2020 Update: Labor Day Wave Edition

Twelve weeks ago, I wrote that Joe Biden was in the best position of any challenger to an incumbent president since scientific polling began 90 years ago, having led every large-sample live interview poll for 17 months. That stretch has now extended to 20 months. Six weeks ago, I wrote that the campaign remained stable, with deep disapproval of Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic and race relations driving down the incumbent’s chances. At that time, I said:

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. . . . 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. 

So here we are on Labor Day weekend and the hallmark consistency of the 2020 election remains in place. Since mid-summer we have watched the coronavirus spike in the Sun Belt then spread to the Midwest. We have watched Trump try to incite domestic unrest to deflect attention from his dismal neglect of the pandemic and convince his core supporters of the paradox that America is burning while he’s in charge and only his re-election can fix it. We have watched the administration attempt to dismantle the post office in a transparent attempt to undermine voting by mail. We have watched the vice presidential sweepstakes conclude with the addition of Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket and we witnessed (or didn’t bother watching) two national conventions, where each party had four days to present their case on television and in social media without the benefit of arenas, huge crowds or balloons. And after all the drama . . . nothing has changed. This remains the most stable presidential election in memory, held in suspended animation by two sides whose preferences are dug in and a historically minuscule pool of genuinely undecided voters. Chaos swirls around us but the 2020 election jogs in place. 

The Fundamentals

Trump’s position was precarious twelve weeks ago. It was precarious six weeks ago. It is precarious today, only there is now much less time on the clock and, with the conventions behind us, fewer opportunities to change the dynamics of the race. Despite efforts by the administration to convince the country that the pandemic is over, everyday reality says otherwise, so not surprisingly Covid-19 remains the number one campaign issue.

This is where Trump is losing the election. In late spring, after a stunted rally around the president, the public began rejecting the administration’s chaotic and ineffectual response to the virus. By mid-summer, that verdict turned deeply negative, and by Labor Day weekend public opinion has hardened. Although Trump’s overall job approval has recovered somewhat from where it stood in early July, it continues to bounce around the low 40s, essentially where it has been for his entire administration. Changing attitudes on Trump’s crisis response is key to his ability to climb back into the race, but it is hard to picture how any improvement in pandemic conditions at this point can erase the memory of his abject failures.  Parents are struggling with sending their kids back to school and federal assistance has dried up, while flu season is on the horizon and a second wave awaits. Fake promises of a pre-election vaccine aside, it is easier to imagine things getting worse than quickly getting better. 

The Trump campaign believes every day that isn’t dominated by the coronavirus is a day they can win, but the virus has touched so many lives that outside the base it has been impossible to gaslight people into thinking life is returning to normal. And efforts to change the subject have fallen flat. Trump thinks his best move is running on a law and order message, but voters aren’t buying that either. He is doing his best to paint ongoing demonstrations for racial justice as dangerous invasions of urban America by socialist-loving anarchists who will soon burn down the suburbs unless we come to our senses and re-elect the guy who is presiding over the mayhem. Or something like that. However, a series of recent polls confirm that people overwhelmingly believe the unrest will get worse if Trump is re-elected and improve if Joe Biden becomes president, while fully half the country feels unsafe with Trump in office. Despite Trump’s best efforts, people know who is living in the White House. 

The Presidency

After holding a steady 5-6 point advantage in polling averages last spring, Biden expanded his lead to the 7-9 point range starting in early June. On June 9 he held a 7.5 point lead in the Fivethirtyeight.com polling average. After a mid-summer surge that included gaudy double-digit national leads in some high quality polls, Biden’s edge has receded a bit to the point where Fivethirtyeight now has it at — 7.5 points, exactly where it was three months ago. Polling may be a bit bumpy for a week or so to account for the effects of the recently concluded conventions, but it is already clear that they did not disturb the consistency that has long defined this campaign.

Look no further than the electoral map for the most telling sign of how stable things are. The map pictured here is the same one I posted on June 7 and July 19. It shows Joe Biden with persistent leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the three Rust Belt states that Donald Trump picked off in 2016 to win the Electoral College — along with narrower but equally tenacious leads in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Biden’s national 7-8 point advantage translates into a commanding position in the electoral college, lining him up to win these states plus the states Clinton won — even if the size of his lead in most battlegrounds is down slightly from their mid-summer highs. Trump has closed to within a few points in Florida and North Carolina, but he faces a much steeper climb in the Midwest and Arizona while still needing to nail down Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas, all of which are essentially tied. That’s a lot of holes to fill, and he can’t do it piecemeal. Something fundamental about the race needs to change to get it done.

The House and Senate

Want more signs of stability? On April 1, the generic congressional ballot favored Democrats by 7.1 percentage points. On September 1 it was 7.3 percentage points. All summer it has moved in a narrow range between seven and nine points and at no time have Republicans come close to being competitive. This is why the battle for control of the House has been no battle at all, with both sides acknowledging that Democrats are poised to hold or increase their majority. 

The same can be said of the battle for control of the Senate. Twelve weeks ago, we started seeing reports that Republicans were concerned that Trump could be enough of a drag on the ticket to cost them the Senate. Since then, those concerns have blossomed into panic. The figure on the right portrays Senate races that are or could be in play, and it paints a challenging picture for Republicans, who by the luck of the draw have a difficult map with a disproportionate number of incumbents to defend. I divided the competitive contests into three tiers based on how likely the seats 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 figure is unchanged from six weeks ago although Republican prospects have become more tenuous. With Biden solidifying his position in Michigan, Democrat Gary Peters looks to be safe from a serious challenge, leaving the Alabama seat Doug Jones won in a special election as the only viable Republican pick-up opportunity. Meanwhile, Republican incumbents in Arizona and Colorado are deep in the danger zone against their Democratic rivals, while Republican senators in North Carolina and Maine are closer but consistently behind and polling below the magical fifty-percent mark.

These four seats plus a Biden victory remain the most direct route to making Chuck Schumer the majority leader, but a second tier of seats continues to present Democrats with opportunities. Iowa, Montana and the Purdue seat in Georgia are all tied up (the second Georgia seat is a special election with multiple candidates from both parties that’s almost certain to go to a run-off in January). Even the third tier is generating some drama. Republicans did not nominate the problematic Kris Kobach, but the Kansas senate race remains close in a state where Trump is polling far behind his 2016 numbers, and Lindsey Graham’s contest in South Carolina remains surprisingly competitive. John Cornyn maintains a lead in Texas, but Trump’s weakness there makes this race one to watch. And keep an eye on Alaska, where an independent candidate named Al Gross is making noise against incumbent Dan Sullivan. Gross is an underdog and Alaska is a difficult state to poll, but the race appears to be competitive. If elected as an independent he would caucus with Democrats. 

The Big Picture

While there has been nibbling around the edges of some of Joe Biden’s battleground state polling, he remains comfortably ahead in a contest marked by consistency amidst chaos. And while two months is a political lifetime, the stability we have seen over the summer speaks to how difficult it will be for Donald Trump to make the inroads he needs to pull close enough to cheat his way back to the White House. After a summer of cascading crises, we are effectively in the same place as we were in early June. I know it makes some Democrats nervous to say this out loud, but this has not been a competitive election. 

How not competitive is it? Imagine if Biden were polling seven points behind Trump, who was routinely at or above 50% in national polls and at or near 50% in key states. Now imagine those key states included New York, where Trump and Biden were neck-and-neck, and New Jersey, where Biden was consistently behind by four points or more. Biden polling even with Trump in New York is the alternative universe parallel to what we’re seeing in Texas. Biden hypothetically trailing in New Jersey is the mirror image of what we’re seeing in Arizona. Now imagine that Biden was trying everything to change these polling results but nothing was making a dent. Three months had passed, the conventions had come and gone, but his campaign was unable to make traction. Look at it this way and you can see why Trump is in so much trouble.

There’s more. I’m writing as the story in The Atlantic highlighting Trump’s disrespect for fallen service members, whom he is said to have called losers and suckers, is entering its third news cycle. While nothing in that article is surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention, its visceral impact has been strong enough to cut through the noise and undo the RNC’s choreographed efforts to make Trump palatable to wavering conservatives. Whether the story disappears into the ether or lingers in the background, it has put Trump on the defensive and caused him to lash out in the ugly way that precludes him from expanding his support beyond the 40% he has locked down. 

Then there’s money. The Trump campaign inexplicably pulled its advertising right after their convention, when candidates typically want to use paid media to amplify and expand the message they get to communicate during four days of free programming. Just as suddenly, they canceled their media buy in Phoenix through the middle of September, even though Arizona is a must-win state where Trump is reliably behind. These cost-cutting measures should raise doubts about the financial health of the campaign, especially in light of Biden’s record-smashing haul of $364.5 million in August. Money certainly isn’t everything, but there are deeper organizational issues if a campaign starts going dark when it needs to step on the gas. 

These problems are just the latest for a campaign that saw its re-election strategy collapse with the pandemic. When the year began, Trump planned to run on a strong economy, divide mainstream and progressive Democrats, paint his opponent as either an unacceptable socialist (Bernie) or unacceptably corrupt (by spinning a narrative about Hunter Biden), and rely on voter suppression and foreign interference to carry him to victory. Although foreign sabotage efforts continue, they have been complicated by the pandemic-inspired demand for write-in balloting, forcing Trump to attack the postal service in an effort to deter voting and block ballots from being counted.

In saying this, I am not minimizing what Trump and his allies in Moscow are doing. It is undemocratic and dangerous and poses an ongoing threat to the integrity of the election. But place what they are doing in context. Trump intended to have a viable re-election message, divided opposition, people voting in person where they could be intimidated or disenfranchised, and an unacceptable opponent to make the election close enough to undermine by cheating. At this point, cheating is all he has left, and it’s going to be hard to pull off the heist he intended if the contest isn’t close. Things could improve for Trump if the fundamentals change, but the fundamentals are being driven by the pandemic. 

And while two months really is a political eternity, Trump has far less time than that. Mail-in ballots were sent this weekend to voters in North Carolina. The election is here.