2020 Update: Mid-Summer Wave Edition

Six weeks ago, I offered a comprehensive assessment of the 2020 election. In that piece, I looked at the fundamentals of the 2020 campaign and concluded that the forces responsible for the 2018 blue wave were still present and were being accelerated by Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic and protests against structural racism. Today and periodically until November, I plan to update that assessment by looking at the state of play in the presidential, House and Senate races. I will always start with a look at the fundamentals, because polls may fluctuate but the conditions underlying poll results tend to endure. And when you look at political conditions in midsummer, it appears more likely than in June that a blue wave is building in the ocean with the intensity of a storm propelled by global warming. 

The Fundamentals

Trump’s position was precarious six weeks ago. It is now dreadful. Disapproval of his handling of the pandemic has skyrocketed while the issue has increased in prominence, leading to deterioration of his job approval to levels not seen since the 2018 government shutdown and near record highs in job disapproval. Trump faced significant political headwinds before the pandemic, but his catastrophic response has been like throwing jet fuel on a fire. The virus is dominating life, the news cycle and the election, and the absence of an effective administration response has Trump in a downward spiral from which he cannot spin his way free. 

On April 7, public opinion on Trump’s handling of the pandemic was split: 48.4% approved, 46.4% disapproved. It was also the last day his net approval on the issue was positive, the tail end of an anemic rally at the start of the crisis. On June 7, the date when I commented on Biden’s commanding position in the presidential race, Trump faced an opinion deficit on the issue of 10.7 points, with 53.4% of the country critical of his response (42.7% approved). By July 7, that deficit had ballooned to 16.8 points — down over six percentage points in only a month — and the percentage approving had slipped perilously below 40%. Today it stands at 38% and continues to collapse. 

Trump’s overall job approval declined accordingly and is now fifteen points underwater. More ominous is how opinions of his response to the pandemic have converged with opinions of his overall job performance as public disapproval of the former has grown. There was a 6.3 point gap between these figures in April, when Trump received the benefit of the doubt for his pandemic response from a slice of the public that disapproved of the job he was doing overall. That gap has disappeared with the pandemic now driving the national agenda, and the more these two figures move in tandem the more difficult it will be for Trump to reverse the fundamentals of the election without changing a lot of minds on how he is mismanaging the virus — which is to say he needs to stop mismanaging the virus to have a chance of getting back in this election.

Furthermore, as Trump’s approval craters, voters are abandoning the Republican Party. Gallup reported last week that fully 50% of Americans now identify as Democrats or independents who lean toward Democrats, compared with only 39% who identify with or lean toward Republicans. In January, the two parties were at parity. A precipitous decline like this is unusual, and because it tracks with the turn in public disapproval of Trump and his coronavirus response, it is a flashing red warning light for Republicans up and down the ballot. A president and party who have acted with slavish fealty to their base cannot afford this kind of erosion. Unless he can reverse it, Trump will find his pool of potential supporters is too small to carry him across the finish line, even if he can get every last one of them to the polls. 

The Presidency

On June 7, I wrote:

Joe Biden is in the best position of any challenger to an incumbent president since scientific polling began some 90 years ago. He hasn’t trailed in a single large-sample live interview poll during the past 17 months — something that’s never happened before — during which time he has maintained an average lead of between seven and eight points over Donald Trump. The stability we see in the presidential race is consistent with the inelasticity of Trump’s job performance ratings, which have never been in net positive territory, and which now put him in the company of the two incumbents denied re-election in the past four decades — Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — as the only presidents with net double-digit disapproval five months prior to an election.

At the time, Biden’s national lead in the Real Clear Politics average was 7.2 points. One month later that lead had swollen to 8.8 points. Fivethirtyeight.com, which is selective about the polling it includes in its averages, has Biden up by 9.6. Several high-quality large-n national polls suggest an even more lopsided race, with Biden’s lead in double digits. 

Accordingly, Biden continues to run away with the states that put Trump in the White House. He’s up by 9.7 points and over 50% in Michigan, by about eight points and close to 50% in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He holds a steady lead in multiple states he doesn’t need to win: over six points in Florida, around three points in Arizona, Ohio and North Carolina. Georgia, Iowa and Texas are effectively tied. This adds up to an electoral map that looks like it did in early June, only with better margins for Biden and six weeks less on the clock. Keep an eye on the Sun Belt states where the virus is surging and Biden already has a small edge. Trump needs to win all of them. 

The House and Senate

Down ballot races are moving in concert with national trends. On June 7, the generic congressional ballot favored Democrats by 8.4 percentage points. One month later the gap had grown to nine points, mirroring the margins in the presidential race and pointing to the likelihood of Democrats padding their House majority. We should expect to see a close association between the presidential and congressional vote in an age of hyper-partisanship, when people are less likely than in the past to split their ballots.

More pointedly, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party has merged the two brands, putting the entire party at risk. Republicans long ago stopped talking about the possibility of recapturing the House majority. Now, we’re seeing a flurry of reports about Republicans openly worrying that Trump will cost them the Senate. Their concerns are justified. Republicans knew they had to defend a disproportionate share of seats this cycle, but because most of them are in red states they have long felt confident about their ability to maintain their majority. Then June happened and things started to change. The figure on the right sums up the state of the race for Senate control, with competitive contests divided into three tiers based on how likely they are to flip. State names are color-coded to the electoral vote map above. Republican senators targeted by Democrats appear in the left-hand column; Democratic senators targeted by Republicans appear on the right.

The most interesting thing about the right-hand column is that it’s almost nonexistent. There are just two Republican targets, with the only realistic takeover opportunity in deep red Alabama, where Doug Jones needs to defend the seat he won in a special election two years ago. After that, there’s Gary Peters’ Michigan seat, which is at best a third-tier possibility as long as Michigan leans blue in the presidential race.

Now look at the left-hand column, where you will find thirteen Republican senators facing different levels of risk. The four most likely Democratic pickups are in states leaning toward Joe Biden — Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina. Incumbents in these states continue to register job approval ratings in the low 40s or high 30s, well below the 50% target that usually spells safety for known quantities with a record. If all five states in the first tier were to fall to the current polling leader, Democrats would net the three seats they need to get to 50 — and Senate control with a Biden victory. 

Greater danger for Republicans is percolating in the second and third tier contests, where a wipeout scenario is developing. A strong wave could push most or all of the four second-tier seats to the Democrats. Georgia and Iowa, with three competitive senate races between them, are presidential toss-ups. The Montana contest pairs popular Democratic governor Steve Bullock against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines in a state that leans red at the presidential level but not by much. A wave with enough energy to blow through these states would net Democrats up to seven seats and a comfortable senate majority.

But this is not the worst case scenario. Seats in the third tier are in bedrock Republican states, making them the least likely to budge, but all have competitive elements that make them worth watching. They are a grab bag consisting of states where the presidential race is a tossup (Texas), or where a closer than expected presidential vote could help a strong challenger upset a controversial incumbent (South Carolina), or where Republicans might nominate a problematic candidate (Kansas), or where Trump is surprisingly unpopular (Alaska), or where national Democrats are raising a ton of money to oust a hated figure (Kentucky). With the possible exception of Kansas, the presidential race would have to continue moving in Biden’s direction for Democrats to have a shot at winning these seats. It would probably have to move a lot to put Mitch McConnell in jeopardy. But the fact that we are even talking about these possibilities is an indicator of the year’s strong Democratic skew. Republicans are going to have to spend a lot of money to save incumbents who in a non-wave year would win re-election easily, and they risk being swept out of the majority even if they avoid being trounced.

Circumstances like this would usually result in vulnerable incumbents distancing themselves from the president, and a normal president would let them do it, looking the other way as as they implored voters to return them to Washington to be a check on a soon-to-be Democratic administration. The problem is that Donald Trump is not a normal president, and even if Republican senators felt they could run from him they have no place to hide after enabling his behavior on essentially everything for the past four years. The one prediction I feel confident making right now is that as goes the White House, so goes the Senate. 

The Big Picture

Donald Trump is losing the country. By wide margins people are rejecting his public relations response to the pandemic. He is on the wrong side of the national conversation on structural racism at a time when attitudes among white Americans are shifting. People are appalled by his impulse to use force to stir up violence in order to crack down on demonstrators. The presidential race began to tip dramatically to Biden after Trump ordered national guard troops to fire tear gas at protesters in front of the White House on June 1. Six weeks later, we know that movement wasn’t a fluke.

It is still possible for the presidential race to tighten if some Republican-leaning voters return to the fold this fall, but the fundamentals have to change if Trump is to have a meaningful chance of winning. Shaving a few points off Biden’s lead won’t save him, and the election is not close enough to be tipped by voter suppression or foreign interference. Then there is the possibility that instead of regressing to the six-point race that it was for much of the spring, Biden’s lead could continue to grow. Trump’s free fall hasn’t yet bottomed out. The election is a referendum on his leadership, and he is failing.

Republicans see what’s happening, but they are helpless to make it stop. They know a catastrophic political crisis has engulfed the party. It is starting to sink in that there will be no daylight between them and Trump, and if things do not change dramatically — and soon — they will all go down together. 

Traumatized liberals with recurring nightmares of 2016 may disavow the polls. Conservatives informed mainly by Fox News may think the polls are fake. But beliefs are not facts. There is plenty of data showing that the fundamentals of this presidential contest are entirely different from the last one. It may be too soon to say that Donald Trump absolutely cannot win a second term, but it is not too soon to say that he is on a trajectory to be rejected by the country — and time is running out. They start voting in Michigan in eight weeks. To quote Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early.