OP-ED: Is the Trump-Biden cake baked yet?

Stuart Rothenberg
CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Four years ago, at about this point in the election cycle, national polls showed Donald Trump in a deep political hole.

An Oct. 10-13, 2016 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Hillary Clinton with a 10-point lead, 51 percent to 41 percent. An Oct. 10-12, 2016 Fox News poll showed Clinton leading by 8 points, 49 percent to 41 percent. And the Oct. 10-13, 2016 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Clinton holding a much narrower lead of 4 points, 50 percent to 46 percent.

Obviously, Trump came back to win the presidency even while losing the popular vote by 2.1 points. The national polls were right. They (and we) simply missed the obvious possibility that someone could win the popular vote handily and still not reach 270 electoral votes.

Trump is in a similar, though deeper, hole now. Can he come back again?

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2020) showed former Vice President Joe Biden leading by 14 points, 53 percent to 39 percent. The most recent Fox News poll (conducted Oct. 3-6, 2020) showed Biden leading by 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent. And a new ABC News/Washington Post poll (conducted Oct. 6-9, 2020) showed Biden up by a dozen points, 55 percent to 43 percent.

Just as disturbing for Trump supporters as the margins is the fact that most of the reliable polls show the former vice president at or often above the critical 50 percent mark. In the final week of the 2016 campaign, only a handful of polls showed Clinton at or above 50 percent on the ballot test. Many polls showed her leading but sitting in the mid-to-upper 40s.

The difference is crucial because it means Biden is picking up voters who didn’t vote for Clinton.

Remember, Trump and Clinton combined to receive only 94.3 percent of the national popular vote in 2016, far less than Barack Obama and John McCain combined for in 2008 (98.6 percent) or Obama and Mitt Romney combined for in 2012 (98.3 percent). (See my July 29, 2019 column “How Third-Party Votes Sunk Clinton, What They Mean for Trump.”)

Many voters could not stomach voting for either Clinton or Trump, so they cast their votes for a candidate they surely knew couldn’t win — or they didn’t vote at all. The non-voters/third party voters hurt Clinton in key states.

Wisconsin is a perfect example. Trump carried the state narrowly in 2016 but drew fewer votes than Romney had in 2012. Yet Romney lost the state by more than 200,000 votes to Obama. 

Referendum on Trump: Now, Democrats are enthusiastic about getting rid of Trump, who has spent four years making the 2020 contest a referendum on his presidency.

State polls are also now showing Biden poised to win in November.

The three states that sealed the election for Trump four years ago — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — are all leaning strongly toward Biden, as is Arizona. Some states that were not particularly close last election and went for Trump — Georgia, Ohio and Iowa — now look to be “in play.”

The general election is being fought in states that went for Trump in 2016, which is always a bad sign for the incumbent president.

Finally, polls show significant movement toward Biden among crucial demographic groups, including seniors and suburbanites, particularly suburban women.

Republican strategists talk about a “shy” Trump vote, with large numbers of Trump supporters unwilling to talk to pollsters. There may well be some voters like that, though the final 2016 polls didn’t underestimate Trump’s showing by more than a couple of points. That wouldn’t change the current trajectory of the 2020 election.

The biggest difference between 2016 and 2020, of course, is four years of Trump in the White House. In 2016, Trump could ask “what do you have to lose” in giving him a shot. Voters now know.

Biden holding progressives: Biden is also better positioned than Clinton was. He is stressing his working-class roots and approach to problems, and he appears to be both holding the progressive wing of his party and successfully reaching out to pragmatists looking for someone who represents decency and stability.

Voters still trust Trump on the economy, but they prefer Biden on almost every other issue. Indeed, the new Sept. 30-Oct. 5 Pew Research Center poll, one of my favorite polls over the years, showed Biden leading Trump decisively on both personal characteristics and issues — as well as by 10 points on the ballot test, 52 percent to 42 percent.

Trump remains his worst own enemy, both personally and when it comes to messaging and political strategy. He rarely seeks to expand his coalition and often comes off as spiteful and petty, a man without empathy, a champion of religion who never goes to church.

The president can’t keep quiet when he should. He prefers to belittle and threaten both subordinates and opponents, violating norms seemingly each day.

Another three weeks of Trump rallies filled with outlandish accusations won’t change anything, other than radicalizing his true believers and undermining crucial democratic institutions.

Is the race over? Nobody will say it is “over” since we all missed Trump’s victory in 2016. But in the next three weeks, the president somehow must make 2020 about Biden, change the subject from COVID-19, and convince Americans who think he has undermined core democratic institutions to vote for him. How likely is that?

Some Republican voters may return home in the final weeks, especially if the Supreme Court confirmation fight firms up support on the right. And there still is time for two or three surprises that could alter the race significantly.

But you don’t need me to tell you the 2020 presidential contest is over. You can figure it out yourself. My rating of the race is unchanged from late June, when I moved the contest from “Leaning Biden” to “Likely Biden.”