Fundamentals

In less than five months, voters will start casting early ballots in the 2020 election. As the summer progresses, polling will give us an increasingly good sense of what those accumulated ballots will say. Even at this point, we can look to national and state averages of high-quality polls showing Joe Biden with a national lead of between 7-8 points and conclude with some confidence that Biden is in a strong position and Donald Trump is in trouble. At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead was around 3 points — close to where she ended up in November. This cycle is clearly different. 

If we want to understand what these May numbers suggest about November it makes sense to look at the fundamentals of the 2020 cycle. Whether Biden’s lead will be durable is a function of how circumstances are tilting the playing field. At this stage, we already know that:

  • The election will be a referendum on the incumbent. It always is when an incumbent is on the ballot.
  • The pandemic and the economy will shape that referendum.
  • By a lopsided margin, people think Trump is mismanaging the pandemic response, and the margin is growing.
  • Because people blame Trump for mismanaging the pandemic response there is an elevated likelihood they will hold him accountable for longterm economic damage caused by the pandemic.
  • Having proved himself unable to plan and unwilling to listen to public health experts, Trump has substituted wishful thinking for an actual plan to combat the virus.
  • Public health experts are fairly certain that the virus isn’t going to listen to Trump’s wishful thinking
  • Without public support on the most critical issue of our time, Trump needs the election to be a referendum on his opponent. That’s how he won the first time.
  • But the election will be a referendum on the incumbent. It always is when an incumbent is on the ballot. 

Flailing in the wake of a crisis that is defining him, Trump will do anything to distract from his performance and try as hard as he can to bring Biden down. But with the pandemic swallowing everything in its path, for the first time in his presidency Trump can’t set the agenda. The death toll is driving the news. To independent voters who would like Trump to spend his time managing the crisis, partisan attacks look petty and feel discordant. All this is making it difficult to undermine Biden, who — unlike Hillary — doesn’t come pre-softened by 25 years of negative attacks or carry the burden of trying to become the first female president. Voters who hate both candidates support Biden by over 40 points. Trump won this group by 17 points in 2018. No wonder he fantasizes about running against Clinton again.

Then there are the fundamentals of the map:

  • As the campaigns begin to make decisions about resource allocation, red states are coming into play while blue states are not.
  • Biden is playing defense only in New Hampshire, Minnesota and Nevada, where Hillary won narrowly and where polling shows him leading comfortably. The fundamentals of the election will have to change for Trump to put up a meaningful fight in these states. 
  • Biden is on offense in the ten Trump states I wrote about recently, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin where Trump won his electoral college victory, and Arizona, where Democrats have been ascendent since 2018. There are enough blue opportunities to give Biden several paths to victory, while Trump needs to replicate what he did in 2016 and mop up almost every state in play.
  • Biden’s polling lead has been remarkably steady, dating back to the start of the primary season early last year. So has Trump’s job disapproval, which with the exception of a nanosecond-long rally at the start of the crisis has been consistently over 50%. These two things are not unrelated. Trump’s base will keep him from collapsing into Carter and George H.W. Bush territory, but his ceiling is awfully low.
  • Both sides typically consolidate their voters as the election approaches. On this score, Biden may have more room to grow than Trump because he hasn’t fully incorporated the Democratic base of young voters and progressives.

Then there are the regime cycle trends working against Trump:

Taken together, these fundamentals point to a challenger who has the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. The map and the moment give Biden a strong advantage, and right now the only reason he is not a lock to win is because Trump’s base gives him an unnaturally high floor for an incumbent who has proved so inept in a crisis. Still, to the extent that there is uncertainty about the election, it may be useful to distinguish between possibilities from probabilities.

There is a scenario where Trump could win. We don’t yet know how the pandemic will influence turnout, what will come of voter suppression efforts in key states, or whether foreign actors might significantly upend the outcome. These unknowns will become important only if the margin between the two candidates significantly narrows. And that could happen. Since extreme partisanship began defining our politics at the turn of the century, aggregate polling at this stage has been rather accurate — to within a handful of points of the actual vote — but movement of a few points in Trump’s direction would leave Biden with a slender lead on Election Day and give Trump the opportunity to again thread the Electoral College needle. However, a shift of a few points in the other direction would set Biden up for a double-digit win and a landslide Electoral College victory. This, too, could happen. The overarching question is which of these possibilities is more probable? And that’s where the fundamentals come into play. We may not be heading for a blowout, but right now a blowout is a far better bet than a nail biter.