The bad news is piling higher for President Trump, who is having a dismal time in opinion polls.
Trump would almost certainly lose his reelection battle if voters went to the polls today. But Republicans still have reasons for hope — and Democrats to fear — more than four months before Election Day.
For both sides, the prospect of a Trump comeback rests on two possibilities: signs of resurgence in the economy, and the potential for Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, to be weakened by months of attacks.
A new poll from The New York Times and Siena College Wednesday made plain the scale of the challenge Trump faces.
The president trailed Biden by 14 points, 50 percent to 36 percent, among registered voters.
Biden’s lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average is now above 10 percentage points. That puts him in a stronger position than Hillary Clinton at this point of the 2016 cycle. In late June 2016, Clinton led Trump by about 6 points in the RCP average.
Among Democrats and other Trump critics, there are stirrings of unease even now, however.
The question raised most frequently is whether Biden is making a robust enough case for his candidacy.
The former vice president has maintained a fairly low profile — a choice that has been partly forced upon him by the coronavirus crisis. The strategy seems to have worked so far, as Trump has hurt his own chances with his response to the pandemic and, separately, his reaction to protests that have followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
The fear among those hoping for Trump’s defeat, however, is that Biden’s lead could prove fragile once he comes under full-bore attack from the president’s campaign.
“On Biden’s side, there is this sort of annoying argument that if Biden stays quiet and doesn’t do anything he will win the election,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who is a strong critic of the president. “I think that is a ‘safe’ but fatally flawed strategy. It might be fairly hard to redefine Biden, but I would not underestimate the power of a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to do so.”
The Trump campaign has been focusing on questions over Biden’s mental acuity for a long time and that effort will intensify. Last Friday, the Trump campaign launched a new TV ad, “Fortitude,” asserting that Biden was “clearly diminished.”
Team Trump also has the cash to drive that message from now until November.
The combined forces of the Trump reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee had about $265 million in the bank at the end of last month. Biden and the Democratic National Committee are more than $100 million behind that figure.
There is significant doubt, however, as to whether Biden is as susceptible to attack as Clinton proved to be in 2016. Meanwhile, Trump’s standing with key demographic groups is in decline.
The New York Times poll put Trump a colossal 22 points behind Biden among female voters. Among college-educated female voters, the president’s position was even worse — Trump trailed by 39 points.
The fear among more moderate Republicans is that everything that makes Trump Trump — the combative rhetoric, the propensity to seek out controversy and the general air of unpredictability and chaos around his administration — may have caused him fatal electoral damage.
Supporters of the president insist that Trump’s personality is no more of a barrier to election in 2020 than it was in 2016. They say that almost everything hinges on whether the economy will show signs of life by November.
“People accept Trump for what he is,” said Brad Blakeman, who served in President George W. Bush’s senior staff and supports the current president. “They will accept the rhetoric to a point because of the results. They certainly won’t accept the rhetoric without results.”
Blakeman insisted there was still time for the economy to be seen as a net positive for Trump.
The Trump camp takes heart from the fact that the economy is the one issue where voters have consistently given the president more credit than any other. An Economist/YouGov poll also released Wednesday showed 49 percent of Americans approving of how Trump has handled jobs and the economy, versus 39 percent who disapprove.
Still, if an economy that shows real signs of resurgence by November could save Trump, the opposite is also true. Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in many parts of the nation and the prospect of deepening economic devastation is real.
No one thinks the election is a foregone conclusion, especially in such a volatile year and with such an unpredictable president.
But Trump’s friends and foes alike believe the landscape on which the battle will be fought is clear.