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Are We Too Bearish on Trump?

I think if you asked most analysts to publicly assess the presidential race, they would say it is some form of a tossup. Maybe some would give Trump a 52% chance of winning or some would give Biden a 51% chance, but most would be in the range of a 50-50 outcome.

Has Trump become unthinkable – and is that fair?

I’m in that bucket as well, but I’m starting to rethink the wisdom of my position. In particular, I’m wondering if there isn’t some combination of “safety in numbers” and “unthinkability bias” at work. To state the first possibility more plainly, if everyone has this as a roughly 50-50 race, no one is out on a limb, and, well, they can’t fire all of us if we’re all wrong together!

The second has more to do with deeply internalized biases. The narrative with Trump has always been that his 2016 race was incredibly close, with all the chips falling his way at the end. Everything else – 2018, 2020, 2022 – ended poorly for him. The idea that he might actually be a favorite to win is just at odds with everything we’ve ever experienced with Trump. More importantly, most of us very much do not want it to be the case that Trump is the favorite. Our degrees of revulsion at the idea of Trump again occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. vary widely, but it’s definitely the predominant view.

This does not look like a tossup anymore

But I started questioning whether I might actually be too bearish on him when I recently put together my first major presentation on the state of the race. As I got into it, I started asking myself “OK, what’s the good news for Biden here?” As I got further into it, I started asking, “If this were any other candidate pairing, would I really call this a tossup?” As I’ve done a few more presentations and panels, my self-questioning has only become more intense; there was very little pushback from more liberal participants on my analysis, or on the conclusion that this race was a tossup.

It brought to mind Brexit, where everyone agreed the polling suggested a tossup but thought things would eventually work out for the Remain side (mostly because they couldn’t fathom Britain voting to leave the EU). But that’s not how tossups work. If people really thought it was a tossup, about half should have been willing to predict Britain would leave. Likewise, if everyone is agreeing with a negative assessment of the playing field but then calling the race a tossup, is it really a tossup?

Biden’s job approval is in the tank!

We can look at the president’s job approval. Biden is the least popular president seeking reelection, probably since Herbert Hoover. Donald Trump’s job approval was in the mid-40s at this point. Barack Obama and George W. Bush were a touch higher, and they won relatively close elections. Reagan, Clinton, and Nixon all had majority job approval at this point. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter had job approval ratings in the low 40s at this point, and they lost. The only real exception is Harry Truman, and even he was a bit more popular than Biden at this point in the race.

This is translating to polls. The national poll average was closing, but Trump has bounced back a bit. He’s led or been tied in every poll in May save for one. That poll, Quinnipiac, has typically been more bullish on Biden; the fact that he led by just a point isn’t great news for him. The state polls are likewise grim for Biden, with the president losing all of the states that Clinton lost in 2016, plus Nevada. The margins typically aren’t tiny, either, with Trump up five points in North Carolina, nine points in Florida, four points in Arizona, and five in Nevada.

Do campaigns matter all that much?

The rust belt tossups – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – are closer, but they’re also consistent. Biden has led in two polls in Wisconsin all year, four polls in Michigan, and five in Pennsylvania. The Michigan polls where he led are fairly recent, which is good news for Biden, but the Pennsylvania polls where he led are older, which is not good news for Biden.

Even the arguments for thinking Biden will win are a bit stale at this point. Yes, it’s early, but not as early as people think. Early voting means that the old yarn about not paying attention to polls until after Labor Day has lost some of its luster. People start voting in Pennsylvania in 111 days. That’s 16 weeks.

Yes, there is a campaign left, but the political science evidence is pretty solid that campaigns have a minimal effect on electoral outcomes. And Biden has had the campaign pretty much to himself for the past few months as Republican funds have been diverted toward legal battles and their nominee has been tied down in court.

Instead, after all of this, more people view Trump’s presidency as a successful one than view Biden’s as successful. Can Biden convince people otherwise? Maybe in a traditional incumbent-defense race when the incumbent can use the spring and summer to define his opponent. But how do you redefine Trump, who has close to 100% name recognition? Do we really think people have forgotten about Jan. 6?

Trump looks stronger than people think

Most importantly, the conventional wisdom had been that Biden had a few key moments left to alter the trajectory of the race. The first was the State of the Union address, which did produce a bit of a bounce for Biden but didn’t really shake things up fundamentally.

The second was a Trump conviction. It appears as though the only trial likely to move forward this year is the New York “hush money” trial. But we have almost a month’s worth of polling during that trial, and if anything, Trump’s numbers have improved. Yes, a Trump conviction could change things (there are certain things that go along with a conviction that will be quite embarrassing for him), but I think you have to be pretty optimistic about Biden to think that things will change for him.

Maybe the third opportunity, the debates, will really change things (my take: they might). But the real point is that things have to change for Biden to win. I don’t think anyone disputes that at this point. We have a word for races like that, and it isn’t “tossup.”

Next week: The case for the race remaining a tossup.


Editor’s Note: this article required restoration after the Big Hack that regular readers might have noticed. As such it appeared on RCP before the verdict in New York v. Trump.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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