Memorial Day 2020: Presidential race still leaning Biden

Despite coronavirus and multiple scandals, essentials of presidential race are virtually unchanged

A voting sign is seen Tuesday during early voting for the June 2 District of Columbia primary outside the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on U Street Northwest. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A voting sign is seen Tuesday during early voting for the June 2 District of Columbia primary outside the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on U Street Northwest. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 26, 2020 at 2:18pm

ANALYSIS — More than two months ago, even before COVID-19 became all-consuming in our lives, I wrote a column arguing that the presidential race had changed from a toss-up/tilting Democratic to leaning Democratic.

That significant change had nothing to do with the coronavirus. Instead, it followed from changes in the fundamentals of the 2020 presidential contest, including the end of the Democratic race, the inevitable nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden, and President Donald Trump’s continued poor standing in the polls.

Now, a little more than two months after that March 18 column, much has happened. Approximately 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. The stock market went down and then back up again. Tens of millions of Americans have become unemployed. Multiple inspectors general have been fired. There have been political gaffes and controversies. And the president has tweeted and tweeted and tweeted.

Despite all these developments, I see little reason to change my assessment of the presidential race. The country is as polarized as it was two months ago, and the trajectory of the contest is essentially unchanged, with Biden holding a comfortable lead in national polling and having multiple paths to 270 electoral votes.

While daily developments give the cable television networks something to chatter about, today’s big story will be replaced by a new one tomorrow, and another one the day after that. But the fundamentals of the race remain unchanged.

That doesn’t mean the outcome is inevitable. A dramatic development could change things. But for now, Trump’s options are narrowing as Election Day approaches. The White House will need to do something dramatic to alter the trajectory of the race.

National numbers

The plethora of national surveys makes it easy for everyone to find a survey he or she likes. The Hill/HarrisX poll, for example, is always very favorable to Trump and invariably out of sync with most other national polls.

But if you aim for an accurate snapshot of Trump’s standing, it’s best to look at all the polls and particularly at the higher quality surveys (though even they can produce an outlier from time to time).

Trump’s job approval rating continues to sit in the low to mid-40s, about where it has been for the past few years. Fox News’ May 17-20 poll had it at 44 percent, while a May 18-19 Reuters/Ipsos survey put it at 42 percent. A May 7-10 CNN poll showed Trump’s approval at 46 percent.

National ballot tests pitting Biden against Trump have generally found the Democrat with a lead in the mid-to-high single digits. The most recent Fox News poll had Biden up by 8 points, 48 percent to 40 percent, while the most recent CNN survey had Biden ahead by 5 points, 51 percent to 46 percent.

Four years ago, right before the election, Hillary Clinton led in the national media polls by 3-5 points, slightly more than her actual 2.1-point popular vote margin. So a Biden victory of 5-8 points suggests an even larger Democratic popular vote win, which would make an Electoral College win by Trump that much more difficult.

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The states

While Biden is a considerable favorite to win the popular vote, the Electoral College outlook is somewhat murkier. Some states have only a few polls, and the reliability of many state surveys is an open question.

Polls in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump won narrowly in 2016, have generally shown Biden with a mid-single-digit lead over the president.

Three mid-to-late April surveys in Pennsylvania, including one from Fox News, found Trump getting 42-43 percent on a ballot test, a very weak showing for an incumbent. (Incumbents rarely end up getting most undecided voters.) In Michigan, Trump’s standing has been about the same, if not worse.

Biden’s lead in the two states makes sense given his Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots, his blue-collar message, and his greater appeal to swing voters, particularly in the suburbs, when compared to Clinton four years ago.

If Michigan and Pennsylvania flip from red to blue, Biden would be at 268 electoral votes and need only two more electoral votes to win, assuming he holds all the Clinton states.

The 2020 election would then turn on four crucial states: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin, all of which went for Trump in 2016. Biden would need one of the four to win the White House, while Trump would need to sweep them.

Polling in North Carolina has been contradictory. Biden has led in some polls, but Trump leads in others. Trump’s 3.7-point victory in 2016 was not overwhelming but gives him something of a cushion going into November. Black turnout and suburban voters should be crucial, so the state remains a toss-up.

Polls suggest a slight edge for Biden in Florida, but the Sunshine State is always tight, and Democrats frequently seem to come up just short. Given that, it’s difficult to give either hopeful much of an edge at this point.

Wisconsin and Arizona, however, continue to offer Democrats reasons for optimism, and they are why the 2020 contest continues to lean toward Biden.

Trump won Wisconsin by just over three-quarters of a percentage point in 2016, and recent polls have shown the former vice president with a small lead in the November race.

Biden needs to turn out more minority voters than Clinton did in 2016 and/or improve his party’s performance in suburban areas and traditional working-class Democratic parts of the state. That looks very doable given the 2018 midterm results and the outcome of a state Supreme Court election in April.

Meanwhile, Arizona also looks like an increasingly juicy Democratic target for November.

While Trump carried the state by 3.5 points in 2016, midterm results and recent polling suggest serious trouble for the president. The Republican Senate incumbent has been trailing in the polls in her bid to hold the seat, and Trump trails Biden, though the margin is uncertain.

The state’s huge population growth in Maricopa County, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, seems to have moved the state away from Trump. More upscale, suburban voters in the county seem to prefer Biden.

Trump’s campaign needs to put more Clinton states into play — Minnesota and New Hampshire are obvious targets — and start improving his standing in the handful of key states that will choose the next president. He has time to do so, but his tendency to preach to the choir, to belittle his adversaries, and to make outlandish statements all make it difficult for him to change the trajectory of the 2020 contest.

Still, the president’s knack for creating chaos and manufacturing issues means that Democrats still have a way to go before they can feel even the least bit comfortable about November. For now, this race continues as Leans Biden.