With a little more than a week to go in the US presidential election campaign, Joe Biden maintains a steady lead over President Donald Trump. For all the shocks and instability of 2020, Biden’s lead has been remarkably steady. Few races in recent history have been this stable.
In late October 2019, the average of polls on the RealClearPolitics site, had Biden at 50 percent and Trump at 43 percent. A year later, the same average had Biden at 51 percent and Trump at 42.5 percent. During that year, both candidates have moved up and down a bit, but Biden has never fallen below 46 percent and Trump has never risen above that level. What does it all mean?
In a normal election cycle, an incumbent president who has not led his or her challenger for a year would not be re-elected. Trump’s problem is compounded by lackluster job approval ratings that have never gone above 50 percent since inauguration. Incumbents with job approval ratings under 50 percent who poll consistently lower than the challenger almost always lose. By this metric, Trump has almost no chance of winning.
Since polling took root after World War II, two presidents have overcome deep poll deficits. The first is Harry Truman in 1948. Like Trump today, Truman had been written off as a lost cause, but came from behind to win a stunning victory. The second was Gerald Ford’s losing campaign against challenger Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ford hit a low of 29 percent but climbed back and ended up getting 48 percent of the vote on Election Day and nearly winning the Electoral College.
In the same period, two presidents with low approval ratings faced resounding defeat. In 1980, Jimmy Carter’s job approval ratings were low, but voters were wary of challenger Ronald Reagan at first. Reagan surged in the closing days of the campaign and defeated Carter in a landslide. In 1992, George H. W. Bush saw his approval ratings fall as the economy began to weaken in 1990. Bill Clinton, a much younger challenger, took the lead in the summer and never gave it up.
With a steady lead against a weak incumbent, Joe Biden’s strategy is to run out the clock. His events have been highly scripted, and he has avoided open-ended interviews with the media. All the big surprises of the campaign have been on the Trump side, which has made it easy for Biden to coast. Instead of offering a future looking agenda for change, Biden has so far framed the election as referendum on Trump.
President Trump has tried to sink Biden with a range of blistering attacks, but they have not moved the polls in his favor. The problem for Trump is that the public perceives Biden as more likeable and better at dealing with a wide range of issues than Trump. This makes it difficult for attacks to stick. A steady rise in COVID-19 cases and renewed criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic continues to weigh on his campaign.
With little time left, Donald Trump’s only hope is a repeat of his upset victory in 2016. Though unlikely, it could still happen. Polls show that voters have consistently approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, and most polls rate him slightly higher on the issue than Joe Biden. A recent Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of people think they are better off than four years ago. This issue could work in Trump’s favor with swing voters.
Compared to Carter and Bush, Trump has a higher job approval rating. Carter and Bush fell below 40 percent as Election Day neared, but Trump is holding steady at 44 percent. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, all of whom were re-elected, had approval ratings in the high 40s or low 50s. Trump sits between these two groups, but still low by historical standards for a re-election winner.
The big wild card is turnout. Amid the pandemic, states have made it easier to vote, either by mail or early voting. If projections hold, turnout will be much higher than 2016 and could even reach a historical high. Traditionally high turnout benefits Democrats, but the size of the jump makes it hard to predict.
History shows that, with notable exceptions such as 2016, the polls usually get it right. Currently they show Biden on track for a solid, though not overwhelming, victory. Like 1920, the last election in the wake of a pandemic, it will mark a return to normalcy.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.