The Memo: Trump's 2020 path gets steeper

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE’s path to reelection is getting steeper and steeper.

The coronavirus, the economic devastation it has caused and a spate of street protests amid racial strife have all taken their toll on a president whose approval ratings were mediocre to begin with.

Supporters of the president — and Trump himself — hark back to 2016, when he defied opinion polls to defeat Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden wins Louisiana primary Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE. But that victory does not necessarily mean Trump is immune to the laws of political gravity.

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“There is no question [Joe] Biden is ahead today,” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is also a columnist for The Hill, said of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. 

“There is no guarantee that being ahead today means you are going to be ahead tomorrow. ... But in 2016, there were a lot of people saying [Trump] will change, he will grow into the job. No one is saying that today,” he added.

Recent polling has been almost universally dire for the president.

A Fox News poll released Thursday had him lagging Biden by 12 points. The president shot back Friday on Twitter, saying that this was “another of their phony polls, done by the same group of haters that got it even more wrong in 2016.”

The Fox poll is not an outlier, however. Three other recent surveys from CNN, CNBC and The Economist-YouGov have Trump trailing Biden by broadly similar levels — 14 points, 10 points and 9 points, respectively.

In the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average, Trump was 8.8 percentage points down on Friday evening. The gap had been roughly half that margin in late February, just before the coronavirus hit with devastating effect.

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It is, of course, the Electoral College that matters. Clinton defeated Trump in the popular vote by about 2 percentage points while succumbing to a sizable defeat in the Electoral College — 306 to 232. (In the actual Electoral College vote, seven electors voted for someone other than the candidate their state’s popular vote supported.)

That said, there is no plausible scenario where Trump would lose the national popular vote by the kind of margin currently projected yet still eke out an Electoral College win. He is also down in the polling averages in most of the key battleground states. 

In the RCP averages on Friday evening, he lagged by 10.3 points in Michigan, 6.2 points in Florida, 5.6 points in Pennsylvania and 5.4 points in Wisconsin.

None of this means he won’t win. The polls could simply be underestimating Trump’s support — a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the idea of the “hidden Trump voter.” 

Much could also change. The coronavirus crisis could be overcome. The economy could come roaring back. The enormous effort the Trump campaign is putting into attacking Biden could pay off.

Other presidents fighting tough reelection battles have also sought to disqualify their opponents — President Obama did it to Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP senator says Trump commuting Stone was a 'mistake' Roger Stone joins list of political figures, allies granted clemency by Trump Romney blasts Trump's Stone commutation: 'Historic corruption' MORE in 2012, and President George W. Bush did it to John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 | Park Police did not record radio transmissions during June 1 sweep of White House protesters | Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE in 2004.

But the Trump approach is characteristically bare-knuckle, focusing on Biden’s age — he is 77 — and assertions that he lacks the mental acuity for the job.

On Friday, the Trump campaign launched a new website under the title “Barely There Biden.” It said it would show “Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump Jr. to self-publish book 'Liberal Privilege' before GOP convention Tom Price: Here's how we can obtain more affordable care The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE’s descent into incoherence.” 

In an email to reporters announcing the website, Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh asserted, “Anyone who watches Joe Biden speak for more than a minute can tell that he is barely there.”

The Trump campaign — unusually for an incumbent candidacy — is also pushing for more televised debates than normal. Politico reported on Thursday that the president’s team would press for four debates rather than the customary three.

On one hand, that is evidence that the president’s team believes Biden could crumble under the spotlight. On the other, it is a sign that Team Trump realizes the height of the hurdles it faces. One of the standard rules of politics is that the candidate who is trailing wants more debates and the candidate who is leading wants fewer.

Biden backers are confident right now. But they emphasize the dangers of complacency, especially against an opponent as aggressive as Trump.

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“We are still almost five months out,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina and a member of Biden’s finance committee. “I take nothing for granted. I don’t think anybody ought to let up at all. This guy [Trump] is desperate. He will do anything to get reelected.”

Harpootlian, who noted he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the campaign, also said that the state of the economy was a powerful argument against the incumbent, however. 

The landscape for the election has changed significantly since early this year when unemployment was near historic lows. The unemployment rate for February was 3.5 percent. Last month, it was 13.3 percent.

Asked if the grim economy takes away Trump’s best card, Harpootlian replied, “It doesn’t take away a card. It takes away the whole deck. ... His only real argument was that he engineered a very good economy.” 

Republicans, naturally, see things differently. 

GOP pollster David Winston acknowledged that there has been a series of “not positive” polls for Trump. But he said that much could change. He also warned that, amid the coronavirus, the economic woes and the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd late last month, “you’re in the middle of an increasingly volatile situation, and therefore numbers are going to jump around as people respond.”

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The president returned to the campaign trail on Saturday, holding a rally in Tulsa, Okla., that was itself deeply controversial because of perceived health risks.

Trump is hoping that he can recapture the same formula that led him to one of the most surprising victories of the modern era in 2016.

The signs don’t look good. The attendance at the Tulsa rally was far below expectations, inflicting another embarrassment on Trump. But even Democrats acknowledge he can’t be counted out yet.

“Trump is reeling,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “But it’s only June.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.