Trump is now the underdog. Here’s why.


If the presidential election were held in May, President Trump would lose.

Election day isn’t until November, of course, and anyone doubting that the outcome can shift in 5½ months need only think about how much has changed in the past 2½.

But that doesn’t make the current status of the campaign irrelevant. It’s one thing to say that the incumbent can catch up — he certainly can — it’s another to ignore the increasingly strong evidence that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has a clear lead.

As economic restrictions start to lift around the country and campaigns slowly resume — Trump has visited three swing states in the past three weeks and says he wants to start holding rallies again soon — a look at where the race stands can help explain the divergent paths the two candidates are taking.

Polls provide a clear signal

The message comes consistently from a wide range of surveys: The Real Clear Politics website has cataloged nationwide polls released since the start of 2020; Trump led in just one out of 60, and that one was taken in mid-February. The pollster that took that survey, Emerson College, most recently has Biden leading by 6 points.

Fox News has conducted 13 polls of the presidential race going back to May of last year. Biden has led in all but one, which was a tie.


The most telling fact from the Fox polls has been the steadiness of Trump’s vote share.

Support for the president hasn’t collapsed: Despite levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression and nearly 100,000 deaths from a pandemic, there’s a floor below which backing for Trump doesn’t fall. But his support also has a very consistent ceiling, and the two levels sit remarkably close to each other. Since May, Trump’s vote has varied only from 38% to 42%, Fox’s polls show.

Biden’s support has ranged from 42% to 52%. He leads by 48%-40% in Fox’s latest survey, conducted May 17-20.

At this point, some readers undoubtedly will ask, “but weren’t the polls all wrong four years ago?” The answer is no, they weren’t. National polls quite accurately showed Hillary Clinton ahead by about 2 points nationwide by election day.

What was wrong four years ago was that a lot of people — this reporter included — discounted the chance that Trump would become just the fourth person in U.S. history to lose the popular vote but win enough states to eke out a victory in the electoral college.

So couldn’t he do that again?

Yes, he could. Currently, however, he trails in both Florida and Wisconsin by about 3 points, Arizona by 4, Michigan by 6 and Pennsylvania by 7, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of recent polls in those states.

One place Trump doesn’t trail is in the public imagination: Many of the same polls find that a majority of voters expect that Trump will win.

Optimism on the part of Republican partisans and pessimism from Democrats reflects the continued hangover of Trump’s upset win. On both sides, a significant number of voters expect that some way or another, Trump will slip through to another term.


Right now, however, 2020 isn’t shaping up as a reprise of the last election. In 2016, Trump managed to make the election a referendum on Clinton, depicting her as a stand-in for the country’s entire political class. The current campaign, however, like most elections that feature an incumbent, is shaping up as a referendum on the president, and for Trump, that’s a big problem.

A poll for the Economist by YouGov asked this formulation of Ronald Reagan‘s classic question: “Is the country better off now than it was four years ago?” By 50%-31%, Americans said the country was better off four years ago.

Biden’s not wildly popular — significant parts of the Democratic coalition, especially young people and Latinos — remain tepid about him. But despite a year of Trump campaign efforts to portray him as both corrupt and semi-senile, only 32% of the electorate — mostly conservative Republicans — say they have a “very unfavorable” view of him, compared with 42% who feel that way about Trump, according to YouGov’s numbers.

Importantly for this era in which voters often dislike politicians, Biden currently wins among those who have negative views of both candidates. Trump handily won that group in 2016, exit polls showed.

Biden’s biggest weakness at this point is a lack of excitement among some core Democratic groups, especially Latinos.

A new survey by Emerson College and Lake Research, a Democratic firm, which focused on women voters, found solid support for Biden among African American women, who have long been among the most steadfast of Democratic voters. By contrast, Latinas were far more equivocal: Only about a quarter of Latinas who backed Biden said that they strongly supported him, and about a fifth of Latinas said they didn’t plan to vote.


By contrast to his problems with parts of the Democratic base, Biden appears to be doing fairly well among swing voters.

Two Democratic analysts, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, looked at 85,000 voter responses from Nationscape, a huge voter-analysis project conducted by UCLA and the Democracy Fund. They found that about 9% of Trump’s 2016 voters plan to switch to Biden this year, roughly twice as many as plan to switch from Clinton to Trump.

That pro-Biden swing vote is about two-thirds white — half of them with college educations and half without — and about 60% male. Slightly more than half are older than 45. The group mostly identifies as moderate (40%) or conservative (about one in four), Teixeira and Halpin reported.

By and large, they’re more liberal on economic policy than on social issues. They tend to back higher taxes on wealthy Americans, tax cuts for those with moderate incomes, paid family leave, limits on student debt and a $15 minimum wage, for example. But they also say that government should promote traditional family values and favor displaying the Ten Commandments in schools.

Polls can’t tell us who will win; they don’t foretell the future. But they do provide information about the present.

What they tell us is that Trump, with that hard ceiling on his support, has little chance of driving up his own standing with voters. His path forward, which he’s made clear he will follow, is to try to pull Biden down to his level.


As for Biden, the goal is to find ways to excite those younger voters who remain unenthusiastic without driving off the older, mostly white, moderate swing voters who have moved his way. Policy debates about economic issues, not social policy, seem the most likely to accomplish that, the polls indicate.

How well Biden can accomplish that task remains to be seen. But as in the primaries, while he may not be the most exciting candidate, he clearly deserves to be considered the front-runner.

A nation divided — even in grief

This weekend, the count of confirmed COVID-19 deaths will pass 100,000, but as Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote, that marker has evoked little sense of shared grief. The political division around Trump has blocked national unity, even in sadness. So, too, has the reality that so many of the deaths have been among black and Latino Americans.

The contrast with the 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington is striking.

“Very few people knew anyone who died on 9/11, but it was not ‘those people,’” Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster said. “It was all of us.”

“That’s not happening this time around,” he said. “There are two sides driving their own narratives.”

Trump has agreed, however, to order flags flown at half-mast, adopting a suggestion that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer made in a letter to him.

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Swing state travel

Trump has been venturing out of the White House, and as Stokols wrote, although the trips are designated as official business, not campaign visits, he’s notably traveled to swing states: Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan so far.

How much good the trips have done on his standing with the public is questionable. His visit Thursday to a Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., generated headlines mostly for his continued resistance to wearing a mask in public. Trump very publicly did not wear a mask when he was on the public part of the tour, with TV cameras watching, but did wear one during the bulk of the tour.

He also got into a very public squabble with Michigan officials over the state’s plans to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, which he mischaracterized and denounced. At one point, he threatened to cut off federal money to the state but quickly backed down.

His habit of picking fights also surfaced in a blast of tweets aimed at his predecessor. As Mark Barabak wrote, his obsession with President Obama has turned a two-way race into a three-way tangle.

Amid widespread need, universal income gains

One-fifth of Americans fear they can’t pay the June rent or their mortgage, according to a new Census survey. As Sarah Wire reported, the survey provides new detail on the widespread anxiety and difficulty that the economic collapse has taken on Americans.

Amid that widespread financial dislocation, the idea of a universal basic income — a monthly check from the feds — doesn’t seem crazy, Seema Mehta wrote. The idea provided the centerpiece for Andrew Yang‘s campaign, but various forms of it are picking up new support.

Don’t expect to see a universal income pass Congress in the current crisis, though. The price tag is daunting, so are the complexities of making such a program work. And while a few Republicans support the idea — the conservative economist Milton Friedman originally proposed it decades ago as a replacement for other social-welfare programs — most in the party are opposed.


Justices put another Trump dispute on hold

The Supreme Court blocked for now release of Mueller grand jury materials to a House committee. As David Savage wrote, the House won in lower courts in a fight over access to the grand jury materials. But the justices put that on hold to give them time to decide whether to hear Trump’s appeal.

The decision came as no surprise — the justices often stay lower court rulings while they consider a case. But there’s a good chance the court’s action will delay any release of the material until after the election.

Another arms control treaty down

Trump plans to quit another arms control treaty with Russia, he said Thursday. As Bierman and Laura King wrote, the U.S. has long accused the Russians of not living up to their side of the Open Skies treaty, which allows countries to fly surveillance planes over each other’s territory, subject to some restrictions.

Trump said that if the Russians change their ways, he might reconsider. For now, though, the process of withdrawal is underway. The administration has previously quit a treaty limiting intermediate-range missiles, and may decide against renewing the New START treaty, which expires next year.

Editor’s note: We’ll be off Monday for the holiday; the next edition of the Essential Politics newsletter will be in your inbox on Friday, May 29.

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