked in 2016 “Is Donald Trump already doomed?” it was a rhetorical question. When I ask now, it’s because I don’t know the answer and won’t pretend to. If we learned nothing else from 2016, it should have taught us at least that much.