Voters are less than six months away from the election between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Neither candidate is likely to emerge with a landslide victory, as it is clear that the race is far from over. Though one could argue that Biden holds an advantage, given his lead in national polls and the approval rating of Trump below 50 percent, recent developments are pointing to potential trouble for Democrats.
The first is the decisive special election victory of Republican Mike Garcia over Democrat Christy Smith in the 25th District of California. The fiercely partisan contest, which involved substantial participation from Trump and some high profile Democrats, such as former President Obama and Hillary Clinton, had taken an outsized importance across the country as the only competitive special election race during the coronavirus crisis.
Garcia, a former Navy pilot and son of Mexican immigrants, and Smith, a member of the California State Assembly, were running for an open seat vacated by Democrat Katie Hill in a suburban Los Angeles County swing district. While final votes are still being counted, Smith has conceded to Garcia, who has a wide margin of victory of 12 points in the race.
This win by Garcia represents a symbolic blow to Democrats in a critical suburban swing district with a large Latino population. This is the precise type of district that Democrats need to secure in 2020 in order to win the general election and maintain their majority in the House. It also marks an important victory for Republicans as the first time they flipped a seat held by Democrats in more than 20 years. This is significant since Clinton won the district by 7 points in 2016, and Hill won by 8 points in 2018.
Moreover, this is a triumph for Trump, who endorsed Garcia and regularly touted his platform of cutting taxes, defeating socialism, and building the wall. Likewise, Smith and Democrats tried to cast the special election into a referendum on a lack of White House leadership during the coronavirus crisis. In a familiar line of attack for the president, Trump joined Garcia in suggesting that the election would be “rigged” by Democrats.
As with all special elections, however, we must exercise caution before using this victory as a national bellwether. Garcia, a political newcomer with an impressive military background, was an exceptional candidate who ran a well financed campaign that lasted more than a year. Smith, who attacked his credentials and seemed to imply his military service made him unprepared for Congress, was widely criticized, as she and Garcia are set to face off again this fall to run for a full term.
In another concerning development for Biden and Democrats, some new polls show Trump with an advantage over Biden in the battleground states that invariably decide general elections. According to one poll, 52 percent of Americans in battleground states said that they would vote for Trump in the general election, while 45 percent would vote for Biden.
While Biden still leads Trump at 51 percent to 46 percent in a national poll, it is troubling for Democrats that Biden now trails Trump by several points in decisive battleground states. Further, Biden leads Trump 51 percent to 45 percent in terms of who voters trust to address the coronavirus crisis, according to another national poll. But Americans still prefer Trump over Biden to handle the economy at 54 percent to 42 percent.
This is a worrying sign for Biden, given the weight that voters place on picking a candidate who they believe can rebuild the economy and get Americans back to work in the midst of the pandemic. While Biden still leads in national polls, the special election in California and the current edge that Trump has in swing states pose risks to his bid.
Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”