Trump needs a convention bounce

Hard to identify where Trump is performing as well as he did in 2016

President Donald Trump speaks in Charlotte, N.C., after being nominated for another term at the Republican National Convention on Monday. (Jessica Koscielniak/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks in Charlotte, N.C., after being nominated for another term at the Republican National Convention on Monday. (Jessica Koscielniak/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted August 25, 2020 at 11:19am

ANALYSIS — Whether you believe in convention bounces or not, President Donald Trump and the Republicans need one to salvage the elections this fall. 

On the current trajectory, former Vice President Joe Biden is likely to win the White House and Democrats are more likely than not to take control of the Senate. And even though the president told The Wall Street Journal that Republicans would take back the House, Democrats are on pace to grow their majority. 

Nearly four years later, the 2016 presidential election result looms over any political projection. But Trump’s victory should be a lesson in probability rather than a call to ignore data. We should reject the false choice between following the data and being open-minded about less likely results.

Confidence in the analysis that Democrats are poised to win in November comes from the depth and breadth of the data. Biden not only leads Trump in the national polls, but in most of the individual battleground states that will decide the Electoral College. And Trump continues to struggle to reach his 2016 performance in key congressional districts around the country. 

It’s hard to identify any state or district where Trump is performing at least as well as he did four years ago, let alone better. And that’s critical considering 2016, when Trump was just the right candidate at just the right time against just the right opponent winning by just enough in just the right states to win. 

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Operating with slim margins, little time

The president was operating on very slim margins, with a low electoral ceiling and little room for error, before a global pandemic and a national conversation about racism in America, his response to which is driving his deficit in the polls. 

More specifically, Trump is trailing his 2016 margins by 5 to 8 points or more. For example, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 9 points in Texas and 5 points in Georgia. Both states are virtually even in this year’s race. 

Trump won Michigan by less than half of 1 percentage point in 2016 and trails Biden by 7 points this year, according to the RealClearPolitics average. It’s the same story in Arizona and Florida, both of which Trump carried four years ago but where Biden has a narrow advantage, according to RCP. Clinton won New Hampshire by less than half of 1 point and Biden was up 8 points in the recent St. Anselm survey. Even in non-battlegrounds, Trump is stumbling. He won Mississippi by 18 points in 2016 and led Biden by 10 points in a recent poll for former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy’s Senate campaign.

This week’s convention is important because Republicans are running out of time. Trump can’t wait until Nov. 3 to improve his standing. And the party probably can’t wait until the debates, when Republicans are certain that Biden will self-destruct and have a legitimate James Stockdale “Who am I? Why am I here?” moment. A majority of Americans will have already made up their minds about who they want to be president before the first debate on Sept. 29 and tens of millions of people will have already cast their ballot by the third and final debate on Oct. 22. 

The convention also has the difficult task of changing the trajectory of an election that has been remarkably stable. This election cycle, and even just this year, has been filled with multiple events more historic than a four-night series of speeches on TV: the impeachment of a president, a global pandemic, near economic collapse, a national conversation about racism in America, and the first Black woman and first Asian-American on a presidential ticket. Through it all, Biden’s fundamental advantage, even when narrow, has been consistent.

While it’s certainly possible for the president’s standing to improve, that scenario would more likely involve a gradual increase in his support rather than a single event, such as a convention, causing a spike in his approval rating.

A few points could keep Senate GOP

If Trump’s standing improves by a handful of points, even without a dramatic event, it may not deliver him a second term but it could be enough to keep the Senate in GOP hands for another two years.  

Republican strategists were likely dismayed when the president decided to speak on all four nights of the convention because one of the biggest obstacles for GOP candidates down ballot is the president himself. Trump can’t stay out of the spotlight. He always has to be the center of the attention, which makes it difficult to paint the election as a choice between Trump and a less desirable Democratic alternative, rather than a referendum. 

Some of those fears might have been allayed after Monday night when Trump made a couple of taped appearances with freed hostages, first responders, and frontline workers, and kept his solo remarks to his daytime appearance in Charlotte after party delegates formally nominated him. But there’s still three nights to go in the Trump show.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst for CQ Roll Call.