With just under five months until the election, President Trump is a severe underdog for re-election. Polls show that voters do not trust him to handle the two most pressing issues of the day — the coronavirus pandemic and race relations — which has helped drive his job approval to 41 percent. National polling averages show him losing to Joe Biden by 9 points.
And, with every tweet, he only digs himself further into this hole.
Of course, given how quickly this year turned from ordinary to extraordinary, there's every reason to believe that the political landscape can change again before this fall. Trump's floor remains incredibly steady. If the bottom hasn't fallen out for Trump now, it's hard to see that it ever will.
Given this reality of this moment, we are moving some of our ratings in the Electoral College.
Michigan moves from Toss Up to Lean Democrat, while Iowa and Ohio move from Likely Republican to a more competitive Lean Republican category.
This means there are 248 Electoral votes in the Lean to Solid Democratic category and 204 Electoral votes in Lean to Solid Republican. There are 86 Electoral votes in Toss Up. To win the Electoral College, Biden would need to win just 26 percent of those Toss Up states/districts, while Trump would need to win over 75 percent of them. In other words, Trump has little room for error, while Biden has a wider path to winning.
Ohio and Iowa were once considered the gold-standard swing states. In the era of Trump, however, they have looked less swingy and more safely Republican. Trump carried both states in 2016. In 2018, Republicans won governorships in both states.
However, as I wrote this week, Trump's success in these states tends to get overstated. For example, hearing that Trump carried Iowa by nine points sounds impressive, until you learn that he did so while taking just 51 percent of the vote. Same in Ohio. He beat Clinton by nine points, but did so with only getting 51.7 percent of the vote.
Polling out this week from the Des Moines Register also found Trump's standing to be weakening in the Hawkeye State. He led Biden by just one point, 44 to 43 percent. Back in March, Trump enjoyed a 10-point (51-41 percent) lead over Biden.
Even so, the demographics of Iowa are still going to be a challenge for Biden. According to an analysis of the 2016 electorate for the liberal think tank, American Progress, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin found that 62 percent of the Iowa electorate was white and did not hold a college degree. They voted for Trump by 23 points. As Teixeira and Halpin wrote last year about this state: "For the Democratic candidate, his or her fortunes are clearly dependent on moving the very large white non-college group in their direction."
The Des Moines Register poll found some significant movement among non-college white women. According to the survey, Biden leads among this group by 18 points. In 2016, exit polls showed Trump winning with these women by two points (49-47 percent). Among non-college men, Trump still held a wide lead of 36 points.
Recent polling by Fox News also showed a close contest in Ohio, with Trump trailing Biden by two points (43 percent to 45 percent). But, there's also reason to suspect that Trump's softness in this state began before the pandemic struck.
A Marist poll taken in March showed Trump at 46 percent of the vote to Biden's 47 percent — a five-point drop from his 2016 margin.
The electorate in Ohio, like Iowa, is majority white, and non-college. The Teixeira and Halpin analysis put it at 55 percent for 2016. Trump won these voters by 32 points. In the Fox poll, Trump was leading Biden among these voters by just 17 points.
There's no question that these states are competitive today. But, here are the two big questions for the future. First, will the Biden campaign be willing to invest in two states that they don't *need* to hit 270? As any presidential campaign manager will tell you, they can't afford to invest in every competitive state. They have to prioritize their resources of time and money. It's worth noting that Biden's first big ad buy of the general election includes just six states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. However, the fact that the Trump campaign has recently gone on the air in Iowa and Ohio suggests they are seeing the same numbers. Advertising Analytics, a campaign ad tracking firm, puts Trump's ad spend in Iowa for the year at $436,000 and $893,000 for Ohio. All of that spending started in May.
Second, these polls are coming at a time when Trump is in a trough. We'll know soon enough if this trough is temporary or if he's done permanent damage to his re-election prospects among one of his most solid constituencies: white, working-class voters.
Michigan no longer fits neatly into the box it once did. For years, Democrats held this state thanks to their powerful coalition of union voters and African-American voters in Detroit. Today, the state, like so many others in the country, is divided along race as well as educational and religious lines. While many blame Clinton's narrow loss in the state to anemic turnout among African-Americans, Trump's unique appeal to white, non-college voters was also a huge factor. These non-college white voters are just as critical in 2020. My colleague David Wasserman's deep dive into the demographic make-up of 2016's non-voters (i.e., the people both campaigns are going to try and turnout), found that more than 60 percent of non-voters in Michigan were white, non-college adults, compared to just 24 percent who were non-white.
Despite this advantage, Trump is struggling to make much headway in the state. The FiveThirtyEight state polling average puts Biden's lead in the Motor City State at 10 points; that's four to five points higher than Biden's average in the other key midwestern battleground states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In digging through the cross tabs provided to me by the folks at EPIC/MRA, I found that Trump's standing among both Republicans and independents fell considerably between polling taken in January and June. For example, Biden doubled his lead among independents (from +4 to +8), while Trump's share of the GOP vote dropped from 82 points to 77 points. Meanwhile, Biden has consolidated Democratic voters - going from 85 percent in January to 96 percent now.
The Teixeira/Halpin analysis from 2019 highlighted the fact that Trump's vote share among white, non-college voters in 2016 was not as robust in Michigan as in other midwestern states. "To carry the state," write Halpin and Teixeira, "Trump will seek to increase his support among white non-college voters to greater than his 21-point margin in 2016—which was not as strong as his margins among this group in Pennsylvania and Ohio—and/or increase this group's relative turnout." Moreover, they note, that Trump, "cannot afford to stand pat with previous voting patterns due to the influence of demographic change."
Do we think Trump will lose Michigan by 15-16 points that the most recent surveys have put this race? No. But, it's no longer a 50-50 proposition. This state moves to Lean Democratic.