WASHINGTON — With 100 days until the election, President Trump’s poll numbers could hardly look worse — and GOP strategists fear he’s headed to a likely loss that could drag the rest of their party down with him.
Trump’s monthslong refusal to seriously grapple with the coronavirus has led to a surge in cases and deaths, ongoing economic woes from the pandemic, and the fallout from his militaristic response to the Black Lives Matter protests have left him badly trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, with little reason for hope heading into November.
Republicans who began to panic about a complete “wipeout” for the party back in June say things haven’t gotten any better since — and warned that Trump is running out of time to fix his problems before Election Day.
“Things are pretty bad,” said one GOP strategist involved in a number of down-ticket races. “If Trump doesn’t turn things around, we’ve got real problems.”
Trump drew an inside straight to win the 2016 election, pulling off narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to take the White House. He likely needs to win at least one of these states to win a second term. And in all three states, recent high-quality public and private polls have found him trailing Biden by comfortable margins. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Biden’s lead has approached double digits in recent public polls. In Wisconsin, it’s been a bit lower, but still comfortably outside the margin of error.
While that trio of Rust Belt states look like increasingly uphill climbs for Trump, the devastation wrought by the coronavirus has continued to hurt him in places he must win. Some of the states with the worst surges in cases — Florida, Arizona, and even Texas — are also looking competitive-to-favorable for Biden right now.
Biden has held a growing lead in Florida that strategists in both parties say has solidified outside the margin of error in a state where a three-point win is a landslide for either party. He’s also held a slight lead in most recent polls of Arizona and North Carolina, two states Trump can’t afford to lose.
Public polling also shows close races in Iowa and Ohio, both of which Trump won by nearly double-digit margins last time around. And recent public and private polls also show Biden tied with Trump in Texas and Georgia, a pair of states that Democrats could have only dreamed to compete in just months ago.
In conversations with a half-dozen GOP strategists on Friday, none put the president’s chances at above one in three to win reelection, while one put it as low as 15%.
“I don’t buy the landslide. That puts me firmly in the optimist camp in my orbit,” said one plugged-in GOP operative.
The current moment could be a low-water mark for Trump — but GOP strategists admit he has a long way to go. And it’s just as likely that things get worse for the president in the coming months.
Nationally, Biden hasn’t trailed in a single public poll since he sewed up the Democratic nomination in mid-March — and currently leads Trump by more than eight points in poll averages. Trump can lose the popular vote by three points or so and still pull off a narrow victory in the electoral college, and state polls shift along with national polls so if things tighten in the coming months he could easily see the entire electoral map move his way. The 2016 election shows how volatile races can be. But right now, Trump is in a tough spot of his own making — and needs a major change in the race’s dynamics if he’s going to return to the White House.
“Their president owns 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus and an unemployment rate above 10%, and America’s standing in the world is the worst it’s been in generations. They can’t run on any of that.”
“Obviously it’s a good place we’re in. I’m not going to try to run from it,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, a longtime Biden ally who’s running the pro-Biden Unite The Country super PAC. “They don’t have a lot of avenues to go down. Their president owns 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus and an unemployment rate above 10%, and America’s standing in the world is the worst it’s been in generations. They can’t run on any of that.”
Trump’s and his campaign’s body language signifies they know they’re down badly. Campaigns spend money where they actually think things matter — and the Trump campaign is currently spending millions to air television ads in Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Arizona, with Nevada as the only state he lost that they’re running ads in. Michigan was strikingly absent from their latest ad buy, according to Medium Buying.
In an hourlong Friday conference call with reporters, newly minted Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien spent the first half of the presentation laying out why he thought most public polls can’t be trusted, while making the case that this race would be just like 2016, when Hillary Clinton had a comfortable lead in the public polls for much campaign before losing. That’s not true — polling in 2016 wasn’t perfect but actually was pretty close to the final result, and the better pollsters’ methodology has improved since then.
“We believe success is achievable,” Stepien said, dismissing the pundits.
While Clinton led for much of the 2016 race, her lead was much more unstable, with Trump catching up to her in the polls a number of occasions largely due to her own favorability problems. Biden does considerably better on that count in polls, and his lead has been much steadier — the closest Trump has come to Biden in the past year’s polling average was four points. Stepien then ticked through promising voter registration shifts since 2016 — though that tends to be a lagging indicator that doesn’t say much about voters’ current opinions.
Not once in the hour did Stepien mention the coronavirus or how the campaign would handle messaging around the pandemic’s toll.
Trump himself has struck a new, more somber tone in recent days. After admitting that the coronavirus situation will likely “ get worse before it gets better” on Tuesday, he reversed course and canceled the Republican National Convention’s planned Florida events on Thursday, bowing to the reality that it’s probably not a good idea to gather thousands of people in a state where COVID cases are surging.
Republican strategists hope he can maintain that new tone and approach through the election and hopefully, finally, get a handle on the coronavirus. But Trump hasn’t exactly proven to be a disciplined campaigner or president in his five years in the public eye.
“It’s a whole shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite.”
“On the face of it, it feels like Trump should lose. We’re all stuck inside, school openings are a question. It’s a whole shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite,” said another GOP strategist. “Trump needs to do some things right to even the score. He created the mess, but I appreciate him canceling the convention, finally endorsing mask-wearing. Good, we got that fucking thing out of the way.”
Senate in play
Trump’s ongoing woes are doing a ton of damage to down-ticket Republicans as well — and have pushed the battle for the Senate from one where they began the election cycle with the upper hand to one where most say it’s at best a tossup that they can keep control.
Democrats need to net three Senate seats if Biden wins, and Sen. Doug Jones’ expected loss in Alabama means they need to score four pickups.
That looked like a tough task just months ago, but everything seems to be falling in place for them.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) is running behind Trump in a state where he’s losing, and most think the race is all but over — two separate Republicans who’d seen recent private polls referred to her as a “goner.”
Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-Colo.) allies see some hope that they can use former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) ethical troubles to pull an upset, but right now they concede Trump is losing so badly in the state that if his numbers don’t improve, then Gardner is toast. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) has trailed in every recent poll of his race, by a slightly wider margin than Trump is losing the state. If Trump loses North Carolina, it’s hard to see how Tillis survives. And while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has long ran ahead of the top of the ticket, recent public and private polls show she’s in at best a tossup race.
Sweeping those races alone would get Democrats a majority. But they’re increasingly bullish on another round of races. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is deadlocked in her race, partly because of Trump’s struggles in the state, and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is in a dogfight against Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D).
Republicans are increasingly worried about Georgia, where they’re defending two seats. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is running even with Trump, and the messy battle for appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s (R-Ga.) seat has Republicans on edge there as well.
Strategists in both parties also say private polls show Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in a much closer race than recent public surveys, and say if Trump loses Texas, he could easily fall as well. They’re also worried about Kansas, where if lightning rod and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) wins the GOP primary, they could have a tough fight to win their seat. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both face well-funded challengers, though both remain heavy favorites in their races. And some Democrats are even wondering if Alaska’s Senate race could become a real competition.
If Trump can bounce back to a place where he’s comfortably carrying must-win states like Iowa, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, the GOP would likely hang onto the Senate. But that looks a lot less likely now than it did a few months back.
Democrats a lock to hold the House
There’s almost no scenario where Democrats lose the House at this point, barring a black swan event, and it looks increasingly like they have a chance to actually pick up seats to add to their majority, something thought impossible at the beginning of the cycle.
Democratic freshmen in tough seats have outraised their GOP foes by wide margins. Many of those districts are in suburban areas where Trump’s numbers are bleeding the most right now. And Trump’s current woes continue to put more GOP seats up for grabs. The Cook Political Report currently rates 221 House seats as lean Democratic or better, enough for a majority even if the GOP sweeps every single tossup race. There are currently 15 Democratic seats that are tossups and 10 GOP-held seats, and if things continue to move in Democrats’ direction they could actually boost their House numbers.
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)