It’s now just under six months until Election Day 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and the dire economic impact still building strength, the next six months could seem as long and unpredictable as ten years on the edge of an active volcano. The nature of the election itself, and how long it will take to count and agree upon the results, are up in the air to a distressing degree as well.
But it’s worth a look at where the most recent presidential contests stood at this milestone for a sense of what we can and cannot take to the bank based on where Trump and Biden are today.
On May 4, 2016, in the RealClearPolitics national polling averages, Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump by a comfortable 6.5 percent margin (47.3 to 40.8). As it happened, by the third week in May, Trump had surged to one of his rare polling leads (43.4 to 43.2), as Republicans “came home” to their nominee while Clinton still struggled to put away the Sanders challenge.
The May 4 Clinton polling lead was roughly the same as the one she held after the Access Hollywood video was published on October 7. After that brouhaha blew over and the Comey letter drew attention back to Clinton’s emails the week before the vote, the race tightened up again, and we know what eventually happened. It’s still sobering to realize that Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.1 percent.
On May 4, 2012, Barack Obama led Mitt Romney in the RCP averages by a margin of 47.4 to 44.1. Romney was the presumptive, but not the official, nominee (his last active opponent was the quite marginal Ron Paul after Rick Santorum dropped out in April) but still had a distance to go in consolidating Republican support. Obama, meanwhile, had a job approval rating from Gallup of 48 percent (a point behind where Trump is today, though Gallup may be an outlier presently); he would eventually inch up to 53 percent by election day.
The 2012 contest would eventually tighten up; Romney led in the RCP averages throughout much of October before finally losing the popular vote by 3.9 percent (the final polling averages showed Obama winning by 0.7 percent).
On May 4, 2008, Barack Obama narrowly led John McCain 45.8 to 44.7 percent, according to RCP. But while McCain had become the presumptive GOP nominee in February, Obama didn’t reach that point until well into May, and Hillary Clinton didn’t concede until early June. Obama had a steady if not overwhelming lead until the week of the Republican convention, when McCain briefly passed the Democrat in the polls. But then the deterioration of the economy and McCain’s (and Bush’s) poor handling of it led to the eventual 7.3 percent Obama victory margin (very close to the final RCP polling averages).
On May 4, 2004, George W. Bush led John Kerry by 3.8 percent (46.7 percent to 42.9 percent) in the RCP polling averages. Kerry had clinched the Democratic nomination in March and took the lead in the polls on July 4 and held it until August 26 (just before the Republican convention) and then never regained it, though Bush’s lead narrowed to 1.5 percent in the final averages. The incumbent eventually won the popular vote by 2.4 percent. His job approval rating per Gallup was 53 percent, though, like Obama eight years later, he had been under 50 percent for a good while.
Right now, Biden leads Trump in the national RCP averages by 5.3 percent (47.6 percent to 42.3 percent), not as much as Clinton’s lead at this point in 2016 but more than Bush’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2008 and 2012. As noted above, Trump’s approval rating is similar to Obama’s in 2012 and to Bush’s in 2004. Trump, of course, has significantly more stable approval ratings than either of these recent incumbents, which makes an ascent to above 50 percent as Bush and Obama achieved before they were reelected less likely.
As noted above, the 2020 election could be a roller-coaster ride simply because of the public-health and economic circumstances. It must be noted that the last incumbent president who ran for reelection immediately after an economic downturn, George H.W. Bush, lost, as did the one before him, Jimmy Carter. With six months to go, Trump had better hope the coronavirus infection and death rates go rapidly down and the economic indicators go rapidly up. His political standing is not strong enough that he’s going to coast to reelection.