What can today’s polls tell us about November?
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.