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There are now only eighteen weeks until the US presidential election. What Donald Trump had hoped would be a referendum on his handling of the economy and China has turned into a referendum on his handling of a global pandemic and the most serious outbreak of public protests over race relations since the 1960s.
Presidential power, argued academic Richard Neustadt in the 1960s, is the power to persuade. It is persuasion and bargaining, not merely commanding, that make a great president. But if the latest opinion polls are correct then Donald Trump is so far failing to exercise that power.
Attendance at Trump’s rallies might be thinner than it was four years ago but his position in the polls overall is also weaker. So much so that the case against his re-election in November is really not a hard one to make.
Joe Biden might be lying low but so far this month, in June, his lead over Trump has surged above 9-points. Not only is this is a significant bump on Biden’s lead of 5-points in February – before the crisis hit- but it is also significantly superior to Hillary Clinton’s lead of 6.8 points at the same point of the cycle in 2016.
Biden has also hit peaks that Clinton never reached. Some might be questioning the Democrat challenger’s capacity for the role but the fact remains that Biden has so far met or exceeded 50 per cent of the national vote in thirty polls this year. His average has also just surpassed the 50 per cent threshold. This is, in short, impressive (at this point in 2016 Clinton was averaging about 42 per cent).
Biden’s lead has also been more consistent than Clinton’s ever was – of the past sixty polls Biden has led Trump in all but two (and these were ties). And of Biden’s fifty-eight leads no less than fifty have been outside the margin of error. I am as willing as anyone to challenge pollsters but from whatever angle you look at this Biden is in a very strong position. It is his race to lose.
One reason why, in 2016, I rejected the groupthink and argued that Trump was about to pull off a surprise was because many analysts were discounting the individual state-level polls and also the possibility of higher than expected turnout among key groups in Trump’s coalition – like the white working-class. I urged Americans to remember one of the key lessons from the Brexit vote. The surprise duly arrived.
But even on these fronts, four years on, things look quite different. In the crunch battleground states the picture looks bleak for Trump. Biden has opened up some significant average leads in critical swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. And by significant I really do mean significant. In the past fortnight alone, Biden has been handed double-digit leads in states such as Florida and Michigan, which were key to Trump’s success four years ago. At this point in the cycle four years ago Trump was often enjoying leads over Clinton in these states. But no more. His path to the White House is, currently, hard to map.
Then come Trump’s approval ratings which, this month, slumped to 39 per cent. This is the first time that he has dropped below the 40 per cent mark since October. No other president with a disapproval rating as high as Trump’s at this point in the cycle has gone on to win a second term. Or, put differently, Trump is now going to have to make history in order to secure four more years.
What all of this shows is that the “rally effect” that meant voters initially rallied round the president during the early phase of the outbreak (just like they rallied around George Bush after 9/11) has now fully worn off. Trump played a role in this. He failed to capitalise on this support and frequently looked ill-equipped to manage or even understand the crisis. Covid-19 has simply not gone well for him.
America now has more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, more than 122,000 deaths and is still grappling with record-high increases in cases across Arizona, Florida, California, South Carolina and Texas. The economic recovery still looks far from certain. And Americans have noticed.
Just last week, only 40 per cent said they approved of how Trump has handled the crisis. While this does hide some considerable polarisation – nine in ten on the left disapprove but eight in ten on the right approve – the fact remains that throughout the crisis the number of Americans who disapprove has consistently outnumbered those who approve. What does this mean? Well, if you believe the currently fashionable argument in political science, that what really matters in shaping how we vote are perceptions of competence on the big issues of the day then, again, this suggests that Trump is on his way to defeat.
Then came the protests and general chaos that followed the death of George Floyd and other African Americans. Some have argued that this might help Trump – that like Nixon in the late 1960s a strong law-and-order candidate could win over middle America. But it’s worth remembering what makes these protests different from the 1960s. Today, large majorities of Americans support the non-violent protests. In fact, nearly 70 per cent do, including more than half of Republicans. While they reject violence the “reservoir of sympathy” is much broader than it was in earlier decades. Furthermore, only one in three approve of how Trump has so far handled the protests.
And then come an array of other findings that should be ringing alarm bells in Trump Tower. Two thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, only three in ten think it is “better off now than it was four years ago” and more than half think race relations have deteriorated since Trump took office. Such factors on their own rarely shift voters but they do add to the background “noise” of a campaign and this background, again, looks unhelpful for Trump.
Put all of this together and the conclusion looks pretty clear: Trump looks set to become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. A Biden win would significantly impact the global debate on politics, prompting a discussion about the return of liberalism and the end of populism. Were this followed by the re-election of Emmanuel Macron in 2022, a defeat for Jair Bolsonaro in the same year and a Labour-led coalition here in Britain in 2024 then the entire framework of our political debate would shift.
But could Trump turn it around?
Perhaps. Only somebody who has failed to learn the lessons of the past decade would rule it out. So, like all good thought experiments here are a few things that might be worth keeping in mind as we go through a long, hot summer.
First, Trump’s figures on the economy are actually not that bad. Typically, more Americans approve of his handling of the economy than approve of him as their president. Meanwhile, this week only 29 per cent said that the economy would “get better” if Biden were elected. Retrospective evaluations – how we feel about past performance – could also be important. Shortly before the crisis exploded more than two-thirds of Americans thought that the economy was “very” or “fairly” good. Throw in some good job numbers and signs of recovery as we inch closer to November and Trump will urge them to remember this. He will argue that the markets are rallying, that the jobs are coming back and that the good times are just around the corner. Don’t ruin it. Stick with me.
Second, polarisation. It is certainly true that Trump is a comparatively unpopular president but don’t forget to look under the bonnet at what his key groups think. And quite a few of them are pretty positive. No fewer than 94% of Republicans approve of his presidency, 88% approve of how he is managing the economy, 85% think he “cares about people like you”, 81% approve of his handling of Covid-19 and over 70% feel they are better off today than four years ago. Partisanship, as they say, is one hell of a drug. These are good numbers.
This is why so much will come down to turnout. On one side, there are good reasons to expect the current protests to boost turnout for Biden, especially among African Americans, Millennials and Zoomers. All of this might help him succeed where Clinton failed. But at the same time might not rising concern about law-and-order and chaos boost turnout among the Trumpers? Might not fears about a broader cultural assault on statues and sites of national significance prompt the currently quiet suburban families and middle America to mobilise?
We won’t know until November but I did find one question especially interesting this week. Trump voters are far more likely to say they are voting for Trump rather than against Biden whereas Biden supporters are far more likely to say they are voting against Trump rather than for Biden. Compare and contrast. Biden is hoping that voters will look past him and any signs of weakness to prioritise simply getting Trump out of the White House. Trump is hoping that his stronger “direct” support will translate into high turnout in key states, just as it did four years ago. But without the mass and lively rallies will this happen? And given that Trump is no longer a novelty candidate will his voters be as committed?
Third, cultural insecurity. Bill Clinton’s strategist Jimmy Carville made his name for saying: “It’s the economy, stupid!” That might have been true in 1992 but we are no longer living in 1992. If the past decade taught us all anything then it is that we need to modify this line: “It’s the culture, too, stupid!”
As immigration, national borders, Islam, terrorism and the declining share of white Americans have all pushed their way into political debates we have entered an era in which questions about identity and culture matter just as much as the classic questions relating to economic redistribution and power.
Also, the economy only takes you so far when trying to predict the outcomes of presidential elections. In fact, economic indicators really only explain about half of the variation in presidential election results since 1945. Why? Because all of that other stuff matters -migration, borders, China, policing, and so on, and so on.
We know, for example, that Republicans are more concerned about immigration than they were four years ago. And we know that American attitudes toward China have deteriorated considerably since the onset of coronavirus. These are all buttons that Trump will push. And given the current polls I would not be at all surprised to see Trump’s team “go dark”.
What would this look like? Nixon on steroids. Trump painting a doomsday scenario of a nation that is out of control, communities that are at risk of losing their police, borders being flooded with immigrants and corporates selling out to China, all the while openly questioning Biden’s faculties. To some extent this is already happening. The fact that Trump and Trump Junior are already targeting Biden’s health shows that nothing will be off the table. This could easily be the ugliest presidential election in modern American history.
With this in mind, it is also worth remembering that some of the more radical policies that are being linked by the Trump campaign to Black Lives Matter, such as “defunding the police”, have only very limited support among Americans. In fact, only one in four Americans, fewer than one in five independents and just one in twenty Trump voters support the idea of defunding police. This is why Biden is trying to disassociate himself from the policy and why Trump is trying to make it stick. Might this cut through? Again, perhaps. But we won’t know for a while and after what looks set to be a very long, hot summer in America.
What we do know today, as we survey the landscape, is that based on all of the available data this is Joe Biden’s race to lose. The Democrat candidate is in a far stronger position than Clinton ever was and the tide has turned against Trump. This leaves the current resident of the White House as the underdog, the candidate hoping that the polls are off and that a hard-hitting campaign can cut through among voters and once again shock groupthink. Perhaps this is exactly how he likes it. But make no mistake: as of today, Trump is in trouble.
Professor Matthew Goodwin is the author of “National Populism: the Revolt Against Liberal Democracy”.