by Aaron Blake, Washington Post
Empty seats are visible in the upper level at a campaign rally for Trump at BOK Center in downtown Tulsa, Okla.
We’re less than four months from the 2020 election, and President Trump is in a bad way. A slew of national polls show him losing to Joe Biden by an average of around nine points; swing-state polls almost universally show Biden leading; and worry is growing on the right not just that Trump will lose, but that he’ll lose badly enough to torpedo down-ballot Republicans. As The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim writes, many top GOP candidates are carefully but conspicuously distancing themselves from the president.
Meanwhile, the president is apparently being served up much more favorable numbers. The Post reported late Thursday that aides “have sought to boost Trump’s mood by presenting him internal polling that shows him in a better position than public surveys.” Trump was apparently thumbing through those polls when interviewed Wednesday by Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen.
But the numbers Trump is seeing (and in some cases inventing) bear very little resemblance to the vast majority of public polls, which are consistent in showing him running well behind his 2016 numbers almost uniformly across the country.
1. The low and hard ceiling
In a recent op-ed, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale sought to draw a parallel between Trump’s standing today and George W. Bush’s in 2004. Their approval ratings are similar at this point in their respective races, but Bush went on to win.
I broke down the whole op-ed, noting the limits of that argument. Chief among them was that Bush was, at that point, virtually tied with John F. Kerry. But Bush also, importantly, had room to grow, whereas about half the country has completely written off Trump today.
A Monmouth University poll last week, for instance, showed 50 percent of voters say they are “not at all likely” to vote for Trump, compared with 39 percent for Biden. That tracks with other polls last year that showed something similar, including in one poll of Texas, of all places.
t also tracks with polls that have shown around half of registered voters disapprove of Trump “strongly,” which also suggests they are off-limits for the president.
It’s important to emphasize the reason Parscale chose that comparison: There really isn’t a modern precedent for an elected incumbent recovering from this kind of deficit.
Of course, there haven’t been that many similar situations to which we can compare today; presidential elections happen only once every four years. But polls almost universally show Trump with a rather hard ceiling, suggesting he won’t be able to improve his standing a la Bush.
Trump can try to pull Biden down to his level, but he’ll need to damage him badly. And even when Trump was able to do that with Hillary Clinton in 2016, he still needed to beat the odds to pull off a fluky narrow victory.
2. The suburbs
The battles for the presidency, the Senate and particularly the House generally run through the suburbs, because these areas include inordinate amounts of swing voters. These areas in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin proved crucial for Trump in 2016, but they also played a major role in delivering the House back to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
This also appears to be one demographic in which Trump has seen some of his most significant erosion since 2016.
A recent NPR-PBS-Marist College poll showed Trump losing the suburbs by 25 points, 60 percent to 35 percent, despite winning them by a few points in 2016.
Other polls also show huge shifts, though not all quite as big. Fox News polls showed Biden leading suburban voters by six points in Florida (a 14-point shift from 2016), by 20 points in Georgia (a 25-point shift) and by 21 points in North Carolina (an astounding 45-point shift).
And how important are the suburbs? The GOP has lost them in a presidential election only three times since 1980: 1992, 1996 and 2008 — all three Democratic wins. What’s more, the most the GOP has lost the suburbs by was five points. Losing them even by just double digits — much less 25 points or anything close to it — would almost certainly be a death sentence for Trump’s reelection campaign.
3. White (college women) flight
The simplest — and often most derided — take on how Trump won in 2016 was because of working-class white voters, particularly in those Midwestern states.
But polls today suggest one of Trump’s biggest problems is with these white voters, and particularly more-educated white women.
Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump winning white voters by 20 points (57-37), while a post-election analysis by the Pew Research Center put the number at 15 points. The recent Monmouth poll, by contrast, shows Trump winning white voters by just two points (48-46), Suffolk has him up just one (49-48), and the Marist poll has him up by six (51-45).
The main driver of this: college-educated white women. The exit polls showed Trump losing them by seven points (51-44), but today the gap is 29 points in the Marist poll and 28 points in a recent Post analysis of polls. A New York Times-Siena College poll last month even showed that deficit stretching to an astounding 39 points.
This group accounted for a larger share of the white vote than any other gender/education combination, at 20 percent of all votes cast. In other words, if Trump is actually seeing these kinds of declines, it will shave real points off his vote share.
4. The generic ballot
As we approach the 2020 election, one number that hasn’t been polled as often will begin to take on increased prominence: the generic ballot. This is the question in which pollsters ask people whether they intend to vote for a generic Democrat or a generic Republican for Congress, and it gives us perhaps our best indicator of how the battle for the House and Senate might pan out.
The bad news for the GOP: Those numbers are beginning to almost directly mirror the presidential race.
The Monmouth poll showed Democrats leading on the generic ballot by eight points, 50-42. A USA Today-Suffolk University poll at the same time showed Democrats up 14 — even slightly bigger than Biden’s 12-point edge. And an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll in early June showed Democrats at plus-11.
That Suffolk poll is the biggest margin to date in any poll logged by RealClearPolitics, and the NBC-WSJ poll tied what had to at that point been the largest gap for any high-quality poll.
That’s the number that you’ll increasingly see Republicans worry about if Trump can’t right his own ship, and it could at some point force them to more explicitly distance themselves from Trump. If and when that happens, we’ll have a pretty good idea about just how concerned they are.