Can Trump break his 46 percent ceiling?

Can Trump break his 46 percent ceiling?
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Donald Trump has a ceiling, and that ceiling is below the 46 percent of the votes he won in the 2016 presidential election. Unless Trump can break through this ceiling, he is unlikely to win this November.

This is the conclusion I reached from my study of the national polls released this year. President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE seems to be at a polling and political low point at the moment. His poll numbers have taken a downtick in recent weeks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing unemployment and economic difficulties, and his ham-handed and illiberal response to protests of police brutality. 

But the president’s polling problems did not develop along with these crises. He has been behind the polls the entire year and was stuck in the mid-to-low 40s in head-to-head matchups in the seemingly long ago era when people could gather in indoor arenas and Black Lives Matter was a controversial, rather than consensual, political statement.  


In the 2016 election, President Trump won 46 percent of the popular vote. While he trailed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE by over 2 percentage points, it was enough for him to win an electoral college majority. In 2020, it is an open question of whether Trump can even get to 46 percent.

There have been 19 national public polls released this month. Together, these polls show Trump is averaging nearly 41 percent of the vote and only reached that 46 percent mark in one of them. At the moment, the president is below where he needs to be to have a chance to win an electoral college majority. 

As noted, June is likely a low point for the Trump campaign. But Trump was not doing much better in the polls in previous months. In May, Trump had an average vote share of just over 41 percent in the 28 national polls taken that month. Of those polls, he reached 46 percent in only one. 

April tells a similar story. Trump averaged almost 42 percent of the vote in the 29 polls released in April, and again, he reached 46 percent in just one of the polls. 

The president fared a little better in the first quarter of the year: He hit that 46 percent threshold twice in January and March, and once in February. In short, it doesn’t appear Trump’s can reach the 46 percent he needed in 2016 to win the election. 


A deeper look at the polls in which Trump reaches 46 percent of the vote indicates they are less robust than the topline numbers indicate. Of the eight polls this year in which Trump reached or passed the 46 percent mark he got in the 2016 election, four of them do not record any undecided voters. Dropping those undecided raises the vote share of both candidates, which inflates both candidates’ numbers.

This month’s Emerson College poll is instructive. Emerson asks voters a standard question about their preferences: “If the Presidential Election were held today, would you vote for Donald Trump or Joe BidenJoe BidenDC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Biden shouldn't let defeating cancer take a backseat to COVID MORE?” The poll found 47 percent of voters prefer Biden, compared to the 43 percent in favor of Trump. 

Emerson asks a follow-up question to the 10 percent of voters who did not say Biden or Trump as the answer to the first questions: “Which candidate are you leaning towards at this time?” Of these voters, 56 percent lean towards Biden, while 44 percent lean towards Trump. 

Real Clear Politics reports the results of this poll as 53 to 47 percent for Biden, adding the learners from the second questions to the true supporters of the first. But the 47 to 43 percent figure is a more accurate description of the state of the presidential race right now. Biden has the lead and Trump has a ceiling below the 46 percent he reached in 2016. 

The follow-up question from Emerson gives us important information too. Those voters who are undecided at the moment are close to evenly split in their preference between the two major candidates. To win the election, Trump needs to convert a much higher percentage of these voters than does Biden. 

There are two caveats important to note about Trump’s ceiling. The first is that “there is no evidence that Mr. Trump’s electoral-college advantage has dwindled” since 2016. According to a  newly released prediction model by The Economist, Trump’s chances of winning the popular vote are tiny, but his chances of winning the electoral college are significantly higher. 

The second caveat is that Trump undoubtedly needs to do better than the 46 percent he got in the 2016 election because third party candidates are likely to do less well this year. In 2016, third party candidates got 6 percent of the popular vote. 

With the Green and Libertarian Parties offering new candidates this year and with more well-known third party candidates Justin AmashJustin AmashRepublicans eye primaries in impeachment vote Michigan GOP lawmaker says he's 'strongly considering' impeachment Newly sworn in Republican House member after Capitol riot: 'I regret not bringing my gun to D.C.' MORE and Jesse Ventura dropping out of the race, all signs point to that total dropping in 2020. Those 6 percent of 2016 voters are not automatically Biden voters — many are disaffected voters who will likely stay home in 2020. But with fewer options for voters, it is also likely that Biden will pick up a higher share of third party voters than Trump. That only increases the vote share Trump needs to win in November.

Trump has 20 weeks left to break through the 46 percent ceiling, this is still enough time. But, if things do not change for Trump, he risks losing his bid for reelection. 

Brian Arbour is an associate professor of Political Science at John Jay College, CUNY. He is also a member of the Decision Desk at Fox News Channel.