What can today’s polls tell us about Novem­ber?

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - NI­CHOLAS GOLD­BERG @nick­_­gold­berg

Pres­i­dent Trump is col­laps­ing in the polls. His ap­proval rat­ing is in the low 40s and drop­ping. Na­tion­ally, he’s run­ning be­hind Joe Biden by 9 points, ac­cord­ing to FiveThir­tyEight.com’s av­er­age — or by as much as 14 points in the lat­est Siena Col­lege/New York Times poll. He’s los­ing in key bat­tle­ground states as well; Biden has sub­stan­tial leads in Wis­con­sin, Penn­syl­va­nia and Michi­gan, among other places.

If the elec­tion were held to­mor­row, Trump would al­most cer­tainly lose.

But the elec­tion is not be­ing held to­mor­row. And a whole lot can hap­pen in the next four and a half months.

“Early polling was not in­dica­tive of what hap­pened in 1976 or of 1968. It was not in­dica­tive of 1980 or 1992 or 2016,” said Frank Luntz, a long­time poll­ster who has worked for Newt Gin­grich and Pat Buchanan, among other clients. “There have been so many cases where the num­bers changed in the last days. What early polling does is tell us where we’re headed — but not where we’ll end up.”

Con­sider the Gallup gen­eral elec­tion poll that gave Michael Dukakis a 17point lead over Ge­orge H.W. Bush in late July 1988. That lead evap­o­rated over the months that fol­lowed and he was de­feated in Novem­ber.

“My ad­vice to any can­di­date is don’t count on the polls,” Dukakis told me when I called him last week. “Go out and or­ga­nize in ev­ery one of the 50 states and take noth­ing for granted and keep driv­ing and driv­ing un­til elec­tion day.”

Here are some rea­sons not to count Trump out: The vast ma­jor­ity of in­cum­bent pres­i­dents who seek a sec­ond term win one. (Since the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, only five of 20 pres­i­dents run­ning for re­elec­tion were de­feated.) What’s more, Trump, who won against all ex­pec­ta­tions and pre­dic­tions in 2016, re­mains pop­u­lar among Repub­li­cans. And this is a very weird and po­ten­tially volatile year, be­tween the pan­demic, racial un­rest, eco­nomic uncer­tainty and the po­ten­tial for for­eign med­dling, voter sup­pres­sion or other dirty tricks.

So yeah, Democrats shouldn’t get com­pla­cent.

But sen­si­ble as that ad­vice is, there’s also good rea­son to be­lieve Trump is in real trou­ble — and pos­si­bly un­equipped to make the changes nec­es­sary to turn things around. Frankly, in talk­ing to strate­gists around the coun­try, I was sur­prised at how se­ri­ously they took the lat­est polls even though it’s still early sum­mer and we’re not even into con­ven­tion sea­son yet.

For in­stance, Joel Be­nen­son, who served as chief poll­ster to both Barack Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton, said that he thought Trump had a “moun­tain to climb” to win. Trump cur­rently has an ap­proval rat­ing of 40.6% and a dis­ap­proval rat­ing of 56.1%, ac­cord­ing to FiveThir­tyEight.com — a spread of nearly 16 points.

“I can’t think of a case where a dis­ap­proval rat­ing was this high for this long and there was a clear turn­around,” Be­nen­son said. “There’s not a lot of time to make up ground.”

It’ll be es­pe­cially hard with COVID-19 deaths con­tin­u­ing to rise, so­cial re­stric­tions likely to re­main in place for a long time, and the econ­omy, which was Trump’s chief ar­gu­ment for re­elec­tion, tee­ter­ing on the brink of dis­as­ter. Un­em­ploy­ment, for in­stance, could easily still be in the dou­ble dig­its on elec­tion day.

Luntz says that in eval­u­at­ing the pres­i­dent’s chances, there are three poll ques­tions to watch in par­tic­u­lar. First, are you bet­ter off today than you were four years ago? Sec­ond, is the United States headed in the right di­rec­tion or is it se­ri­ously off on the wrong track? And third, which can­di­date do you trust to tell you the truth?

The sig­nif­i­cance of the first two ques­tions is self-ev­i­dent. The third is es­pe­cially im­por­tant, Luntz says, be­cause it gets at char­ac­ter. Un­de­cided vot­ers and swing vot­ers, he said, care much less about is­sues like bud­gets and taxes and the en­vi­ron­ment, but make de­ci­sions based on trust and in­tegrity. And un­de­cided vot­ers will be ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to a Trump re­elec­tion.

Other me­dia con­sul­tants and poll­sters agreed that the re­cent poll num­bers were trou­bling for Trump.

“There’s an enor­mous con­sis­tency to them,” said Bob Shrum, a ven­er­a­ble Demo­cratic con­sul­tant who has worked on eight pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. “I think the coun­try has made a ba­sic de­ci­sion that it wants to get rid of Trump.”

All the ex­perts I spoke to said that if Trump were a care­ful, dis­ci­plined can­di­date, he would try to turn the sit­u­a­tion around by chang­ing his be­hav­ior or al­ter­ing his mes­sage or reach­ing out be­yond his most die-hard, base vot­ers.

But Trump has shown no abil­ity or in­cli­na­tion to do that.

“Other politi­cians know how to pivot,” said Robert Erik­son, a pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity who stud­ies elec­tions and po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior. “Other politi­cians on the left and the right say to them­selves, what do I need to do to get to 50%? But Trump doesn’t think that way.”

The race of course could change dra­mat­i­cally if Biden were to make ter­ri­ble mis­takes, or if Trump were to suc­cess­fully de­fine him for vot­ers.

“Trump is go­ing to try to ex­ploit Biden’s age and con­vince us that he’s loopy and stam­mer­ing,” said Mike Mur­phy, a cam­paign con­sul­tant who has worked for John Mc­Cain and Jeb Bush, among many oth­ers. “He’ll try to de­fine Biden as a wild-eyed so­cial­ist. He’ll use racial ten­sion, white re­sent­ment, and paint the Democrats as the party of protesters and loot­ers of color.”

But that might also back­fire. In his last de­bate with Sen. Bernie San­ders, Biden was not dod­der­ing, wild-eyed or de­mented.

In the end, Dukakis is right: Don’t take any­thing for granted. The coun­try’s in cri­sis, the pres­i­dent is un­pre­dictable and the rules of the game are not as clear as they once were. The com­ing months could of­fer a straight and clear path to­ward a Trump de­feat — or a wild ride into the un­known.

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