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The 2020 Cake Is (Almost) Baked

Biden has the biggest, most durable lead of any presidential challenger ever. He's more personally popular than Trump. The wrong-track number is at -38. And there are only 20 weekends left before Election Day.
June 8, 2020
The 2020 Cake Is (Almost) Baked
(Art Hannah Yoest, photo Getty Images)

Axios reports that Trump’s 2020 campaign team met last week to figure out, well, everything. Jonathan Swan’s scoop is really something:

President Trump’s top political advisers, in a private meeting last week, said their boss needs to add more hopeful, optimistic and unifying messages to balance his harsh law-and-order rhetoric.

Why it matters: They’re deeply concerned about “brutal” internal polling for the president in the aftermath of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and George Floyd’s killing.

Behind the scenes: During a meeting of top political advisers at campaign headquarters on Thursday afternoon, the president’s 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, raised a question that many close to the campaign have been asking themselves recently: “What’s our message?”

When an incumbent president is trying to figure out his message in June, that’s not a sign of strength.

It’s the electoral equivalent of the birds and other wildlife all suddenly rushing inland while the Republican Senate frolics on the beach.

In just about every story written about the campaign you’ll find the phrase “a long time away.” The idea being that there’s still plenty of time left between now and November 3 and just about anything could happen.

Neither of those two propositions is really true.

First: There’s not a ton of time left. That weekend we just had? There are only 20 of them left between now and Election Day. That’s it. It is much, much later than you think.

Second: This race has been remarkably stable. Sure, it’s possible that “anything” could happen. Joe Biden could drop dead; Trump could resign; Kang and Kodos could show up. But take a look at how small the variation has been:

In the dozens and dozens of polls taken over the last year, Donald Trump has led Joe Biden in exactly four of them.

Donald Trump is the most well-known and polarizing figure in the country. Everyone knows him and most people know what they think of him.

Joe Biden is the most famous living Democratic politician who is not a former president. He has been a national figure for 40 years. He is the last Democratic vice president. Most people know what they think of him, too.

More than any presidential election in our lifetimes, this cake started out pre-baked. And the natural level of the race is roughly Biden +6.

Is there time left? Sure. But what are voters really going to learn about these two candidates that isn’t already priced into the equation?

Not much.

The 2016 election results surprised lots of people because they didn’t believe the polls. During the Republican primaries, Trump kept leading and people kept assuming that the polls were wrong or that they would suddenly change.

They didn’t.

Going into the general election, the polls showed Hillary Clinton had a real but narrow lead over Trump nationally. The national result was a Clinton popular vote win within the margin of error of where the polling was. The only polling which turned out to be wonky were the final state-level polls in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where Trump performed slightly better than the margin of error.

As a result, there’s been a weird reality-distortion field around Trump’s re-elect odds, where people look at the objective numbers and then throw them out the window on the assumption that, Hey, it’s Trump! Anything can happen!

If you came down from Mars and were looking at the 2020 race for the first time and trying to get a purely data-driven sense of what’s happening, here are the numbers you’d look at:

  • Trump’s job approval rating has been significantly underwater with his total approval number rarely getting to 43 percent, even. These figures, too, have been remarkably stable.
  • The country’s right track/wrong track numbers have been consistently brutal, with the spread never getting closer than -10 and currently sitting at -38:

  • On the generic congressional ballot, Democrats have held a substantial lead since early 2019—and that lead has been slowly widening for the last 17 weeks. It now stands at 9 points.
Courtesy of
  • Trump’s personal favorable/unfavorable number—not his job approval—has been net negative throughout his administration, with an average spread of about -15. He’s currently a net -13.
  • Biden’s personal favorable/unfavorable number is close to neutral, having trended a little bit negative since Trump starting spending ads against him. He’s currently a net -1.4.
  • Biden’s polling lead over Trump is the biggest and most durable advantage any challenger has ever held over an incumbent president since the advent of modern polling.
  • As an incumbent president, Trump’s support number has been hovering around 42 percent.
  • As a challenger, Biden has been near the 50 percent mark.

So ask yourself this: If you remove the emotional influence of 2016 and just go by the numbers, what sort of odds would you have to get at this point in order to lure you into putting $100 on Trump?

The entire idea of a Trump comeback is predicated on the assumption that over the next 20 weeks, there can be so much good news that voters will flock to support Trump in even greater numbers than they were back in the pre-pandemic days of early January.

But even during those relatively good times, Biden held a strong lead. (On January 1, Biden was . . . +6.)

Looking out at the horizon, it’s hard to see where good news for Trump is going to come from.

From unemployment numbers that are only in the mid-teens? If that’s your message to voters—Trump 2020: It could be worse! . . . Well, good luck. A figure people don’t like and whose job performance they don’t approve of selling bad results as a “comeback” against a better-liked opponent who’s been leading for a year seems unlikely to work.

And don’t forget that with each passing week that Trump doesn’t make up ground, the momentum pushing against him increases.

One of the truisms of politics is: Bad gets worse. Losing campaigns have their own logic and the fact of losing makes it harder to change direction. People glom onto the side that’s winning as a bandwagon effect takes hold. The losing campaign gets the stench of death around it.

The most likely outcome is that Biden wins by 6 points or so. Though it is possible that the race could still move.

And if it does, I’d say that Biden +10 is about as likely as Trump +1.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.