The wildcards that could help Donald Trump dodge electoral humiliation in the 2020 US presidential election
US President Donald Trump faces an uphill battle in November, if the polls are any indication.
Will Donald Trump go down in history as a one-term wonder?
Or will he confound the pundits as he did in 2016, extend his tenure and maybe even pave the way for another political dynasty?
With less than 100 days until voters cast their ballots, we’re into the final phase of an election cycle that will define the legacy of the 45th president of the United States of America.
Has he made his nation great again or, as his critics allege, has he presided over the disintegration of civil society?
Here are six charts that could inform what happens next.
Look who’s ahead in the polls
Recent polls have Trump trailing his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. The trend has been consistent and shows no sign of correcting in favour of the incumbent.
The highly regarded poll of polls published by website FiveThirtyEight.com has Biden leading Trump by 7.9 percentage points. And that lead has been nudging a double-digit gap at points in recent weeks.
If the polls are correct and the trend continues, a Biden victory looms on Tuesday, November 3.
But that ignores both recent electoral history and the extraordinary circumstances in which this campaign is being played out.
Which is why it may be premature to write Trump off, says Kim Hoggard, a former government staffer who served in both the Reagan and George HW Bush administrations.
“This election season is so unpredictable. I don’t think anybody would say that it’s not possible for him to win a second term,” says the commentator, who now lives in Sydney.
“It’s looking less likely as we go forward, but it’s certainly not impossible.”
Watching the battleground states
Since the 2016 polling debacle, there has been more circumspection about national polls and approval ratings and more emphasis on gauging the mood in key battleground states — not unlike the focus on marginal seats in Australian elections.
Here too, Trump is falling behind his opponent.
“The calculation for [Trump] is he has to keep every vote that he got last time and then win in a few more, and he clearly is not keeping all of the people that voted for him last time,” says Hoggard.
“And that’s being reflected in the polls and in these swing states, where we’re seeing that Biden has either closed the gap or surpassed him.”
Biden has opened up a commanding lead among registered voters in six key battleground states that flipped from blue state to red state in 2016 and handed Trump his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton.
Not only are the swing states in danger of going to Biden, says Hoggard, but even a rusted-on Republican state like Texas is leaning towards going Democrat for the first time since 1976.
“So that’s quite a significant shift,” she says.
Presidential popularity through the ages
By historical comparisons, Trump’s task looks even more daunting.
The President’s current 38 per cent approval rating places him well below the 51 per cent average at this stage of the election cycle.
It puts him in the same league as George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter, the only two presidents in modern times who failed to win a second term after standing for re-election.
In his first 180 weeks in the White House, Trump has never scored an approval rating higher than 49 per cent.
It’s a peak he has hit five times, all of them between January and early May this year, even as the coronavirus pandemic raged.
In fact, Trump’s highest approval rating is still a full 20 points below the peak recorded by every president since Eisenhower.
Hoggard notes that Trump’s approval rating hasn’t changed much over the course of his presidency and he’s never enjoyed a majority popularity.
“When you’re the incumbent, it’s not a good look, if you’re not going into the general election season, without at least a 50:50 split in the polls,” says Hoggard. “So that’s a long way for him to climb back.”
Republican voters remain loyal to Trump
Despite a body of evidence that Trump’s days are numbered, there are a couple of wildcards which could have a bearing on the outcome.
First is the extraordinarily strong support Trump enjoys from among his own rank and file supporters.
This is happening even as Trump faces a revolt from among some Republican grandees, such as former US secretary of state Colin Powell, who have either come out in support for Biden or begun actively campaigning against Trump.
Though Trump has suffered a dip here too, at this stage of the election cycle compared with Republican predecessors, only Eisenhower enjoyed more in-party support.
Remarkably, given the mood of the electorate in general, Trump is even faring better than Republican favourite Ronald Reagan in 1984.
“I think the biggest story is: Republicans stay loyal,” says Brendon O’Connor, associate professor in American Politics at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.
“Republicans in the main didn’t desert Trump. They voted around 90 per cent for him and they’ve stuck with him.”
Regime change relies on supporters flipping sides, as happened in 2016 when Trump won victories in the Democrats’ “blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Republicans more loyal than Democrats
That loyalty can be seen more clearly when the chart above is whittled down to compare Trump to the preceding three presidents, two of whom were Democrats.
At this stage of the first-term campaign, Trump tops George W Bush and is comfortably ahead of where Clinton and Obama ranked.
A Monmouth University poll of registered voters last month found similar trends. Despite trailing Biden by 11 points in the overall polling, 93 per cent of Republicans said they would vote for Trump and 84 per cent viewed him favourably.
Trump does have, however, a couple of factors in his favour. Time is one of them.
“Yes, he can win because we’re still three months out from the election,” says Sydney University’s O’Connor.
“Trump is, as we’ve seen before, willing to do nearly anything and say nearly anything to reverse the polls and reverse his position.”
The biggest unknown to date remains how the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will play out in the election.
With over 4 million confirmed cases and almost 150,000 deaths, the virus continues to ravage communities around the United States and weigh down economic activity, with no sign of remission.
That will affect voter perceptions on election day. But if infections are still rising, it may also have a deterrent effect on voter turnout.
O’Connor says conventional wisdom suggests a large turnout on election day favours the Democrats.
As this chart above shows, there was a surge in turnout for the 2018 mid-term congressional elections, which saw a wave of Democrats elected. And that should point to a high turnout come November.
And that could be influenced by an “October surprise” — a political phenomenon or an event that can help swing an election.
“The other side, of course, is if there is a vaccine that should become available or if the pandemic would somehow magically disappear as the President hopes it does, that could change the situation,” says Hoggard.
In 2016, there was a double surprise. For Trump, it was the Access Hollywood tapes in which he was heard to engage in obscene banter about women.
For the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, it was the announcement that the FBI was going to reopen an investigation into her use of a private email server.
And both O’Connor and Hoggard believe the presidential debates, which kick off at the end of September, could have some bearing on the final result.
“They have a lot of impact, because people often wait till the last minute,” says Hoggard, although she concedes that this time around, many might have already made up their minds.
- Data: Zoe Meers (United States Studies Centre, The University of Sydney) and Stephen Hutcheon