Trump’s Chance to Win Is Fading With Little Time Left to Recover
(Bloomberg) -- While the lesson of the 2016 campaign was never to count out Donald Trump, his path to re-election is narrowing dramatically as Democrat Joe Biden’s lead continues to grow and voters sour on the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump now trails Biden by an average of 9.7 percentage points nationally, and by about 5 to 7 points in key battleground states, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polling. With 25 days left, it’s not clear how Trump can make up lost ground.
The challenge got even harder Thursday when Trump rejected the idea of a virtual debate with Biden next week, erasing one of his few remaining opportunities to change the trajectory of the race.
“I don’t see how Donald Trump catches Joe Biden without having two debates,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Bloomberg Television on Thursday. “Without that debate, I can’t do the math to take him to where he needs to be if he expects to win this election.”
Democrats, still haunted by Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, aren’t yet celebrating. Clinton enjoyed a 5.3-point lead against Trump, on average, the same number of days before the election four years ago. But there are crucial differences this time, including a much higher favorability rating for Biden than Clinton enjoyed and Biden’s competitiveness in several states Trump carried in 2016, which also could shrink the president’s possible paths to re-election.
Trump may yet find a way to pull it out again this year, and he’s said he won’t leave office if he doesn’t believe the results are fair. Polls also may slightly exaggerate Biden’s lead if some Trump voters are undercounted.
But Democrats are growing hopeful that Biden’s lead is large enough that it could overcome small irregularities in polling or any last-minute ballot challenges from Trump that, in that case, wouldn’t be enough to erase a victory. And there are strengthening indications that Trump may take Republican control of the Senate with him.
Trump owes his presidency to fewer than 80,000 voters in three Rust Belt states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which he carried by less than a percentage point each. Biden now leads in Michigan by 6.2 points on average, Pennsylvania by 7.1 points and Wisconsin by 5.5 points, according to RealClearPolitics.
It’s not easy to make a direct comparison between 2016 and 2020 state polls, as pollsters survey different states at different frequencies from one election to the next. But generally, Clinton led Trump by similar and in some cases wider margins before the election four years ago. For example, in Wisconsin, she was leading by about 4 points; in Michigan by about 10 points. In Pennsylvania, polls showed a range of 6 to 9 points, depending on the survey.
“If public polls were to be believed, we’d be talking about Hillary Clinton’s re-election campaign right now,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “The news media should get out of the business of predicting the future because they’re really bad at it. We know where the president stands in the states that will decide this election and he remains strong.”
His recovery from Covid-19 has taken him off the campaign trail for a full week and counting, preventing him from in-person fundraising or holding rallies, his political lifeblood. The White House physician, Sean Conley, said Thursday he had cleared Trump to return to public engagements beginning Saturday.
And surveys show Trump is shedding support from women, suburban voters, and more recently, voters over 50 who have been unhappy with the administration’s handling of the pandemic. Seniors were a key part of Trump’s 2016 support, but his attempt to build support on a law-and-order platform during a summer of civil unrest backfired.
He already badly lags Biden in fundraising, meaning it’s increasingly difficult to persuade voters through advertising in those must-win states.
“It’s Biden’s to lose,” said Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican strategist and adviser to the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, who frequently criticizes Trump. “If Trump runs a good campaign from here on out and Biden runs a good campaign from here on out, it probably looks like Biden’s going to win.”
On Thursday, Trump said he wouldn’t participate in next week’s debate after the non-partisan commission that organizes the events insisted it be virtual because the president might still be contagious. That leaves only one more chance, on Oct. 22, for Trump to get a do-over on his first, widely panned televised face-off with Biden -- but even that date is now in doubt as the campaigns argue over the debate calendar.
Trump’s campaign is most concerned with the loss of independent voters across demographic lines who could boost his standing beyond his core base of loyal supporters, one GOP official said. His base alone is probably not large enough in this cycle for him to win outright, the official said.
Aides noted that Trump started losing support after the September 29 debate, where he took an aggressive stance and frequently interrupted Biden, followed by his Covid-19 diagnosis, which forced the national conversation back to the pandemic despite the president’s numerous attempts to steer it in another direction, the official said.
One Republican pollster said Biden’s support may settle down to the range it had been in all summer once memories of the debate fade.
“When one candidate has a bad debate, and few candidates have had as bad a debate as Donald Trump did last Tuesday, there’s a temporary bump for the opponent and then things settle back down into the more normal margin,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayers. “But the normal margin in this race has been 7-8 points, which is still a very substantial deficit.”
Financial markets were beginning to price in a Democratic win of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. “The higher likelihood of a blue sweep scenario seems to be the more dominant narrative” in markets, said Credit Suisse Group AG’s Jonathan Cohn.
And Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs Group said Thursday that a so-called “blue wave” would bring more certainty to U.S. government fiscal actions and calm the markets.
“What we’re seeing from investors over the last several days is that a ‘blue wave’ might not be such a bad thing because it would give us more certainty with regard to policy, particularly with regard to the use of fiscal policy to help our economy at this point,” the strategist said.
Analysts are beginning to believe Trump could bring Senate Republicans down with him. Only one Democratic Senator, Doug Jones of Alabama, faces a difficult re-election, according to the non-partisan election handicapper Cook Political Report. Eight Republican-held seats are rated as leaning Democrat or a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is heading up the effort to seat Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, moved to the toss-up column on Wednesday.
Trump’s administration is determined to use the president’s recovery from coronavirus as proof that his minimalist approach to dealing with the pandemic was the right one from the beginning. “Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump told voters in a video message posted on Twitter.
On Thursday, he released another video attempting to reassure elderly voters that if they get sick, the government will pay for the same level of care the president received, including experimental medicines he credits with curing him.
Among Americans 65 and older, Biden led Trump by 27 points in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters taken Sept. 30-Oct. 1. That’s a 23-point swing in one month for elderly voters in the poll. Trump carried seniors by 8 points in 2016, according to NBC exit polls.
Biden is leading in states like Iowa that Trump carried four years ago, and the two men are tied in Ohio. Biden is also running ahead of Trump in Florida and Arizona.
Yet the Trump campaign hasn’t advertised on television for a month in Ohio and cancelled most of its planned Iowa ads this week, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics, a sign of its financial squeeze.
The economy, which had long been an asset for Trump, also now weighs against him. The last two incumbents to lose re-election, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, both were ousted following recessions. The 7.9% unemployment rate in September is higher than at the time of either of their losses.
Rogers likened Trump voters to fickle fans at a long sporting event where the outcome is evident.
“They’re standing, I don’t think they’ve headed to the exits yet,” he said. “But Trump’s had a bad 10 days.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.