When an incumbent falls well behind in a reelection campaign, it is not uncommon for him to suffer through all kinds of indignities. When that incumbent has not played well with the other kids, those indignities can be greatly magnified, as President Trump is experiencing now.
This year is the United States’ turn to host the G-7 summit. On account of terrible optics, Trump had to shift the prestigious meeting from his first choice, his Doral resort outside Miami, to Camp David. With the meeting scheduled for a month before our general election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel basically told Trump to pound sand. She was disinclined to serve as a prop for a photo op and likely end up in a Trump campaign ad, a feeling that seemed to be shared by more than a few of the other group members. Then, after floating a trial balloon of expanding from a G-7 to a G-11 meeting by adding Australia, India, Russia, and South Korea to the mix, the whole event has been scuttled.
On top of that embarrassment came a Jonathan Martin piece in The New York Times on Sunday, which forecasted that a bevy of prominent Republicans were planning to withhold their support for Trump, some intending to cross over and support Joe Biden. Among them, perhaps: the only living former Republican president, George W. Bush. You know what they say about payback.
Finally, among the major national polls, the only disparity in their conclusions is the size of Biden’s lead over Trump. In live telephone-interview polls conducted over the past three weeks, Biden was ahead by 7 points in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll; 8 points in Fox News; 9 points according to ABC News/Washington Post; 11 points in PBS/NPR Marist College, Monmouth University, and Quinnipiac University surveys; and 14 points in the CNN poll released Monday morning.
Average them together and you have a Biden lead of 10 points. According to the RealClearPolitics average, which includes an array of online and robo (IVR) polls as well, it’s an 8-point edge. Even allowing for the fact that Democrats need to win the national popular vote by at least 3 or 4 percentage points to guarantee an Electoral College win, that’s fairly impressive. Also keep in mind the cascading effect; that is, after the spread gets past a few points nationally, a candidate tends to win a lot of states by narrow margins, inflating the electoral vote to a bigger win than the popular vote.
In the RealClearPolitics average of state polling, Trump is behind by 3 points or more in five of the six top battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, while he’s up only up by three-tenths of a percentage point in North Carolina. Putting North Carolina in Trump’s column but the other states in Biden’s would translate into a 318-220 Electoral College edge for the former vice president, well past the 270 needed to win.
Of course, the election isn’t today and there are plenty of ways for Democrats to blow this. In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd—the most recent in a line of cases of egregious acts of police brutality—the call among some progressives for “defunding” police departments has to be the most boneheaded political move since last summer’s call by some of the same people for “decriminalizing” illegal immigration.
In presidential elections with no incumbents, the election is basically a choice. In 2016, it was between a Democrat with the highest unfavorable rating of any Democratic nominee in the history of polling and a Republican nominee with the highest unfavorable rating of any nominee on his side as well. Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable ratings were higher than her favorable ratings in all 11 NBC/WSJ polls that year (averaging 36 percent positive, 53 percent negative), as well as all 13 Fox News polls (averaging 43 percent favorable, 56 percent unfavorable).
Trump’s favorable/unfavorable numbers were similarly underwater, or upside-down, in each of those same two dozen surveys. His positives in the NBC/WSJ poll averaged 28 percent, his negatives 61 percent. In the Fox surveys, his favorables averaged 39 percent, his unfavorables 59 percent. Among the 18 percent who gave unfavorable ratings to both, Trump won by 17 points. Clinton won among those who made up their minds before the last month by 6 points (51 to 45 percent), while Trump won among those who made up their minds in the last month by 8 points (48 to 40 percent). We were reminded of the great line by Mae West: if given the choice of two evils, she’d always go with the one she’d never tried. Trump was the type they had never tried.
But it is different when an incumbent president is seeking reelection. Rather than a choice, it is a referendum on that president. Do voters want to sign the occupant of the Oval Office to another four-year contract? The only exception to that is if the challenger can be turned into an unacceptable alternative, a greater risk than the beleaguered incumbent. Can Trump turn Biden into an unacceptable alternative, riskier than himself?
In the four NBC/WSJ polls this year, Biden’s average positive rating was 37 percent; his negatives averaged 4 points higher at 41 percent. In the three Fox polls this year that tested Biden, he averaged 49 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable.
Those are not great numbers but a far cry from what Clinton's or Trump’s were in 2016 in either sets of those polls. But more importantly, they compare favorably to the 42 percent positive, 51 percent negative average in the four NBC/WSJ polls this year; or the 45 percent favorable, 54 percent favorable in the four Fox polls.
Watching the margin in the horse race, is Biden staying at least the 4 or 5 points ahead nationally that would likely translate into 270 electoral votes? He’s leading in the battleground states, but watch the trend of his favorable and unfavorable ratings. If Biden is seen as an unacceptable risk, Trump can win. But if his favorables don’t sink as low as the neighborhood that Trump and Clinton were in four years ago and Trump remains in today, that referendum framing holds, and Trump will face the final indignity.