The State of the Race

At the present time the polls look bad for President Trump. How bad? Credible polls show him 10 points behind Biden, and struggling in key swing states as well as what should be easy states, like Georgia. His campaign seems listless at the moment, lacking a clear message or strategy for turning around his bad poll numbers. There’s a story up on Fox News wondering whether Trump might drop out of the race. Is this story based on anything? Since we know Trump follows Fox, this might be a planted story in hopes that it will shake him up sufficiently to focus his mind on regaining the initiative.

Several things give me pause in the Biden Triumphant narrative. First, as we saw in 2016, Trump tends to run ahead of his polls. The Trump vote totals in the uncontested Republican primaries show a lot of enthusiasm—more than for Joe Biden, who doesn’t excite anyone. Aside from the usual problems and biases of polling these days, I think the number of “shy Trump” voters may have soared over the last month because of the riots. Back in 2016, the clever pollsters who got closer to the correct result did so by asking voters who they were voting for, and for Hillary responses, followed up with, “Who do you think your neighbor is voting for?” For the Hillary respondents who answered “Trump,” some pollsters correctly surmised (and adjusted their models accordingly) to count some of these supposed Hillary voters as Trump voters.

Second, I also keep thinking of the last national election in Australia, where every poll for the previous 18 months had the Labour Party beating the [conservative] Liberal Party, and yet the Liberal Party prevailed in the vote, largely because the Labour Party campaigned on a hard-left platform. (I know, that could never happen with our good ol’ “centrist” Joe Biden! /sarc). Ditto the last general election in Britain, where the Conservative Party was favored, but ended up running way ahead of its polls in the biggest rout of the Labour Party in 80 years. The point is, leftist parties continue to be in retreat in most western democracies; why should our Democratic Party buck this trend?

Third, there is one very significant cross-tab in the current polls. While Biden leads Trump in nearly every specific issue area, the one area where Trump is judged ahead of Biden is the economy, which may turn out to be the most important issue in the fall. Voters understand that our current economic crisis is not Trump or the government’s fault. It is hard to say right now whether the economy will be rising in the fall, or whether it relapses if a second wave of COVID-19 strangles the recovery. Either way Trump has a strong argument: does anyone think Biden’s proposed massive tax increases are a good idea for a struggling economy? Advantage Trump.

Fourth, there remains Trump’s self-inflicted bad habits. But you don’t have to be popular or likable to win re-election, especially against a weak challenger. Truman proved this in 1948. (And whaddyaknow, Trump is starting to talk about the “do-nothing Congress,” though this is tricky as his party is in charge of the Senate.) Gallup has some survey results on this point out this morning. Key part:

A 10-point increase in job approval between now and Election Day would be unprecedented, though this excludes the 1948 election in which Harry Truman came back to win after having a 40% approval rating in June (Gallup’s last job approval rating on Truman before that election). . .

One potentially positive sign for Trump is that while current satisfaction is low, it matches what it was in June 2012, five months before then-President Barack Obama won reelection. The 13-percentage-point improvement in satisfaction in 2012 is one of the larger changes Gallup has measured between the early summer and fall of an election year, surpassed only by a 15-point increase in 1988.

What were things like in July 1988? Oh that’s right—Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush by 17 points.

The flip side it not simply Biden’s mediocrity and faltering mental state that will be hard conceal through election day (the pandemic quarantine has been a godsend to Biden), but that like Tom Dewey in 1948, he excites nobody in the Democratic Party. The question Jill Filipovic asked in the New York Times last year—“Does Anyone Actually Want Joe Biden to Be President?”—doesn’t get a different answer now:

It is baffling . . . to conclude that the most electable candidate is Joe Biden, an older white man tightly associated with sexual harassment and racism, even if he is polling ahead more than a year before the election. A white male Democrat has not won the White House in more than 20 years; a white male Democrat has not won a majority of American voters since at least the 1970s…

No wonder Biden is picking a running mate who identifies as female and answers to female pronouns. Then, too, Biden has done something quite unusual in this cycle: after having remained (relatively) in the center of the Democratic field, since locking up the nomination he has moved further to the left, rather than making the usual move to the center to attract the all-important median voters.

The greatest concern for a victorious Biden has to be that he will be a 21st century Kerensky, whose very weakness will make him the platform for the revolutionaries who have taken ownership of the Democratic Party. But that’s a subject for another day.