Trump may recover but he could be overwhelmed
Donald Trump has always treated his presidency as a game show; one where success is measured in ratings and dollars. Controversy is to be welcomed: it keeps attention on him and his fans love it. As politics, it’s been relatively successful – enough so to win him the presidency, even if his approval figures have never been much to write home about and the mid-terms were a serious set-back.
Events, however, have a habit of sorting the serious politicians from those in it for the applause. The presidency is a wonderful stage but it’s also an exposed summit – and when a crisis hits, there are few places to hide. Which may be why Trump has found these last few months so difficult: his pantomime CEO Apprentice schtick is of neither practical nor political use against a pandemic. The public expects, and needs a leader to govern. In Trump, the US does not have one.
All of which may go to explain why the incumbent is trailing badly in the polls. The RCP average puts Joe Biden 9.5% ahead, close to double the lead a month ago. Trump’s job approval rating is down at -13.5, the lowest all year. Polls released this week have him trailing in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, N Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia – and Texas. Trump won all nine of those state in 2016, which between them account for a mighty 171 Electoral College Votes: well over half his entire total.
True, the numbers in Texas and Georgia were tight (1 and 2 per cent respectively), and Trump led in one of the four polls from N Carolina this week (by 3%, he trailed by 2, 9 and 2 in the others), but however you cut it, if the election was tomorrow, Biden would win by a landslide.
Which begs the question, is there value to be had betting on that – to which the answer is: quite possibly. Both Betfair (fixed odds) and Paddy Power are offering 6/1 that Trump will win between 101-150 Electoral College votes, which is exactly where he’d end up if he lost the above nine states.
Polls, of course, are snapshots, not predictions. Is it realistic to think that there won’t be a Trump revival between now and the beginning of November? Or more accurately: how likely is it that there’ll be a Trump revival? After all, while it’d be nice for the bet to come in, 6/1 bets don’t have to land every time to make a profit.
Until recently, I’ve always rated Trump as a highly effective negative campaigner, and Biden as a candidate with enough weaknesses to exploit that the race ought again to be close and given a fair wind (and procedural chicanery in legal but discreditable voter suppression methods), Trump might win a second term.
However, while that might still come about, I’m beginning to doubt it. For one thing, the negative campaign against Biden is all over the place. While it is a legitimate tactic to throw a lot of mud and see what sticks, that conclusion should have been drawn by now. Trump and the Republicans keep returning half-heartedly to Biden’s age (4 years more than Trump’s) and his mental lapses. But unless Biden provides the evidence to make that attack stick, it’s not likely to be very effective.
Questioning Biden’s mental ability also sets public expectations of the Democrat low for the debates. In truth, Biden handled himself more than adequately through the latter part of the primaries, when there were only a few candidates remaining. We shouldn’t take too much store from a couple of bad early debates when the front-runner inevitably gets a lot of incoming and because of time constraints, has disproportionately little time to respond. Trump, by contrast, has not engaged in a debate on equal terms for almost four years.
It’s a decent rule-of-thumb that in most elections, a candidate or party with a substantial lead will see it decline by election day. Those with a lead rarely extend them further to peak on polling day. But we don’t know that Biden has peaked yet. While political gravity may pull Biden down, the point and time from which he falls is yet far from clear.
And then there are events. One of the striking current figures is that Trump’s rating on the economy (again using the RCP average) is +4.4 – well above his general rating and even more above his rating on handling the coronavirus pandemic. It was the economy that Trump, probably rightly, saw at the start of the year as his ticket to re-election but that prospect has taken a massive hit with the Covid-19 crisis.
We might well ask why Trump is polling so well (relatively) on the economy. One part of it might well be that the extremely generous (or costly, if you prefer) support package has no doubt significantly cushioned the blow to many Americans, those who’ve not lost their jobs. As in other countries, despite the intensity of the recession, it doesn’t yet feel like one. Yet.
Except that whereas other countries are re-opening having significantly reduced their number of Covid-19 cases, numbers in the US barely declined at all: the focus just shifted from one part of the country to another – and in those places, the epidemic is now rapidly intensifying.
Yesterday saw the highest daily number of new cases in the US yet: more than 47,000 – an increase of more than 7,000 on the day before (which was itself a new record). Some thirteen states have set records this week for their 7-day average of new cases, including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. That’s four of the key swing states we mentioned earlier, plus the largest in the country. Florida alone recorded more cases yesterday than the UK has recorded on any single day of the outbreak – and Florida’s population is less than a third that of the UK. Note that Jacksonville, Florida is due to host most of the Republican convention in two months’ time.
It’s hard to see any outcome here other than more prolonged shut-downs, leading to a great deal more economic damage, particularly given that many of the states suffering most have large tourist sectors and we’re just entering the peak summer season; or such a surge in Covid-19 cases that local healthcare systems are overwhelmed (already an acknowledged risk in places like Austin, Texas). Given Trump’s championing of early re-opening, it should not be a hard task for the Democrats to pin blame on him for both the additional deaths and the job losses and bankruptcies that will follow a new round of restrictions.
There’s also the serious risk of a lot more violence over the summer, as multiple issues converge, which could play to Trump’s advantage if he can show himself to be getting on top of the situation rather than inflaming it and grandstanding.
Given all that, plus what we already know about the nature of Trump’s administration and character, it seems much better than a 1-in-7 chance that the polls get worse for him over the next four months, although not yet an evens one. The 6/1 on the 101-150 range looks good value in an extremely unpredictable year, though more cautious punters might prefer to invest on the broader ‘under 200’ band (9/4, SkyBet).
Trump has defied both expectations and the normal rules of politics for five years now but he’s now in a situation he can’t control; can’t insult, brag or spectacle his way out of; and which is making a massive impact on average Americans. Against a less polarising opponent than Hillary Clinton, there is a real risk that a Blue Tide could sweep away all those big states he won narrowly last time.