Was Trump Ever Really a Favorite for Reelection?

Charlie Cook New
October 13, 2020

Earlier this week, this column suggested that there were some signs of an impending electoral blowout, pointing to the release of the first two quality post-debate polls. A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, taken last Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the nights immediately following that debate debacle between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, showed the Democrat with a 14-point lead. The race had been showing an 8-point Biden lead, give or take a point, and while Trump obviously did himself a lot of damage, that was a lot of movement awfully fast. I wondered if the sample might be a bit too Democratic or whether the survey was taken too soon after the event.

The other survey, taken in Arizona for The New York Times and Siena College, put Biden ahead by 8 points, a big lead considering that Trump carried the state in 2016 by almost 4 points. The column also reflected some private conversations I had with several very experienced campaign consultants in both parties, indicating that they were seeing things in many surveys around the country showing some pretty seismic shifts away from Trump and Republicans and toward Biden and Democrats.

Since that column was published, two more similarly high-quality national surveys have come out, which have only served to buttress its conclusions. A SSRS poll for CNN, taken Oct. 1-4, put Biden’s lead over Trump at 15 points among registered voters, 56 to 41 percent. When the pollsters restricted the sample to likely voters, his lead swelled to 16 points, 57 to 41 percent.

Next came a Fox News poll, taken Saturday through Tuesday, which showed Biden leading Trump by 9 points among registered voters, 52 to 43 percent. Among likely voters, the lead also grew by a point, to 53 to 43 percent. The previous Fox poll, taken Sept. 7-10, put Biden’s leads at 5 points among both registered and likely voters, 51 to 46 percent.

A variety of state-level polling in battleground states reflect the severity of the president’s situation. Apart from its Arizona poll, the NYT/Siena College pollsters also surveyed voters in Florida and Pennsylvania. NBC/Marist was in the field in Michigan and Wisconsin. Taken together, the surveys show how uphill this struggle has become for Trump. Even in Ohio, a state that has been trending Republican for years, another NYT/Siena poll shows the race essentially tied.

Furthermore, Biden has already been building a big lead as the days on the calendar pass by. According to the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, 6.6 million ballots have already been cast, representing 4.8 percent of the total votes cast in the entire 2016 election. In the eight states that report the party splits of voters, Democrats have returned twice as many votes as Republicans.

As I suspect regular readers of this column can attest, I don’t believe Trump’s reelection prospects were never as rosy as the conventional wisdom or the betting markets suggested, the latter showing the incumbent to be a solid favorite for reelection as late as the end of May and an even-money bet as recently as last month.

Job-approval ratings are the best single predictor of whether a president is reelected. Trump suffered through his first year in office with an average Gallup approval of just 38 percent, the lowest of any post-World War II elected incumbent. (Bill Clinton at 49 percent was the previous record holder.) His second-year approvals averaged just 40 percent, the worst such rating for a post-war elected incumbent. His third year ticked up to 42 percent, topping only Jimmy Carter’s 37 percent. Overall, he’s averaged a 41 percent Gallup approval average for the entirety of his presidency so far. Through that prism, there was little reason to see him as a favorite.

Given those numbers, Trump was already on thin ice heading into the coronavirus pandemic. After three months of belittling the severity and lethality of the outbreak and touting dubious remedies, the ice under his feet got still thinner. With his debate performance, it gave way and down he went.

Swing voters in particular have been gradually turning down the volume on the president. After the debate, they finally hit mute and stopped listening entirely.

All eyes now turn to the Senate, to see if Republicans can save their majority.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 9, 2020