Trump’s national polling deficit points matches Carter’s popular vote deficit against Reagan.
Not since President Jimmy Carter lost big to Ronald Reagan in 1980 has an incumbent faced the possibility of such a heavy thrashing at the polls. Trump’s national polling deficit of around 10 percentage points matches Carter’s popular vote deficit against Ronald Reagan—who won a 44-state landslide while fellow Republicans seized control of the Senate. Injured by recession and haunted by the Iran hostage crisis, Carter was pulverized.
Yet, with the 2020 election at our feet, few analysts are prepared to predict an overwhelming defeat for Trump and his party on November 3—despite national polls hinting at just that. Why?
The first is the reliability of the narrow Trump political base, centered on less-educated, rural, evangelical, and blue-collar Whites. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hardship, racial unrest, and Trump’s famously erratic and provocative behavior, his supporters have kept his job approval from dipping much below the 42.5% floor of late last week in the fivethirtyeight.com polling average.
Secondly, the combination of polarization and demographic change has left individual states more politically distinct from one another. The dynamics of individual battlegrounds mean Trump could have a fighting chance of re-election even if he loses the popular vote. The 2018 mid-term elections, when antipathy toward Trump and his policies was palpable, proved the point. Trump is currently running significantly better in the electorally decisive states than he is nationally. The difference between Biden sweeping all of them, or barely enough to win, could amount to a very thin margin.
What’s more, narrow Trump victories in more conservative-leaning battlegrounds such as Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina could limit GOP defeats in Senate races. In 2016, every Senate contest went to the party of the presidential candidate carrying the state.
The third reason analysts are skeptical of a blowout for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is simply the painful memory of how wrong they were in 2016. That year, some surveys in key battlegrounds underestimated the size of the working-class electorate. Trump’s strong finish among late-deciding voters also contributed to his victory.
The other X factor this year is the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The huge volume of ballots already cast by mail and in-person early voting point toward mammoth turnout which has been broadly interpreted as an anti-Trump swing. Indeed, at least one respected analyst is predicting that Biden, like Reagan 40 years ago, could win more than 400 electoral votes.
Don’t bet against a Carter-sized humbling just yet, but also be prepared for a surprise. Trump is down (in the polls) but not out.