For Republican candidates on the ballot this year in a competitive state or district, this would be a really good time to call your pollster and get into the field with a survey ASAP, if you haven’t already. The odds are very high that your numbers are not as good as they were even six weeks ago. This is a fundamentally different election than it was 100 days ago, and unrecognizable from the beginning of this year.
In short, this election is turning into a horror show for the Republican Party. In conversations this week with a large number of top-notch pollsters, operatives, and strategists from both parties with decades of experience, the reports are that independents are breaking away from President Trump. While his share of Republican Party support remains high—possibly even a touch higher than a few months ago—there are signs that the number of voters identifying as Republicans has started to drop. Sure, the ones left behind are as loyal as ever; it gets that way when the wagons are circling and tightening.
One strategist remarked that it has felt more like a September or October campaign environment than June or July. It would be premature to declare the presidential race over or the Republican Senate majority as good as gone, but "dire" is a mild word for Republicans’ situation.
At the end of March, a point when there were still fewer than 18,000 reported cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., Trump was facing a challenging reelection campaign, running 4 to 6 points behind Joe Biden. It was an uphill race, but the incumbent was still in a competitive position. Today, he is more like 8 or 9 points down, behind in all six of the key battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even states that he should not be worrying about, such as Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas, are no better than toss-ups.
While the shift in actual numbers is not huge by historic standards, it is pretty significant for this president for two reasons. First, his numbers were always fairly poor, but they seemed impervious to events. Now they are not. Second, this movement, in the last five months before the election, means less time to recover, particularly considering that a large, indeed historically large, share of voters will cast their votes by mail as much as a month before Election Day on Nov. 3, decreasing the impact of late-breaking events.
Since political polling effectively began just after World War II, no elected incumbent president has fallen this far behind in the final six months and won reelection. Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton never fell behind their rivals during the election year. Barack Obama was 5 points behind Mitt Romney in the Gallup Poll in early May 2012 and 2 or 3 points behind at a couple of points in August and October, but not where Trump is today. Gallup showed George W. Bush 6 points down against John Kerry as late as June 2004. Both of those presidents managed to win, but they did not have the ground to cover that Trump does today. Both Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush fell further behind in the last six months than Trump is, in both cases by 16 points in Gallup polling—and tellingly, they didn’t make it back. President Truman fell as far as 13 points behind Thomas Dewey in August and September 1948, but he had never won or run for the presidency before.
Sure, an incumbent can bounce back, as George W. Bush did in 2004 and Obama did in 2012, but these were both presidents who had demonstrated considerably more resiliency than Trump has. For a president who has yet to see even a 50 percent approval rating, this is hardly a momentary or transitory dip. Obama had at various points approval ratings as high as 67 percent and as low as 40 percent during his first term, a 27-point “trading range.” At this point in his term, it was 46 percent, 8 points higher than Trump’s current 38 percent in the Gallup Poll. For Bush, his first-term high was 90 percent post-9/11, and his low was 46 percent—a 44-point range. In July 2004, his approval rating was 47 percent.
In some ways, this election has the potential to be for Republicans what 1980 was for Democrats, with the major difference being that the move away from the incumbent and his party started five months rather than five days before Election Day. It’s virtually impossible that the GOP loses 12 Senate and 34 House seats, as Democrats did that year, but Republicans can lose only a seat or two and maintain a majority in the Senate. Any losses in the House will be compounding a 40-seat loss in the last election.
Why the rapid shift? One theory is that as long as the economy was good, swing voters were willing to tolerate Trump's unconventional and often erratic words, behavior, and actions. But once that strong economy was gone, the tolerance evaporated.
Another theory is that the cumulative effect of Trump’s unending self-inflicted wounds finally reached critical mass, a point many pollsters are now calling “Trump Fatigue”—voters are tired of this experiment and just want things to go back to normal.
A third is the crisis theory: Trump had done adequately enough on the day-to-day part of the job to remain competitive, but once a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic hit, the bottom fell out among everyone except hard-core Republican voters. Presidents are judged most critically by their handling of crises. This theory goes that this was Trump’s time to rise to the occasion, and he didn’t.