Back in August, which was about three decades ago in Trump Years, I wrote a piece evaluating X-factors that might break in the president’s direction using Donald Rumsfeld’s famous (and useful) distinction between known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The point was to try to figure out how and when Trump might catch up with Biden’s incredibly steady national polling lead as Election Day approached.
Now, just 15 days from November 3, these questions remain the key pieces of a potential close race. But unless Trump manages to transform his behavior — or develops an actual way to slow down time, not just the feeling of it — the president is running out of opportunities to turn the election around. Below are the variables I rounded up in August that would need to break in his favor, most of which are currently looking like positives for his opponent’s campaign.
Is the presidential race just naturally tightening up?
A lot of observers figured that might happen based on past presidential elections. So far it hasn’t — at all. In the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, Biden’s lead since August 13 has increased from 8.1 percent to 10.7 percent. At RealClearPolitics (which unlike FiveThirtyEight, doesn’t weight results for pollster quality or adjust for partisan bias), Biden’s lead has grown more modestly, from 7.7 percent to 8.9 percent. But nobody is showing a tightening national race. If it was going to happen naturally (as opposed to being forced by some campaign activity or external event), it would probably be evident by now.
Does Trump still have an electoral college advantage?
The easiest way to measure the electoral college “tilt” is to compare national polling margins to those in the top “tipping-point state,” the one most likely to get either candidate over the 270 electoral vote threshold for victory. Currently FiveThirtyEight figures Pennsylvania as the crucial “tipping point state,” where Biden’s lead in the polling averages is 6.7 percent, a full four points lower than his national lead. If you are focused on other battleground states, be aware that Biden’s lead (again, in FiveThirtyEight’s averages) is at 1.3 percent in Georgia, 3.2 percent in North Carolina, 3.8 percent in Arizona, 3.9 percent in Florida, 6.3 percent in Nevada, 7.3 percent in Wisconsin, 7.9 percent in Michigan and 9.1 percent in Minnesota. He’s up in the vast majority of competitive states, but you have to get to relatively blue states like Colorado (13.2 percent) and Virginia (13.3) before Biden’s state polling lead exceeds his national lead.
So in other words, yes, Trump has an electoral college advantage that looks a lot like the one he had in 2016 (and actually could be bigger), when he lost the national popular vote by 2.1 percent. But it will only matter if the national race does get significantly closer. Right now according to FiveThirtyEight’s models, Biden has a significantly higher odds of winning Texas (32 percent) than Trump has of winning Pennsylvania (12 percent).
Is the undecided vote or support for minor parties surging?
Trump needs a pool from which to draw the votes he needs to close the gap with Biden, and given this year’s intense polarization, the odds of “flipping” current Biden supporters is very low. In 2016 there was a rich lode of both undecided voters and those expressing support for minor parties (which lowered the percentage Trump needed to eke out a win). Neither of these factors is re-emerging this year. According to Reuters-Ipsos data, the percentage of likely voters who haven’t chosen one of the two major-party candidates has been cut in half since 2016 (eight percent now and 16 percent then). Another indicator of the segment of the electorate that may be closed to Trump is that Biden’s national support is now consistently topping 50 percent. In 2016 Hillary Clinton never topped 50 percent in daily polling averages at RealClearPolitics after March, and then did just once dating back to August of 2015.
Is early voting ‘baking in’ a Biden lead?
As a lot of observers are quite properly warning us, it’s dangerous to read too much into heavy early voting and/or the big Democratic advantage we are seeing in early voting data. Often early voters are the same as those who might have otherwise voted on Election Day, and this year a Democratic skew was guaranteed by Trump’s incessant ranting against voting by mail.
But it’s also true that the early voting population is making its choice at a time when Biden has been steadily leading, which reduces the number of votes available to reflect some late Trump surge. So to that limited extent, it “bakes in” the recent and current Biden lead.
In August, I mentioned three “known unknowns” affecting the remainder of the presidential race: COVID-19, the economy, and the presidential debates. A lot of that water is now under the bridge, too:
Is it too late for Trump to repair his poor numbers on managing COVID-19?
The answer to this question is almost certainly “yes.” According to RCP averages, Trump’s COVID-19 job approval rating has been underwater since early April, and his net negative rating in this area has been in double digits since mid-May. And at present the trajectory of the pandemic is becoming more pessimistic every day, even as hope for an available vaccine recedes into the future.
The last chance Trump had to change his image of ineptitude in handling COVID-19 was immediately after his own positive diagnosis, and instead of changing course or admitting error he chose to make his quick recovery (if that is what it was) a sign of bully-boy masculine indomitability, which won’t win him any plaudits or votes outside the MAGA base.
Will the ‘Trump economy’ save Trump?
Clearly Trump is still getting credit (far more than he deserves, in my opinion) for how well the economy was doing before the pandemic hit, but the lift he gets from that perspective on his performance is probably over for the time being. We’ve already seen the final pre-election monthly Jobs Report, which got meh reviews. And as with (and because of) new fears about a COVID-19 resurgence, the road ahead doesn’t look promising.
Perhaps a last-second stimulus deal with Nancy Pelosi could make the stock market and some voters feel better about the immediate future, but even if that happens the relief would not actually be received until well after the election, and Republican grumbling about excessive generosity (and Pelosi out-maneuvering the administration) might offset much of the limited enthusiasm it would engender. There’s not much sign an economic game-changer is in the works.
Could the final debate change everything?
History tells us presidential debates (even in less polarized times) do not change a lot of votes, barring some large gaffe. Yes, they can galvanize judgments swing voters have already made (e.g., JFK looking more inspiring than Nixon, or Reagan asking 1980 voters if “they are better off”), which this year would be very bad for the incumbent whose job approval rating perpetually remains underwater.
The more pertinent question is whether Trump is capable of a debate “win” this year. He sure didn’t rout Biden in the first debate, and his current focus on trying to recreate the 2016 dynamic of an email story taking over the election narrative shows that he’s unsuccessfully fighting the last war rather than the one he faces now. It’s always possible Trump could blow up Biden on October 22, but it could just as easily go the other way.
Are there any ‘unknown unknowns’ left that could change the election outcome?
The answer to this last question is obviously “unknowable,” but each passing day reduces the odds of a late October surprise that materially changes this very stable presidential race. There do remain the very real possibilities of Trump trying to claim victory on Election Night based on a transitory lead, and of Trump trying to stop the counting of mail ballots by legal and illegal means. But media and public awareness of the slow count that heavy voting by mail will produce is growing steadily, and the race needs to get closer before Trump can evade the danger of losing must-win states (e.g., Arizona and Florida) on Election Night.
All in all, the more we know as this long-awaited election comes near, the more it looks like the 45th president is going to need something between a small miracle and a large crime to gain a second term.