There are plenty of hazards in trying to predict who is going to win a presidential election five months away. There’s the chance of an unpredictable “Black Swan” event, and of course the normal ebbs and flows of any campaign.
At this moment, however, the contours of the race are becoming clear.
Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll, argues, “The conventional wisdom is that President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has dragged him down in the polls. But we are finding that he is basically in the same place as he was before the coronavirus outbreak.
“His job approval rating and matchup numbers against Joe Biden are essentially unchanged. ... While his negative score for his handling of the response to the coronavirus is not helping his standing, there is no evidence that he is in worse shape in terms of his electoral fortunes than he was before the coronavirus pandemic.”
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Trump’s lowest job-approval rating this year was 44 percent, which came on Wednesday. His highest, on April 1, was 47 percent. In Quinnipiac’s six polls since the new year, Trump’s approval ratings never dropped below 41 percent or climbed above 45 percent; his disapprovals never strayed outside the 51 to 54 percent range.
When an incumbent’s approval ratings have never reached 50 percent in a major national poll, and don’t go up much during a crisis when many world leaders' and governors’ numbers have surged, one can safely say he’s stuck in low gear.
In the horse race, the numbers are similarly inelastic. The lowest share of the vote that Biden received in the RCP averages was 47 percent, his highest 51 percent. Trump’s lowest share was 42 percent, his highest 46 percent. The tightest spread between them was 4 percentage points, the widest 7 points.
Biden stayed in a 3-point range in the Quinnipiac surveys, between 49 and 52 percent, with Trump far behind, between 39 and 43 percent. The narrowest margin was 7 points, the highest 11 points, in both March and May.
But two factors this year may play a yet-to-be determined role: voting by mail, and third-party support.
Election Day this year should more appropriately be called Election Month, in that more than half of votes are likely to be cast by mail before Nov. 3. Many voters will cast their ballots by mid-October.
Political-science research shows that vote-by-mail does not naturally advantage either party, but don’t underestimate the impact it could have in our new, pandemic environment. In last month’s special election to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’s seat in Maryland’s 7th District, with the determinative Democratic primary over, only about 50,000 votes were expected in the noncompetitive general election. Yet voters cast 150,058 ballots, almost half of the 330,000 who voted in the 2016 presidential general election. That kind of skyrocketing “turnout” can happen when all voters receive a ballot in the mail.
Keep in mind that when Trump received 46 percent of the vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent, staying close enough to pull off a photo-finish Electoral College win, 6 percent of the national vote went elsewhere. The Libertarian Party ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld pulled 3.3 percent of the vote.
Last week, the Libertarian Party held its online convention, nominating South Carolina psychologist Jo Jorgensen and Myrtle Beach activist and podcaster Spike Cohen. It is unlikely that the ticket will match the success of Johnson and Weld.
The Green Party, with Jill Stein as its nominee, pulled 1 percent in 2016. The Greens will not select their nominee until a July convention, but it’s also doubtful that those seeking the nomination this year, Howie Hawkins and Dario Hunter, can replicate Stein’s numbers from four years ago.
The rest of the non-major-party vote went to various other independent candidates and write-ins. Overall, it is doubtful the vote going to minor candidates will exceed the 1- or 2-point levels of 2004, 2008, and 2012. With third-party candidates not likely to draw as big a vote, Trump will need to do better than his 46 percent last time. Given that Biden's negatives are much lower than Hillary Clinton’s were, it’s a good bet that Biden will exceed her 48 percent.
Biden’s lead over Trump can’t get much above where it is now, but his numbers have been so resistant to change that closing the gap will be very difficult for Trump. My hunch is that the president's supporters will never abandon him but that he has been getting increasingly estranged from the swing voters in the middle.
Then again, the betting markets still have Trump installed as a 6-point favorite.