poll position

Where Trump and the GOP Must Make Gains Immediately

It’s getting later and darker for the GOP. Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images

With 11 days left until November 3, and over 50 million Americans having already voted, it’s obvious that the president and his party are running out of opportunities to make the gains they need to hang onto the White House and the Senate. The final presidential debate was a source of relief to many Republicans, but no one seriously suggests Trump flipped a lot of voters with a performance that only looked dazzling when compared to his first-debate disaster.

Trump has eaten into Biden’s national polling lead with the tiny bites of an ant on a baguette. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s lead is at 9.8 percent; at RealClearPolitics it’s at 7.9 percent, though at RCP you could argue pro-Republican outlier polls (from Rasmussen, IDB/TIPP, and HarrisX-Hill) put a thumb on the scales a bit for Trump whenever they appear. At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton led Trump by 4.6 percent, which means that dramatic late surge for the Republican we all remember actually amounted to 2.5 percent. As Amy Walter of Cook Political Report reminds us, Trump’s incredibly stable job-approval numbers just don’t show an incumbent whose ceiling is going to suddenly leap, particularly in a year when the pool of available swing voters is simply smaller than it was in 2016:

[I]n 2004, the final Gallup poll showed George W. Bush with a 48 percent job approval rating. Bush won re-election that year with just over 50 percent (50.7 percent). President Obama’s final October Gallup poll showed him at 50 percent job approval. He won with 51 percent.

Today, Trump is sitting at a 43 percent approval rating. Even if he picked up 1-3 points on Election Day (as Bush and Obama did), that would get him to just 44-46 percent of the national vote. But, in a race where the third party vote will be half of what it was last time (somewhere between 2-3 points), even if Trump were to hit 46 percent of the national vote as he did in 2016, he would trail Biden by 6 points in the national vote (52-46).

As noted here repeatedly, Trump’s one remaining advantage is in the Electoral College, so in theory a relatively small shift in Biden’s national lead might spill a number of states into the president’s basket. Looking at the most recent state polls, though, it’s hard to put together a credible list of states that might put Trump over the top. Right now FiveThirtyEight’s most likely “tipping-point” state — the state most likely to deliver an Electoral College majority to the winner — is Pennsylvania. According to their polling averages, Biden leads there by 6.2 percent. The latest gold-standard poll from Pennsylvania, via Muhlenberg College, shows Biden up by seven points among likely voters, with a majority (51 percent) of the vote. His lead is very stable, too: The last public Pennsylvania poll showing Trump in the lead was taken in May.

At present, moreover, Biden is ahead in so many battleground states that Trump would need a uniform swing to claw them back, which is by no means a cinch. At present, again using FiveThirtyEight polling data, Biden leads in Michigan (7.5 percent), Wisconsin (6.6 percent), Nevada (6.6 percent), Arizona (3.5 percent), Florida (3.3 percent), North Carolina (2.9 percent), Iowa (1.0 percent), and Georgia (0.9 percent). If Trump carried all the states where he currently trails by less than 4 percent, he’d still be 11 electoral votes short of victory. That’s a tall order, and, again, it’s about as likely that the home-stretch trends will go in the opposite direction.

Republican hopes for hanging onto the Senate continue to depend on reversing some long-standing Democratic leads. The best news for the GOP is an October 14–20 Reuters/Ipsos survey in North Carolina showing Republican incumbent Thom Tillis tied with Democrat Cal Cunningham at 47 percent. Until a recent sexting scandal hit Cunningham, he was cruising along with a steady if narrow lead. Cunningham is now running slightly behind Joe Biden in North Carolina, at least in that poll. If Republicans can pull that one out, their odds of retaining a majority go up significantly.

There was also modest good news for Republicans in rarely polled Senate races on their home turf. In Alaska, two Democratic-leaning pollsters (PPP and CNBC/Change Research) showed Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan with a three-point lead over Al Gross. And in Kansas, the gold-standard New York Times/Siena College outfit showed Republican Roger Marshall with a four-point lead over Democrat Barbara Bollier. On the other hand, in Michigan, where Republicans have been hoping for a John James upset over incumbent Gary Peters, a flotilla of new polls (from Fox News, EPIC-MRA, MIRS/Mitchell Research, CNBC-Change Research, and even Hill-HarrisX) showed Peters leading by at least five points. The relentlessly pro-GOP Trafalgar Group is the only pollster showing James ahead.

We are now getting into “final poll” territory for many public-opinion outlets, and if some last-minute Republican surge is indeed going to happen, we should see it very soon.

Where Trump and the GOP Need Immediate Gains to Win