Every single poll that has come out in these last two weeks has painted a dire picture for President Donald Trump's chances at re-election. His overall job approval rating sits somewhere around 41 percent. He's down by an average of 9-10 points to Joe Biden. But we also know that it is only June. And, for those of us who covered the 2016 campaign, we feel as if we've been here before.
After all, back in June of 2016, Hillary Clinton led Trump by anywhere from 4 to 10 points. Trump was deeply unpopular back then and still won.
So, can Trump to turn things around this year like he did in 2016?
The biggest challenge for Trump is that he’s not the outsider anymore. He’s in charge. And, when you are in charge you need to prove that you are effective at dealing with the issues currently enveloping the country. Today, those issues are racial justice and the coronavirus. Right now, voters see him flailing on both. To change those perceptions, Trump needs to meet the moment. Instead, he is doubling down on his divisive racial rhetoric and continuing to take a dismissive approach to COVID-19.
By the fall, it’s fair to think the country could be wrangling with another set of issues, which could allow Trump to reset opinions of his presidency. Even so, he can't simply erase these last few weeks from voters' memories. By the time we hit the fall, it's probably going to be too late.
The other option is to try and make this race a referendum on Biden. This requires the Trump campaign to do two things:
- Drive up Biden's negatives
- Get Trump to cede the spotlight and make room in a news cycle for negative narratives about Biden to get through.
As my colleague Charlie Cook has written, Biden starts the race with a stronger image than Clinton had at this point in the 2016 cycle. A Quinnipiac poll taken in late June of 2016 found Clinton's favorable/unfavorable rating deeply underwater at -20. The most recent Quinnipiac poll puts Biden's at -4. As important, voters don't feel as intensely negative about Biden as they did about Clinton or they still do about Trump. The latest New York Times/Sienna poll found that 50 percent of voters rated Trump VERY unfavorably to just 25 percent who felt this way about the former Vice President. This means it is just going to be a lot harder for Team Trump, as the LA Times' Mark Barabak wrote this week, to make Joe Biden into Hillary Clinton.
Trying to turn Biden into Bernie Sanders or a member of the House "Squad" is likely to fall flat too. Trump basically conceded this point at his rally last weekend in Tulsa, telling the crowd that Biden "is not radical left" and "was never radical left." But, in keeping with the president's attempt to frame the former Vice President as a senile and "sleepy" candidate, Trump said that Biden would be a "helpless puppet of the radical left."
Where Trump is obsessed with Biden's physical and mental fitness, the SuperPAC supporting Trump's re-election, America First Action, has focused on Biden's long tenure in office, arguing in ads that they are running in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that "Biden's been wrong for too long" on issues ranging from NAFTA to China to fracking. I think that this is a more effective line of argument. Voters already know that Biden is old. They know that he often trips over his own words and is an easy punchline. But, his record — especially on issues like trade and the Iraq War — is the more problematic and salient.
Another sign that Biden lacks the polarizing profile of other Democratic figures (i.e. Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi) is that Republican congressional candidates are barely mentioning him in their ads. If you watched a bunch of GOP primary ads, you'd think that Trump was running against China or President Xi instead of a guy named Joe Biden. I asked the ad tracking firm, Advertising Analytics, to tell me how many GOP congressional ads run between mid-March and mid-June featured an attack on Joe Biden and how many featured criticism of China. There were 50 unique GOP ads that featured an attack on China as a country that has "cheated us," or "stolen our jobs," or brought us the coronavirus. There were only two congressional ads that mentioned Biden or tried to link him to their opponent. A GOP candidate in GA-14 attached Biden to radical elements of the party, while Arizona GOP Senate candidate Martha McSally claims in her ad that her Democratic opponent, Mark Kelly, "will help Joe Biden pass a new government-controlled health care system."
At the presidential level, however, the Trump campaign is doing its best to link Biden to his past support of trade deals that would benefit China and his son's private business dealings there. But, given Trump's own statements about his trust in Xi at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden campaign and Democrats have plenty of ammunition to at least hold Republicans to a draw on the issue.
However, one of the biggest impediments to driving up Biden's unfavorable ratings is the president himself. Trump is unable to take himself out of the spotlight, even when it would benefit him. In fact, we may all look back next year and point to two unnecessary public appearances — the one in front of St. John's church that required the military to clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House and the rally in Tulsa in the middle of a spike in COVID infections — that sealed his political fate.
The Trump campaign and GOPers know that they can't afford this election to be a referendum on Trump. But, the president himself can't help but ensure that it is.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon