Donald Trump has turned himself into the political equivalent of Steve McQueen’s Cincinnati Kid. Not unlike Trump, McQueen’s character was a gambler of rare luck, pluck and talent trying to take on and defeat the elite national gambling establishment. But after many mistakes, McQueen loses it all in the big final hand. And then, in the movie’s dark coda, McQueen even loses to a kid in a street game of craps.
Which is a lot like what the Trump campaign looks like right now.
Despite Trump’s terrible run, the president continues to double and triple down on his losing policy bets in the face of polling data establishing a hardening of public opinion on his handling of the pandemic; his reaction to the murder of George Floyd; and his silence on the Russian bounties placed on American soldiers.
The net result is that coming out of the Fourth of July, the polling data paints a grim portrait of Trump’s reelection prospects:
(1) Trump’s job approval rating was down to 38 percent in the latest Gallup poll.
(2) Trump’s job disapproval stands at 56.6 percent. With a job disapproval settling in at 55 percent or higher, it is almost impossible to project a path to reelection, barring the emergence of a strong third party candidate who raids Biden’s flanks on ideology or race.
(3) Polls in mid- to late-June showed Trump falling behind Biden. On June 18 the Fox News poll showed Trump trailing Biden by 12 percent. The most recent Pew Research poll (June 30) put Biden’s lead at 10 points.
(4) In the battleground state polling released by the New York Times/Siena on June 25, Biden was ahead by 11 percent in Michigan and Wisconsin, 10 percent in Pennsylvania, 9 percent in North Carolina, 7 percent in Arizona, and 6 percent in Florida.
So what is happening to Trump? He and his campaign are out of balance with public opinion.
Presidential politics is a lot like boxing. A candidate can deliver punches and absorb blows if their legs are perfectly balanced. Balance in this context, is a function of proper positioning on the issues that are needed to assemble a majority coalition. Trump is on the wrong side of the public on just about every issue other than his handling of the economy.
And on top of this policy imbalance, two other flaws are undermining Trump’s political standing: his clear reality gap and his preoccupation with the media cycle without regard to any strategic plan for fixing his campaign.
On the first count, Trump’s repeated denials about the dangers of COVID-19 have run headlong into a dearth of support in the polling data. He is simply on the wrong side of the public on the top issue of the day. Consider this ABC/Ipsos poll released on July 10:
- 59 percent of the American people believe that Trump’s push to reopen the economy is moving too quickly.
- Only 33 percent support—while 67 percent oppose—Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The support for Trump on the coronavirus crisis is at 26 percent among independents in July (down from 40 percent in the May poll).
- The American people oppose by 2-1 how Trump is handling race relations, with 32 percent supporting Trump with 67 percent opposing.
On the second count, Trump’s central communications blunder has been his obsession with the current news cycle rather than fashioning a strategic plan for combating both the public health and the economic ramifications of this pandemic. And the racial justice challenge coming on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis only worsened Trump’s standing.
Trump’s reality gap paired with his zigging and zagging from one news cycle to the next has left him with a credibility gap at least as bad as Lyndon Johnson’s was in the run-up to the 1968 election.
The main difference between Trump and LBJ, of course, is that LBJ was realistic enough to realize that he needed to step aside before he dragged his party down with him.
Can Trump regain his political balance? There is time for change but not as much time as you might think.
I would argue that he would need to regain his political balance as reflected in the polls by Labor Day in order to be even viable for a comeback victory in November.
Consider that in most successful reelection campaigns, the incumbent president uses Spring and Summer to define the opposing party’s nominee. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all did this. Instead, Trump has spent these months being even further defined himself in the minds of voters, while losing ground to Biden in the polls at a steady pace.
There is no modern precedent for an incumbent president who sits at approval levels where Trump is now winning reelection.
That said, the extreme volatility of the events is a sharp argument against complacency from the Biden campaign.
The range of foreseeable events which could wreak havoc with either or both party’s campaigns is large and foreseeable, even as the consequences of these events is less certain:
- How will voters react to the spread of COVID-19 rippling through the South and the Sun Belt? That reaction is likely to be quite severe in the regions affected, but it is quite likely to permeate nationally. Trump seems prepared to view 200,000 deaths as not very significant. Will voters agree?
- Will parents and grandparents of school children be comfortable with schools reopening in August in the South and around Labor Day everywhere else? This is not a choice lightly made for not only are children to be concerned about, but also the older residents in multi-generational homes. Once again, Trump has placed a bet here by insisting that all schools should reopen fully, as normal. What will voters think of this position as their own schools begin making decisions and then living with the consequences?
- Are effective treatment options available for COVID-19 patients by either Labor Day or Halloween? Is a vaccine credibly on the horizon for 2021?
- Is the economy headed for a V-shaped recovery by Labor Day? Or will it be in the trough of a wide U-shaped recovery? Or—this last seems unthinkable—could Labor Day see us in the second downstroke of a W-shaped recovery?
- Does the public continue to yearn for a purposeful reconciliation on race? Or does that sentiment dissipate in the face of a rise in violent crime?
Other events could also have an outsized impact on the ability of Trump to regain and Biden to retain their political balance. For example, do any superstorms do real damage along the Atlantic and/or Gulf coasts?
And then there are the unknown unknowns—the equivalent of an Access Hollywood tape. Or foreign interference.
But for now, keep your eyes on Labor Day.
It’s possible that, if Trump finds his balance, he could be in position to mount an unprecedented comeback, should he get help from events.
Or it’s possible that by then his hole will be so deep that little short of a political Act of God will be able to save his presidency.