If you want to know why Team Trump is so frantic to make the November election a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” Charlie Cook has a very good answer: Presidents running for reelection when voters are sour on the country’s direction tend to lose, sometimes badly. There’s a polling metric for that perception, generally known as right track/wrong track:
[This is] an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: “Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?” Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it “the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.”
It’s a particularly important number for presidents running for reelection. There have been six of those in the past 40 years. For the four who won, the “right track” number just prior to the election was at 47 percent (Reagan 1984), 39 percent (Clinton 1996), 41 percent (George W. Bush 2004) and 42 percent (Obama 2012). The two who lost had much poorer “right track” numbers: 20 percent (Carter 1980) and 17 percent (Poppy Bush 1992).
Guess which set of numbers is similar to today’s? Cook has the answer:
In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, “right direction” was a dismal 19 percent, compared to a “wrong track” of 72 percent, for a net minus 53 points. These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.
Getting voters to change their view of Biden sufficiently to make them forget about the terrible disappointments of the Trump administration — including its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — would be quite the heavy lift even if Trump were a sunny, likable fellow who just ran into a patch of bad luck and held some residual goodwill from a sizable majority of the public. He’s none of that, of course, and really needs a positive feeling about the direction of the country to offset deeply entrenched misgivings about his nasty, erratic, and mendacious personality. It’s another reason he has become an underdog in the 2020 contest.