I have long viewed elections as being a bit like people, coming in various shapes, sizes, hues, temperaments, and developmental patterns. If you look close enough, you’ll find that each one possesses distinctive characteristics like fingerprints.
Even “big” elections differ. The 49-state-landslide reelections of Presidents Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 became known as “lonely landslides.” The tops of the ticket did well, with Nixon losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in his 61-38-percent popular-vote win, and Reagan dropping just Minnesota (his opponent Walter Mondale’s home state) and D.C. as he won, 59-41 percent. Meanwhile, however, according to the authoritative (and now free online) Vital Statistics on Congress, Republicans had net losses in the Senate of two seats in each year. In the House, the GOP gained only 12 and 14 seats, respectively.
When Lyndon Johnson won his 44-state landslide in 1964, Democrats gained 37 seats in the House, but just a single seat in the Senate. Then again, when Reagan beat President Carter in 1980 in a 45-state landslide, Republicans gained 12 Senate seats and control of the chamber, along with 34 House seats. That Election Night, it seemed that starting when Birch Bayh lost in Indiana—always one of the first two states to report—Democrats lost one Senate seat approximately every 30 minutes for six hours. Just to note how much things have changed, West Virginia was one of the only six states that voted Democratic that year, along with Carter’s Georgia, Vice President Mondale’s Minnesota, Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island.
Why the disparities? In Nixon's and Reagan’s lonely landslides, everyone knew that they were going to win by gigantic margins. One hypothesis is that voters were hedging a bit, giving the incumbents big wins but not handing over the keys to the Senate and the House. In the case of Reagan’s challenge to Carter, however, the race was too close to call the week before the election; the vote didn't start breaking for Reagan until the Thursday before Election Day.
This is absolutely not a prediction of what will happen this November, but I have thought a lot over the last month about this time of the year before the 1994 midterms, when signs were gradually developing that something really big was happening. It was never clear at all that the GOP would get the 40 seats they needed for a majority, much less the 52 they ultimately won. But by May and June, the first signs of a seismic shift were presenting themselves. By the time September and October rolled around, the question was just how big of an earthquake it would be.
For 38 months, President Trump’s job-approval numbers have seemed impervious to news developments, either positive or negative. His approval numbers declined through 2017, as he ended his first year under 40 percent, but through 2018 and 2019 they gradually ticked up to the mid-40s. Apart from that modest ebb and flow, his numbers just didn’t move. Even in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis and the economy going off a cliff, his numbers were frozen in place. But starting about the beginning of April, seven weeks before George Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis under the knee of a police officer, Trump’s approval rating started declining. His RealClearPolitics average peaked on March 30 at 47 percent with a 50 percent disapproval; as of Monday afternoon, his approval stood at 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving.
When matched up with Joe Biden, Trump typically trailed by about 5 or 6 points. At the end of March, the numbers started oscillating, as undecideds jumped from about 5 percent to 12 percent of the electorate. Then, beginning two weeks ago, about five days after Floyd’s death, a new pattern set in. Now the RCP average shows an 8-point lead for Biden. If we look at only live telephone interview surveys, his lead swells to about 10 points.
In key battleground states, there appears to be a shift away from Trump as well. Biden has moved from dead even to a lead of over 3 points in the RCP averages in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with North Carolina still effectively tied. As I finish this column early Monday evening, the new Des Moines Register poll was just released, showing Trump ahead of Biden by 1 point in Iowa, 44 to 43 percent. This is a state he won by 9 points in 2016. On Saturday night, the Register released its Senate-race results, which showed Republican Sen. Joni Ernst behind by 3 points to Theresa Greenfield.
After enjoying higher numbers throughout most of 2018 and 2019, Trump’s numbers are back down near 2017 territory. It is too early to say that this race has seen its inflection point—more time and data are necessary—but we are seeing some hints that the dynamics in this election have changed. Troubling presidential and/or Senate numbers for Republicans in places like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas are in turn ominous for the GOP in swing states like Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina, where Republicans should have much more than a puncher’s chance of winning. There had been a lot of tolerance for Trump’s unconventional style as long as the economy was strong. Now it isn’t. The absence of that strong economy allowed other concerns about him—his personality and leadership style—to come under closer scrutiny.
Those characteristics that seem to be developing for this year are ones that should make any Republican very worried.