The Memo: Trump’s second-term chances fade
Joe Biden is in the driver’s seat with little more than two weeks left before Election Day.
The Democratic presidential nominee has a commanding lead in national polls over President Trump, and he has the edge in almost all the battleground states.
Biden is being buoyed by prodigious fundraising and is outspending Trump on the airwaves.
Republican voices of dissent, including those of Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), are being raised against the president — a sign of deepening concern about the party’s fate in Senate and House elections.
Perhaps most crucially of all, time is against the president.
Barring a cataclysmic “October surprise,” Trump’s only obvious chance to change the shape of the race will come in the final presidential debate, set for Thursday evening in Nashville, Tenn.
The number of Americans voting early is also surging, leaving Trump even less room to maneuver. As of Friday, more than 20 million people had cast their ballots.
Trump loyalists and nervous Democrats are united on one point: that the president cannot be counted out, especially in light of his shock win in 2016, when state-level polls were badly wrong.
But there are key differences this time around — not least that Biden has led the race from the start and Trump has never come particularly close to erasing that gap.
In the RealClearPolitics national polling average, Trump has seldom come within 5 percentage points of Biden. That is very different from 2016, when polling was volatile and Trump completely wiped out Democrat Hillary Clinton’s lead on a couple of occasions. Clinton also had markedly higher negative ratings than Biden does now.
The relative stability of this year’s race suggests the nation may have made up its mind about Trump after four years of his tumultuous presidency.
The picture appears plain. A minority of the nation — somewhere around 30 or 35 percent — adores Trump. Those voters’ support for him is apparently unshakeable.
Beyond this, Trump can add another few points from conservatives who don’t care for his personal or rhetorical style but are willing to back him because of his ability to deliver on their agenda — a bargain that has been illustrated once again with the likely confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
If confirmed, Barrett will become the third Trump nominee on the high court’s bench, and the ideological balance will tilt firmly into conservative hands, with a 6-3 majority.
But beyond the Trump base and a few additional conservatives willing to hold their nose and back the president, the rest of the nation is hostile.
In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released last week, for example, 47 percent of registered voters said they “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s performance as president, far outnumbering the 32 percent who strongly approve.
The same poll showed Biden with an 11-point advantage nationally. When voters were asked whether they might change their minds and vote for the other candidate, 48 percent said there was “no chance at all” they would vote for Trump. The equivalent figure for Biden was 37 percent.
Two factors in particular have proved to be millstones to the president.
Firstly, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been found wanting by most voters.
In an Economist-YouGov poll released last week, just 36 percent of Americans were confident in Trump’s ability to do the right thing in the battle against the coronavirus, whereas 57 percent said they were “uneasy.” Asked the same question about Biden, opinion was almost even: 45 percent said they were “confident” in him, and 44 percent were “uneasy.”
Secondly, Trump’s standing with female voters is disastrous.
In the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, women favored Biden by a 26-point margin, 60 percent to 34 percent. Trump held a much smaller advantage among men, 50 percent to 45 percent.
It is far from clear that any single controversy has been responsible for the drop in female support for Trump. It may be that the chaotic nature of his presidency and his appetite for crude personal insults has simply had a cumulative, negative effect.
It is always possible that Trump will win. There could be a late event that changes voters’ minds or raises doubts about Biden. Democratic turnout could be lower than expected. The Trump campaign has put considerable emphasis on messaging to Black voters, though whether its real intention is to win votes or to depress Black turnout is hotly debated.
There is, too, the possibility of another major polling failure.
Trump partisans argue that too many public polls have been opaque about their methodology or have had sampling errors. If pollsters were to include a disproportionate number of voters with college degrees, for example, the results would tend to tilt against Trump. But this analysis leans on the idea that all the pollsters could be wrong by wide margins.
If the polls remain roughly where they are now and Trump wins regardless, there will be serious questions raised about the future of the polling industry or the integrity of the voting process — or both.
Right now, however, there is no doubt about the scale and breadth of Biden’s advantage.
He leads in the RealClearPolitics polling averages in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all states carried by Trump four years ago.
In the first two weeks of October, Biden outspent Trump — $56 million to $32 million — on television advertising, according to an analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project.
Data site FiveThirtyEight gave Biden an 87 percent chance of prevailing as of Saturday evening.
Whatever Trump may say to the contrary, his chances of reelection look to be slipping away.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.