The financial markets are in a free fall, economists are debating the probability of the economy tipping into a recession, health experts are discussing whether the coronavirus epidemic has or will soon become a pandemic, and Joe Biden now looks increasingly like he will be the Democratic nominee. Other than that, nothing going on. It’s fairly disorienting.
Any president who lost the popular vote while carrying the Electoral College by margins of two-tenths of a percent in Michigan and seven-tenths of a percent in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin isn’t likely to have much of a margin for error seeking reelection. Never mind if that Oval Office occupant has yet to achieve an even 50 percent job approval in any of the 406 major national polls taken since he assumed office—indeed has had “upside-down” or “underwater” poll numbers, disapprovals exceeding approvals, in all but two polls.
Polls released Monday by both CNN and Quinnipiac University show the challenge facing President Trump this November. The CNN national survey of 1,084 registered voters taken March 4-7 showed Joe Biden beating Trump in a general election by 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent, while Bernie Sanders bested the incumbent by 7 points, 52 to 45 percent. The Quinnipiac Poll of 1,261 registered voters, taken March 5-8, puts Biden ahead by 11 points, 52 to 41 percent, and Sanders up by 7 points, 49 to 42 percent.
The picture gets even more clear once you look at the generic congressional ballot test in the CNN poll, which favors Democrats 53 percent to 44 percent. That ought to be disconcerting for Republicans, the way these levels of support seem to have settled.
Looking at all of this, it would be easy for someone to suggest that this election is over, but such certainty belies almost everything that has happened in American politics in the last five years.
Indeed, a wait-and-see approach would still be prudent, particularly since Trump’s approval numbers have been basically impervious to events, positive or negative. Six months of 50-year-low unemployment numbers have not raised them; seemingly devastating revelations haven’t dinged him.
As this column has noted many times before, the days when Americans were said to vote their pocketbooks seem to be over. It was very true in 1992 when James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” but it may be less true now.
If the economy prospering didn’t affect voters’ attitudes toward Trump, why should we expect a struggling economy to have much of an impact, either?
The truth is that if you are white and live in small-town or rural America, there are other things driving your voting decisions. The same can be said for white evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics. There are social and cultural issues, values, and identity issues that shape how they see politics and politicians.
The same can be said of college-educated suburban voters, particularly women, those who for three years have largely benefited from the economy and from the tax cuts pushed through by Trump and congressional Republicans but who liken hearing the president’s voice to fingernails on a chalkboard. These are the voters who cost his party 40 seats in the last midterm election, including suburban seats in and around Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Richmond that had been held by the GOP since Moby Dick was a guppy.
This is all to suggest that this is not an election to look at through the same prisms that we have looked at previous elections. Putting too much emphasis on the economy or the health of someone’s 401(k) accounts ignores so many other things that are influencing our politics and that have little if anything directly to do with money and income.
The other mistake for Democrats is to spend too much time admiring their national poll leads and not so much on the far more challenging task of winning 270 electoral votes. We all know that the national popular vote and $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The Cook Political Report on Monday released its updated Electoral College Ratings, with six states in the Toss Up column: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the three Frost Belt states that effectively determined the 2016 election; but also three Sun Belt states of Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. With Democrats having 232 electoral votes either Solidly, Likely, or Leaning in their direction, their candidate needs 38 of the 102 electoral votes in the Toss Up column, while Trump, with 204 electoral votes in his column, needs to win 66 out of that same 102.