For re-election, Trump is down, but not out

Trump is scoring low on current polls but a lot can happen in the next four months.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 2020 [AP/Evan Vucci]

National polling has shown President Donald Trump with a significant deficit to former Vice President Joe Biden.

In fact, no presidential challenger has been in as strong a position as Biden is right now in the modern era in the United States.

But Biden’s position of strength is likely to be fleeting. Unlike Trump, he does not have a solid electoral base.

Much has been written about Trump’s supporters, who account for about 40 percent of the electorate. Many have tried to dismiss them, some going as far as calling them the “deplorables“.

Despite the constant barrage of attacks against Trump’s voters, they remain deeply loyal to him. They strongly support him because they believe in him and his agenda. They want the border wall built and immigration laws enforced. They oppose defunding the police. They support tax cuts, less regulation, a strong military and conservative judges. For the most part, they believe Trump has kept his promises and they want to re-elect him and will crawl over broken glass to turn out in November.

Biden might enjoy wide support among Americans today, but can he mobilise them to go to the polls and vote for him in November?

Polling four months out from a national election surveys registered voters (or even all adults), not likely voters. The voter screen will shift to likely voters in September and the polling results will shift.

Which way will the polls shift when this happens?

I believe they will shift in Trump’s direction because he has an intensity advantage among his supporters relative to Biden.

Second, Trump is at his weakest position in his presidency right now. The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic collapse and the racial justice protests have combined to drop his job approval to the high 30s, according to Gallup.

If Trump can recover to the mid-40s on job approval, he will be able to narrowly win a re-election.

Third, Biden has been out of sight for much of the past four months. This may continue for another four to six weeks, but it will likely end in August, when he announces his vice-presidential choice, rolls out the new ticket, and accepts his nomination in a more virtual convention in Milwaukee.

Biden has been conducting limited interviews and Zoom calls with donors and supporters from his home in Delaware.

This has limited his exposure to questions from reporters, as he has not held a news conference in nearly three months. While he has still made mistakes, the frequency and severity of these mistakes have decreased.

More importantly, we know Trump is best when he has a visible opponent, be it his Republican primary challengers in 2016 or Hillary Clinton. Right now, with Biden in his basement, Trump is being evaluated individually.

Biden wants the election to be a referendum on Trump.

Trump needs the election to be a choice on who is best to restore the American economy.

And this is the fourth reason why Trump can come back.

The economic picture today is far dimmer than it will be in September. Third-quarter economic growth is expected to set an all-time record of 20 percent and recent retail and private sector hiring have set monthly records. The recovery increasingly appears to be v-shaped, which will improve voter attitudes on their own economic security, the direction of the country, and towards the incumbent.

Trump’s best argument is that he built the strongest economy in modern American history and that he will do it again.

Trump’s base was barely enough to win in 2016 when he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined margin of about 80,000 votes. Will his base be enough in 2020?

There are two major differences between 2016 and 2020.

In 2016, both Trump and Clinton were viewed negatively. But, Trump was seen as an outsider, so he won the majority of voters who viewed both candidates negatively.

In 2020, Trump is the incumbent. Up to this point, Biden is not viewed negatively, but Trump is.

Trump’s campaign will have to define Biden and raise his negatives to have a realistic chance to win.

Their best opportunity to disqualify Biden will be at the presidential debates.

Nagging questions about Biden’s mental acuity and stamina will be laid bare. Trump is so confident in the debates that he has called for a fourth debate to be added and for the debates to begin sooner, before early voting begins.

It is not impossible to imagine an entirely different electoral picture in September than what we see right now.

The economy will be booming again, coronavirus may be under control with anti-virals and treatments widely available, and polling will narrow, making Trump’s re-election path visible. Biden will be better defined and making more mistakes.

I do not believe the 2020 election will be a blowout. It is far more likely to be competitive and close.

Trump has kept his base engaged for much of the past three years.

He now needs to make marginal gains with senior citizens, white suburban women, and Black voters. He can contrast his record with Biden’s in a way that is favourable to him. And he must increase his job approval since polling closely tracks his job approval rating.

Right now, it appears Biden cannot lose.

But four months is a lifetime in American politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.