President Trump’s plummeting poll numbers have Republicans concerned, but political experts sharply disagree about whether the polls reflect a hardening verdict of the electorate or simply another temporary extreme of the wildly swinging 2020 pendulum.
“We’re in a dead period where we don’t really have a campaign going yet,” Smith continued. “People care about summer vacations, not the election. Later on we’ll see the numbers start to narrow, especially if the economy starts to get better — and it can’t get any worse.”
Under this theory, a series of unpredictable events has shaken the country and given people a temporarily negative outlook that is reflected in attitudes toward the president, but the current situation says little about what voters will do once they have to make a choice in the fall.
Historically there have been a number of cases where summer polls were very different from the final election results. Hillary Clinton consistently led Donald Trump in 2016, for instance, and John McCain led Barack Obama by 5 points as late as September 2008.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis had a 17-point summer lead over George H.W. Bush before losing the election. And in 1976, Jimmy Carter had an astonishing 33-point lead over President Ford but barely won in a squeaker only three months later.
Bolstering this theory is the fact that Trump was doing relatively well before the pandemic. “The State of the Union was only five months ago, along with Iowa debacle,” said Gordon. “He was very strong.”
When the economy crashed, however, Smith noted: “It doesn’t matter to most people why it happened; the president gets the blame.”
“That’s why the Republicans are fighting so hard to get economy going again, and why the Democrats are trying not to let it,” he added.
According to Republican strategist John Feehery, “Trump still polls much better than Biden on the economy.”
“And if the economy recovers, which I think it will, the president will in a far better political position than he is now,” Feehery added.
Two months ago, White’s firm conducted a poll of swing voters in 14 states and found high approval of Trump’s economic response to the pandemic. “It was a targeted, rapid response designed to produce a V-shaped recovery,” White said of the perception of Trump’s economic efforts. “People of all parties like that.”
Besides invigorating the economy, White would like to see Trump come up with a plan to help newly unemployed people who have lost their health insurance, for example providing subsidies for them to remain on their current plan.
“Right now, the answers are Medicaid and Obamacare,” White said. “But the average Obamacare deductible is $4,000 and it resets when you switch plans, and with Medicaid it’s often hard to find services, doctors and drugs.”
Trump’s struggle with the public health response can be tied to his nature as a populist, he added, noting that the country’s outdated public health infrastructure and creaky bureaucracy further complicate things.
Farnsworth, who is pessimistic about Trump’s chances, said Trump might try to shake things up by dumping Vice President Mike Pence from the ticket in favor of Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the United Nations.
But Schurin said that’s extremely unlikely. “Pence is a hero to the religious right,” he noted.
Politically, experts say Trump’s biggest challenge is to draw attention to Biden’s faults, which is hard because Biden is following a “basement strategy” designed to minimize his gaffes and vulnerabilities.
“I believe the best strategy for the Trump campaign is to keep the focus on Biden and take the focus off him,” said Feehery. “Maybe he should join Biden in the basement.”
However, “in a crisis people look to the president, so it’s hard to draw attention to Biden,” said Farnsworth. “Plus, Trump by his nature wants to dominate media discourse. He doesn’t do modesty and reticence.”
For now, Biden’s strategy is paying off. “Biden can say everything in a very controlled setting, with carefully crafted messages of limited duration and less gaffe potential,” Farnsworth said.
Unlike Trump, Biden “is not a rally campaigner,” said Schurin.
“The best thing Biden has done is stay in the cellar,” Smith agreed. “Many people high up in his campaign have told me that the less he talks, the better. And having watched him campaign in New Hampshire, once he strays off the teleprompter, it’s not good.”
The basement strategy works for Biden because people know and like him, and he doesn’t have to introduce himself to the country, said Gordon. As the campaign heats up, however, Gordon said Biden will eventually have to take a bigger spotlight.
Not everyone believes the polls showing a large Biden lead are entirely accurate. “I’m a little skeptical of media polls because I think most of them are done to make for headlines that put the president in an unflattering light,” said Feehery.
Smith said polling quality has diminished over the last 20 years because random-digit dialing surveys — “the gold standard” — have become almost prohibitively expensive. It costs $50,000 to do a top-quality survey just in New Hampshire — that’s twice what it cost five years ago, he said. And even when such polls are done, fewer people are willing to respond to them.
Smith said there’s also a problem with “shy Trump voters” — mostly blue-collar men — who won’t admit their preference for Trump to pollsters. This was part of the polling problem in 2016 and it hasn’t been fixed, he said.
Polls also don’t measure enthusiasm, which was an issue in 2016 because it turned out that Trump voters were far more motivated than Hillary Clinton supporters.
“Trump provides so much energy to our party,” emphasized Gordon, the Democratic strategist.
Farnsworth echoed this, saying that, unlike in 2016, “there’s a lot of enthusiasm for voting Democratic, not Biden necessarily, but Democratic.”
Scala conceded that “a Biden presidency doesn’t excite a lot of people, but he does appear to be a plausible president, and that may be all he needs,” given Trump’s unpopularity.
In addition, Biden is likable and attracts “nothing like the degree of antipathy toward Hillary,” said Schurin.
But Smith said that signs of Democratic enthusiasm may be misleading. In most elections the party that’s out of power tends to generate enthusiasm earlier in the cycle because it has something to gain. “Republicans will become more energized closer to November,” he predicted.
Feehery noted that the Democratic Party “is taking some pretty radical positions on policing and on properly appreciating American history, which I think will energize the GOP base and drive swing voters into the Republican column.”
There are also a number of events between now and the election that could have a major impact.
The conventions this year will be “unpredictable and abnormal,” noted Schurin. “Covid could affect the turnout. And mail-in ballots could throw a wrench into things.”
White said Trump will have an advantage in the debates because he’s “great off-the-cuff, whereas Biden doesn’t have the ability to be quick.”
This makes debate format a key issue. “Anything free-flowing benefits Trump,” White said.
Schurin noted meanwhile that a significant segment of the public may be so disgusted by the “bad circus atmosphere of politics” they don’t vote at all.
It’s hard to find an analogy for the current election. A scenario that favors Trump, said Smith, would be 1968, when a “silent majority” of voters elected Richard Nixon, “even though he wasn’t a popular figure,” out of frustration with protests and rioting.
But Schwartz pointed to 1920, when a divisive president, a pandemic and widespread race riots led to the election of Warren Harding, a traditional representative of the opposing party who promised “a return to normalcy.”
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