Despite 2020’s tough start, Trump’s base remains solid, which bodes well for his November. National polls have recently shown a widening Biden lead; considering the current political environment, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how well Trump has held up, and how well it positions him as political tides turn.
The current Real Clear Politics average of national presidential polling gives Biden a 50.1% to 41.3% lead less than five months from November’s election. This fits conventional expectations that 2020’s rough first half is damaging the president’s re-election chances. However, looking inside these national polls reveals a crucial shortcoming: They are not polling those most likely to vote.
Of the eleven national polls making up RCP’s average, ten sampled “registered” voters, not “likely” voters. Registered voter polls are historically less accurate and over-represent Democrats in their results.
One likely voter poll not included in RCP’s average is Zogby’s recent one (conducted 6/1-6/2 of 1,007 likely voters) which has Trump and Biden deadlocked at 46% apiece. Everything in Zogby’s was not perfect for the president; his approval/disapproval rating was negative — 48% approve/51% disapprove. However, as Zogby noted: “During this almost exact moment at the end of Barack Obama’s first term, his job approval numbers were very similar…48% approve/50% disapprove.”
One poll is not an election. However, “registered” are not “likely” voters either, and the only ones who count will be November voters. Zogby’s poll does indicate that Trump’s base will figure prominently among them. The surest sign they will is that they are sticking with him during the most difficult moment of his presidency.
Since 2020 started, the political tides have run against Trump. He started the year off impeached and tried in the Senate. As soon as Trump survived that, America was hit by the unprecedented coronavirus, which dealt a double whammy to the economy — his presidency’s crown jewel.
The pandemic inflicted serious damage, but the lockdowns added even more, virtually shuttering a significant part of the nation’s economy. The result was an economic catastrophe unseen since the Great Depression. That the most severe lockdowns were in blue states — several (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that Trump flipped in 2016 and needs in 2020 — only added to the pain.
Then as the economy finally had begun to slowly reopen, there came the horrific scene of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Shortly after, many of the nation’s largest cities erupted in rioting.
Biden’s first half could not have gone much better. Obviously, having the incumbent hobbled with a horrible economy is invaluable. Since 1916, every elected president, who has lost a second term bid, has had negative economic growth within a year of their re-election.
Biden also became his party’s de facto nominee. Having struggled throughout 2019, and been the primary target of internal infighting, Biden was now stronger than at any point in his campaign.
Further, seclusion kept him out of the public eye and the problems public appearances have brought him. Finally, George Floyd’s killing electrified his base in a way that he has been unable to do.
Considering this stark contrast of fortunes, a Biden lead is hardly surprising; that Zogby’s poll of likely voters has them tied is. Biden should be ahead. More to the point, Biden needs to be, because the political tides are already turning.
The recently released May employment report showed that as the lockdowns end, the economy will recover, and jobs will return. As the lockdowns have lost public support, reopening only promises to continue.
Compounding the economic is the political: Democrats own the lockdowns at the state level. The harshest lockdowns have occurred, and last longest, in the bluest states. Local animosity over them can only help Trump and hurt Biden.
The same political overlap has occurred with recent rioting. Anarchy is not a platform that appeals to important suburban and moderate voters. Nor can Biden readily criticize it, for fear of losing black and left support.
An agitated left is the last thing Biden needs — or expected — at this campaign point. Now, he needs to focus on running to the center. Instead, he finds his left pulling him into the Cuckoo Caucus’ no-win issues — like defunding the police.
Finally, Biden’s on-the-shelf-life expiration date has arrived. He cannot sit there unsold forever and expect to remain fresh. Yet Biden on the road is no asset; were it, he would not have been sitting there in the first place. Biden in public hurts Biden with the public. The intensity of the looming campaign only raises the damage stakes.
Right now, the race should not be the deadlock that Zogby found. Biden desperately needs it to not be. Biden needs a buffer now for the already turning political tides. It is clear Trump’s base is rock-solid. It has yet to be proved how much of one Biden has, let alone whether it will be there in November.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.