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The race is steady, and that's bad for Trump

At the moment, there are two different perspectives on the state of the presidential election. Some journalists regard the races as “stable,” pointing to polls as evidence, and some of the latest analysis also says a “stable race continues.”

Others say the race is "steady" and call former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenExpanding child tax credit could lift 4 million children out of poverty: analysis Maria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back MORE’s lead over Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE the “steadiest” on record. 

This debate is of course semantics — both terms reflect the same reality. Biden currently has a lead in both the national polls and in key swing state polls. In fact, he’s had that lead all year, with his poll numbers spiking most recently in June, and he has maintained the lead since then. 

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As of Sept. 10, the FiveThirtyEight.com polling average finds that Biden is up on Trump by a margin of almost 8 percentage points. Go back three months, and the race was in the same place — Biden led by 7.6 points on June 10. 

The summer of 2020 was very eventful, featuring thousands of deaths due to COVID-19, protests and riots over racial justice, severe fluctuations in the economy, and intense national and local debates about whether to and how to reopen schools. Yet those events don't seem to have moved the presidential race at all. 

In the last month, both parties held their national conventions. Both parties had opportunities to dominate the political conversation for a week and make the best arguments for their respective nominees. But there is little, if any, evidence that either Trump or Biden received a convention bounce. This is further evidence of the steadiness, or stability, of this year’s presidential race.

The lack of movement in the polls is bad news for Trump and his chances of winning in November. Trump is behind in the polls, and if things stay the same, Trump will lose. The longer that the presidential race goes with polling numbers holding steady, the less time Trump has to erase his deficit. 

Looking ahead to the next 7 ½ weeks of the campaign, the best bet is that the race will continue to remain steady or stable. First of all, there is plenty of evidence that voters have made their minds up about Trump and the job that he is doing as commander in chief. Trump’s divisive and caustic style of leadership and communication engenders both intense support and intense opposition. It leaves little room for voters to feel cross-pressured. Similarly, Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute reported that 81 percent of respondents in his most recent poll have picked a candidate and are certain they will vote for that candidate, up from 66 percent in 2016. 

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The polling firm YouGov interviewed a panel of respondents before and after the national conventions. It found that 93 percent of voters gave the same response in July as they did in late August. There are very few potential swing voters out there for Trump to win. 

Trump has also failed to make a dent in impressions about Biden despite using a number of different attacks (for example, “Sleepy Joe”). RealClearPolitics averages polls about candidate favorability. At present, it finds that 48 percent of voters have a favorable impression of Biden. That number is greater than those who have an unfavorable impression (46 percent) and has been slowly but surely rising since mid-May. 

Trump’s current attacks against Biden are not registering, in part because Trump has not identified a single line of attack against him, reducing the sting of each punch. Also, Trump’s attacks seem like they can be easily disproved. For example, one way for Biden to combat the Trump campaign’s attack that he does not want to debate is to show up at the presidential debates. Again, Trump needs something to change here to win more votes by November, and it is not clear how or when that will happen. 

Trump is not without assets moving in the final stretch of the general election campaign. He has shown the ability to understand the incentives of the media and to dominate coverage for decades; there is no sign that he has lost his touch at this skill.  

The structure of American politics at the current moment works in favor of Trump. Polling data shows that, just as in 2016, Trump seems to have an edge in the electoral college map. The margin in the tipping-point states in the Electoral College are 2 to 3 points closer than the national polls. It would only take a slight bit of polling movement toward Trump to greatly increase his chances of winning the election.

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Polarization has helped Trump to retain the loyal support of Republican voters. This gives him a higher floor than previous presidents, keeping him within striking distance despite the negative numbers for Trump in job approval and favorability. Republican support for Trump also makes it more likely than not that his numbers will not go down between now and November.

But the list of assets is shorter than the list of liabilities at this moment. Trump is behind in a race that is remarkably stable — or steady, if you will. He needs something to change. 

Brian Arbour is an associate professor of Political Science at John Jay College, CUNY.