Trump-Biden race tightens as both sides expect close contest

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE has lagged Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE badly in the polls for much of 2020, but strategists in both parties predict his numbers will rise and the race will tighten as the Republican Party consolidates further behind him this fall.

There are already signs that the race is tightening.

In Michigan, Biden’s average polling lead dropped from 8.4 percentage points on July 28 to 2.6 percent a month later, according to the average of polls kept by RealClearPolitics, while in Pennsylvania Biden’s average lead dipped from 7.4 points to 5.8 points during the same period.

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In Wisconsin, Biden’s average polling lead stood at 6.4 points on July 28 and narrowed to 3.5 points on Aug. 26, according to RealClearPolitics.

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are the three traditionally Democratic states that Trump won in 2016 to stun then-Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE. He is likely to need wins in at least two of those states, if not all three, to win reelection.

Strategists say the tightening is a reflection of voters starting to look at the race more seriously and partisan allegiances kicking in.

“Given how polarized and closely balanced our country is, it only makes sense the polls would tighten somewhat,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Republicans need the race to tighten to increase their chances of holding on to the Senate majority.

Republicans have been battered by the negative views a majority of Americans hold over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has cost more than 180,000 lives and greatly damaged the economy.

Trump is also suffering from a big deficit with suburban female voters that has been a drag on other Republicans.

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An ABC-Ipsos poll published Sunday showed voters across the country continue to have a negative view of Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, weighing down his approval ratings. The survey of 732 adults nationwide on Aug. 28 and 29 showed that 63 percent disapprove of his response to the pandemic. His approval rating was 31 percent, roughly the same as the week before the GOP convention. 

A Yahoo News-YouGov poll published Saturday, however, showed that Biden's lead over Trump nationally had shrunk to 6 points after the convention, his smallest advantage in months. The survey of 1,001 adults nationwide was conducted Aug. 27 and 28. 

The White House and GOP think Trump’s chances will improve if the election becomes more of a choice between Trump and Biden and less a referendum on the president. The GOP convention focused on damaging Biden with that goal in mind.

Democratic strategists also expect the race to tighten in the weeks ahead.

“Trump has the bully pulpit and he has shown a willingness to use it. So, one, I expect it to get closer. I think Trump will get some sort of a bounce” from the convention, said Democratic strategist Steve Jarding.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that it tightens earlier,” he said.

Jarding, however, said the danger for Trump is that economic conditions continue to deteriorate and coronavirus infections spike in the fall.

“The reality of the crisis is clearly his greatest enemy,” he said. “That has the absolute capacity to drown out any attempt he would have at saying, ‘I’m going to tell you this election is about law and order.’”

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in North Carolina, a key presidential and Senate battleground state, said the damage the coronavirus has done to the economy and entrenched perceptions that Trump responded too slowly and ineffectively to the pandemic has irreparably damaged his support among swing suburban voters.

Even so, Jackson said he expects Trump to mount a comeback in the polls.

“In North Carolina, it’s going to be a tough race,” he said. “North Carolina in the presidential is going to come down to a point or two between the winner and the loser.”

Trump is running ahead of GOP incumbents in Senate battleground states that lean Republican but is running behind Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBreaking the Chinese space addiction Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden MORE (R) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Democratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Poll: 57 percent of Americans think next president, Senate should fill Ginsburg vacancy MORE (R) in Colorado and Maine, respectively, two states Biden is expected to win.

Biden is leading Trump by 17 points in Colorado, according to a Democrat familiar with internal polling, and by an average of 11.5 points in Maine, according to RealClearPolitics.

Trump’s expected strength in battlegrounds such as Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and North Carolina give Republicans hope that they can maintain their Senate majority even if Biden wins the White House.

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Strategists note that polls have yet to show Biden getting any significant bump out of the Democratic convention earlier this month, and Trump also is not expected to get a big boost — a reflection of the stark partisan divide in the United States.

The polarized climate is a big reason why strategists think the polls will continue to tighten.

Biden’s odds of winning have shrunk to 69 percent, down from 73 percent, in recent days, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website that handicaps races.

“There didn’t seem to be a bounce coming out of the Democratic convention but we won’t know for a couple of weeks whether there was any significant bounce out of the Republican convention,” said Ayres, the GOP pollster.

Biden announced Thursday during a virtual fundraiser that he plans to start traveling to battleground states after Labor Day.

“One of the things we’re thinking about is I’m going to be going up into Wisconsin and Minnesota, spending time in Pennsylvania, out in Arizona,” he said.

His campaign co-chairman Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Underwood takes over as chair of House cybersecurity panel Rep. Bill Pascrell named chair of House oversight panel MORE said: “He will go wherever he needs to go.”

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Republican strategists say the change in tactics for Biden, who has been criticized by Trump for spending most of the last several months of the pandemic in Delaware, is a sign he expects the race to tighten.

“Just look at the Joe Biden and see the actions. Now they’re talking about leaving the bunker,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “Obviously they recognize they’ve been playing prevent defense on Trump and now they’re going to have to change their tactics.

“If they keep playing prevent defense, which is the bunker strategy, they may wind up losing the election,” he added.