All the ‘Rage’: Where the 2020 presidential race stands

A stable race continues, with polls and events favoring Biden

The state of the 2020 presidential race has been remarkably stable for months, which does not currently favor President Donald Trump, Stu Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The state of the 2020 presidential race has been remarkably stable for months, which does not currently favor President Donald Trump, Stu Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 9, 2020 at 5:34pm

ANALYSIS | With the two national conventions in the rearview mirror and the 2020 election less than two months away, President Donald Trump still finds himself in a deep hole and needing to change the trajectory of the presidential race.

Trump’s problems are not limited to the polls, which consistently have shown him trailing challenger Joe Biden. They also include a pandemic that is killing Americans every day, an uncertain economy, racial conflicts, and the president’s own language and style, which continue to alienate the voters he needs to overtake his Democratic opponent.

Moreover, Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” is a potential disaster for Trump, since it is likely to keep 2020 a referendum on Trump and force the White House and the GOP on the defensive for weeks.

Polls

National and state polls are still not encouraging for Trump.

The highest profile national polls — the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Fox News, ABC News/Washington Post, and NPR/PBS/Marist surveys — have shown Biden with a 7-to-10 point lead over the president.

The stability of most of these polls is not surprising given the nominees’ visibility over the years and the strong opinions at both ends of the ideological spectrum and both sides of the partisan divide. Trump must narrow that gap if he is to win a second term.

State polls in the places most likely to elect the next president — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina — put Biden even or ahead. They show the presidential contest being fought on Trump turf and with Biden having multiple routes to victory.

Of course, state polls generally don’t have the track record that some of the best national polls do, adding at least some doubt about where those races stand. And there are a handful of additional states worth watching, including Minnesota, Georgia, Iowa and even Texas.

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Non-polling factors

As I wrote in my March 18 column moving the contest from “Toss-up/Tilting Democratic” to “Lean Biden,” the nomination of Biden was a significant blow to Trump and the GOP, since it gave Democrats a nominee hard to pigeonhole as an extremist and with broad general election appeal.  

“Democrats are likely to be united in the fall,” I argued, adding, “and President Donald Trump’s standing is stuck where it has been for many months. There are also more questions about presidential leadership and the economy, which the president has been relying on to help him win a second term.”

I went further in a June 29 column, moving the race to “Likely Biden.”

“The burden is now on Trump to change the trajectory of the race, probably by demonizing Biden, who is well known after decades in politics and widely regarded as a decent and empathetic man. The president must pray he can once again squeeze out an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote by a larger margin than in 2016. It’s difficult to imagine Trump improving his own image after alienating so many voters with his overall style and agenda during his first four years in office,” I wrote.

And later: “In addition, while Trump supporters call Biden a ‘gaffe machine,’ the president has the same problem. He isn’t very agile with language and doesn’t show knowledge or intelligence. Disinfecting lungs? ‘Good people on both sides?’ So it’s hard to believe he will suddenly become articulate in the campaign’s final four months.”

I refer to these columns because they reflected my reasoning then and now.

The voters

Most 2016 Trump voters remain loyal to the president, and most Clinton voters will stick with Biden. White evangelicals, rural voters, conservatives, and self-identified Republicans are likely to support Trump, as will whites (particularly white men) without a college degree.

On the other hand, voters of color, secular voters, urbanites, progressives and self-identified Democrats will stick with Biden.

But there are a few key groups that could impact the winner and the winner’s margin.

White women with a college degree continue to be the most important swing group. In 2016, those voters went narrowly for Clinton (51 percent to 44 percent), but two years later, those same voters went Democratic in the midterms by an overwhelming 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent.

A majority of voters 65 and older voted for Trump in 2016 (52 percent to 45 percent). And in 2018 Republican candidates carried seniors (50 percent to 48 percent), but some polls suggest the president’s support among those voters is eroding.

Enthusiasm on the Democratic side could also boost Biden’s prospects if it means better turnout among Blacks, Latinos and even younger voters. And while progressives generally supported Clinton four years ago, those voters are likely to vote against Trump in larger numbers than in 2016.

Finally, suburbanites, who accounted for about half of the electorate in 2016 and 2018, according to exit polling, could be crucial this year. Trump won the group by four points in 2016, but the parties split the suburban vote two years ago in the midterm elections.

Trump may almost surely need to turn out more white voters without a college degree or improve his showing among Blacks and Latinos to offset changes in the electorate and in presidential preference that should benefit Biden.

Bottom line

Trump’s best hope is for another narrow electoral vote victory even as he is losing the popular vote by four or five million votes. The larger Biden’s popular vote margin, the more difficult it will be for Trump to reach 270 electoral votes.

The final weeks of the campaign are certain to be chaotic, with the president lobbing charges (possibly with Russia’s help) at Biden, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party, and Democrats fighting back.

Since the president might not yield power readily even if he loses, Biden and company should be prepared for a blistering two (really five) months — including Republican attempts to challenge any state vote counts.

Biden remains a clear favorite in the race. As I have argued in the past, Trump’s tendency to play to his existing audience and merely repeat his previous allegations against the Democrats will make it difficult after almost four years to move the poll numbers.

A dramatic unexpected event could change the trajectory of the race, of course, but time is running out for the president. It seems unlikely that Trump can win the race, but it is still possible that Biden could lose it.

I still see the contest as “Likely Biden,” but I expect the unexpected. This race isn’t close to being over yet.