When I last did a Trump-Biden polling update three weeks ago, I concluded that Biden’s lead in horse-race matchups with the incumbent was getting “seriously large.” A barrage of new polling data confirms the trend. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Biden now has a double-digit (10.1 percent) lead, and has also breached the 50-percent barrier (he’s at 51 percent). FiveThirtyEight, which weights results for pollster accuracy and adjusts them for partisan bias, shows Biden with a slightly smaller 9.7 percent lead, but with the same 51 percent.
To put Biden’s lead into a historical context, the last time a presidential candidate actually won by that margin was 36 years ago, when Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale. And the only Democratic presidential tickets since 1976 to win a majority of the popular vote were the two Biden shared with Barack Obama.
Let’s take a look at the last two incumbent presidents to win reelection, and see if they were ever behind by anything like the margin by which Trump currently trails Biden. In 2012, Obama never fell behind Mitt Romney in the RCP averages by more than a single point. In 2004, George W. Bush’s maximum deficit against John Kerry was 2.7 percent.
Now it’s true that Hillary Clinton periodically held a double-digit lead over Trump in the RCP averages early in the 2016 race, when he was still struggling to consolidate Republican support. But by this point in the cycle, her lead had dwindled to 6.6 percent, and even in polling immediately after the Access Hollywood video scandal broke, which produced a vast wave of GOP repudiations of Trump, Clinton’s maximum lead in the RCP averages was 7.1 percent.
So Biden’s lead is big, and incumbents don’t tend to get much if any benefit from undecideds breaking their way. Trump, moreover, has chosen to pursue a reelection strategy that does not include any discernible “pivot to the center” or appeal to swing voters. He is already, as he constantly notes, achieving record levels of support from his own party. So it’s unclear how he expects to make up lost ground.
There is still, of course, a lot of time before November. Joe Biden could in theory make a spectacular mistake, though as time goes by his soundness as a candidate is becoming very apparent. Perhaps improving conditions in the country will give the incumbent a late lift, though you’d have to say right now that the odds of the coronavirus going away or the economy sharply recovering are getting lower every day, and in any event, Trump’s perpetually underwater job approval rating seems impervious to anything he does or fails to do.
The famous enthusiasm of Trump voters is also in question after they failed to fill even half an arena in Tulsa when Trump held his first post-pandemic rally. Additionally, Trump is inspiring a sort of negative enthusiasm boom. According to the latest high-quality national poll, from New York Times/Siena College, fully one-half of registered voters have a very unfavorable opinion of the president, as opposed to just over a quarter with a very favorable opinion. If, as is the case with most elections involving an incumbent president, Election 2020 is a referendum on Trump, this sort of finding could represent the greatest obstacle of all to his reelection.
There remains the possibility that Trump could make even a fairly sizable national popular vote loss irrelevant by again squeaking out a narrow electoral college win. But again, the polls aren’t looking so hot for him in the battleground states. According to current RCP averages, Biden is leading Trump by 8.0 points in Michigan, 7.0 points in Wisconsin, 6.2 percent in Florida, 5.6 points in Pennsylvania, and even by 4.0 points in Arizona.
It could in theory all change, or at least get a lot more interesting, but right now Donald Trump has become a clear 2020 underdog, and his situation could just as easily get worse instead of better. In the end we may realize that Trump’s mojo depended on his ability to pose as an insurgent outsider, and wasn’t transferable to an environment in which he was called upon to govern. And he may yet try, somehow, to run against the status quo for which he is now responsible. His 2016 upset is going to be a very tough act to follow.