Are the polls real?
Karl Rove thinks they are real. “Let’s be honest about it: The president is behind today,” he said Friday on Fox News.
Donald Trump’s campaign is behaving like they are real. Money is being spent on ads in Georgia, Ohio and Iowa—states that Trump won in 2016 by five, eight and nine percentage points, respectively—as well as all of the other battleground states that Trump won more narrowly. There are no reports of his campaign buying ads in states Hillary Clinton won, a clear sign of playing defense.
If the polls are real, should Trump really be all that worried? After all, it’s only late June. A lot can happen in four months, right?
Let me put it this way: In the history of presidential election polling, no elected incumbent president has ever come back from as big a hole as Trump is now in.
Only two elected incumbents have ever come back at all.
In mid-July 2004, George W. Bush was behind John Kerry in the RealClearPolitics national average by 2.7 percentage points, but won with a popular vote margin of 2.4 percentage points.
In mid-October 2012, Barack Obama was behind Mitt Romney in the RCP national average by 1.5 percentage points, but won with a popular vote margin of 3.9 percentage points.
Bush and Obama were behind by slight margins, and eked out narrow victories. Trump, over the past week in the RCP average, has been behind Joe Biden by nearly 10 points. To come back from a deficit of that size would be literally historic.
The only elected incumbents to suffer from a double-digit deficit at any point in their reelection campaigns, based on Gallup data from 1936 to 2008 and RCP’s national averages since 2004, are Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992. They are also the only two elected incumbent presidents to lose reelection in the polling era.
Granted, there are examples of presidential election comebacks.
Similar to Trump today, Harry Truman was down 11 percentage points in June and July 1948, according to Gallup. But Truman was to many Americans an “accidental president,” having attained the Oval Office not at the ballot box but by line of succession after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Truman required a furious 31,000-mile whistle-stop train tour, putting him in front of 3 million voters, to repair his image and turn his campaign around.
The elder Bush was losing badly to Michael Dukakis in the late spring and early summer of 1988, sinking to a 17-point deficit in Gallup polling after the Democratic National Convention. But most Americans did not know the governor of Massachusetts very well. Bush was able to define him by launching a ferocious series of negative ads. (Dukakis inadvertently abetted Bush’s attacks by errantly believing the best response was no response.) Bush grabbed an eight-point lead by September and never looked back.
And Gerald Ford mounted a near-comeback in 1976. Ford was not elected president or vice president, he pardoned his disgraced predecessor, and after the Democratic National Convention, he trailed Carter by a whopping 33 percentage points, according to Gallup. But Carter had no national profile before the primaries and his initial support proved thin. The fall campaign almost completely narrowed the gap, with Ford losing the popular vote by just two points.
Rove, on Fox news, pointed to the Truman and Bush examples to argue Trump still has a path to victory. But neither campaign offers a model Trump can follow. Trump is not an “accidental” president like Truman, someone the public just needs to get to know better. He has been in the public eye so much our collective retina is seared. A Truman-style whistle-stop tour won’t show us anything that we haven’t already seen.
The Trump campaign has been trying to replicate Bush’s brutal 1988 campaign, albeit with less subtlety. Campaign Manager Brad Parscale bragged in May that he had built a “Death Star” that would train its fire on Joe Biden. But as a former vice president and six-term senator, Biden is a far more well defined figure than Dukakis. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the initial blitz of attacks has fallen flat.
There is a reason there have been no major comeback stories by elected incumbent presidents. Voters elect a president holding certain expectations, and if those expectations haven’t been met after 42 months, it’s highly unlikely something will happen in the next four months to change perceptions.
Should we declare Trump finished? Of course not. Just because no elected incumbent has ever come back from 10 points down doesn’t mean Trump can’t become the first. But whether or not a comeback happens is likely out of Trump’s control.
He appears incapable of changing his bombastic approach to governing, making it hard for voters to change their perception of his presidency. Biden’s chummy, empathetic image has solidified in the public mind, so much so that his penchant for gaffes has yet to derail his candidacy. Biden probably would have to commit a gaffe of an extremely more serious nature than anything he has done to date, if he is to sabotage himself.
Furthermore, Trump’s ability—at this juncture—to contain the coronavirus and rejuvenate the economy is also limited. Many of us probably aren’t expecting any autumn miracles, and even if there is one, the public may not give Trump any of the credit. Still, an economy on the mend could well help Trump close the current polling gap.
We can’t know the future, but we can know the present. At present, a majority of the public has soured on the Trump presidency and is ready to end it. As history shows, that is not a good place to be. For Trump to win, he will have to—some way, somehow—make history.