The question on a lot of minds over the next week will be whether President Trump and Joe Biden enjoy the customary 5- or 6-point post-convention bounce.
Gallup polling from 1964 through 1992 showed that party nominees on average got a bounce of 6.2 percent, as Lydia Saad noted four years ago. More recently, the bounces have been somewhat smaller. President Obama, the last incumbent to seek reelection, received a 3-point bounce, as another Gallup analyst, Jeffrey Jones, noted at the time.
In a terrific analysis, The Washington Post’s David Byler suggested that Trump might benefit from his convention but it might not save him—that the climb is pretty steep.
Sadly, we are in another poll desert right now. As of Monday night, the latest national polls completed their last live-telephone interviews by Aug. 15. Most major news organizations poll before either convention is held, then again after; they won’t go into the field until at least a day after the latter convention has concluded. It would be reasonable to guess that pollsters might conduct interviews Friday and over the weekend. Maybe a quick poll could be released before the Sunday political talk shows, but Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday is more realistic.
While the Democrats designed and executed their virtual convention as well as they possibly could, their ticket probably didn’t get much of a bounce. It’s hard to build much on an 8- to 10-point lead, particularly in this period of hyper-partisanship. Each party already entered convention season with a high floor and low ceiling, particularly with three-quarters of voters either loving or loathing Trump to begin with.
Based on the first three nights of the GOP convention, there is little reason to think that Trump got much of a bounce, either. When you are far behind, you have plenty of room to grow, but with so many voters maintaining firmly held views to begin with, there might be little elasticity.
One thing worth noting is that the 6 percent of the 2016 vote cast in support of write-in, third-party, and independent candidates is likely to be much smaller this time. The Libertarian and Green Parties are running far less-known candidates than in 2016, when the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein were the two major third-party nominees. This time, the Libertarian nominee is Jo Jorgensen, a psychologist who was actually the running mate for Libertarian Party nominee Harry Browne in 1996 (a little-known fact). It’s unlikely that Jorgensen would draw nearly as much as the 3.3 percent that Johnson pulled. The Green Party nominee—Howie Hawkins, a retired UPS freight unloader—is not well-known, either.
Also, whenever non-major-party candidates appear to significantly influence the outcome of a presidential election, fewer voters seem to be willing to cast their votes in that independent direction in the following election.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton pulled 48.2 percent of the vote to Trump’s 45.93 percent. That margin of just over 2 points was close enough to allow Trump a two-tenths-of-a-percentage-point win in Michigan and seven-tenths in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In that election, there was an intensity in support among Trump’s backers and a great deal of ambivalence among Democrats. In addition to the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton, the Democratic nominee looked like she had the election locked down, decreasing the motivation for Democrats to show up.
But cantankerous independent voters tend to stray from the party that holds the White House. Independents backed Trump by 4 points, 46 to 42 percent, in 2016. Mitt Romney carried independents by 5 points over Obama, 45 to 40 percent, in 2012. Obama won independents over John McCain, 52 to 45 percent, in 2008. John Kerry carried the independent vote by 1 point, 49 to 48 percent, in 2004.
This year, Trump is an incumbent defending a record, and he already fares poorly among independents in the polls. What’s more, he has been preoccupied with cultivating his base and has done little to draw voters outside of his comfort zone.
Every time I walk through the data on this election, it just reinforces my view that while an incumbent in this deep of a political hole might be able to climb out, it would require a focused and disciplined candidate, one who could stay on message and avoid extraneous fights—characteristics that do not seem to describe Trump.
Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was behind yet still polled within striking distance. But the public perception of his handling of the greatest crisis facing our country in three-quarters of a century is not favorable in any way. The tailwind he enjoyed from a strong economy is no longer there, either. His approval ratings on handling the economy are now little higher than his disapproval ratings on that issue. Apparently, the shelf life of a good economy that is no longer good is quite short.
Sure, there are uncertainties about the election process in this unique year, but signs point to a very large voter turnout. Both bases are highly motivated—Trump backers and critics alike—and where there is a will to vote, most will find a way. Besides, only a half dozen or so states will really matter.
Maybe Trump could pull this off, but I doubt it. The underlying factors in his upset win four years ago just don’t seem to be in place. Running as an incumbent is very different. A president who has never received a majority job-approval rating in a major national poll and who has seemingly muffed his greatest test? That is a tough challenge to win.