(CNN)Some people call Donald Trump‘s term in office the “nothing matters” presidency. The phrase is usually applied to Trump by his detractors, who cannot believe his standing with the American public is stable despite what he says and does. They mean it as good news for Trump.
Yet the numbers suggest something quite different. Nothing may really matter, but that’s actually bad news for Trump and good news for his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.The fact is that Trump doesn’t need stability. He needs something to change because he’s unpopular and losing the race for a second term. Biden’s been running for president for more than 500 days now, and he’s been leading Trump every single one of those days. Biden’s lead is so stable, as I wrote last week, that it’s history making when examining elections since 1940. This steadiness comes despite two major party conventions, economic upheaval, the coronavirus pandemic and protests in the streets over the last six months. View 2020 presidential election pollingRead MoreIndeed, we’ve been through a lot of different events and permutations during the Trump presidency overall, and none of them have led to Trump being popular. Look at where Trump’s numbers are right now. His net approval (approve – disapprove) rating is hovering at or a touch below -10 percentage points. That’s a bit better for him than it was a few months ago, but well within the range he’s been in throughout his presidency. We’ve already had a major election fought under very similar circumstances during the Trump presidency, and it ended in disaster for Republicans. Trump scored a -9 point net approval rating in the 2018 exit polls. (Similar to his numbers among voters in the pre-election polling before that election.)Democrats won the House popular vote by a little less than 9 points in that election. When you reallocate races where one of the major parties wasn’t running a candidate, the Democratic margin shrinks to 7 points. Biden’s advantage in the national polling over Trump right now is about 8 points. His average lead this year has been 7 points. This all makes a lot of sense. With Trump at the same level of popularity as he was two years ago, the national margin in the marquee race seems to be identical. But it’s not just nationally where things look similar. It’s in the swing states where they do as well. A set of new polls from the New York Times and Siena College released Saturday make this clear. Across the combined sample in the battleground states of Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, Biden leads by 6 points (48% to 42%). Trump lost these states by a combined margin of less than a point four years ago. In other words, there’s been a shift of greater than 5 points towards the Democrats since 2016 in these states. The same shift nationally puts Biden up by between 7 and 8 points, which is exactly where the race is nationally. Drilling down to specific states, the same picture emerges. Take a gander at the results in the Times polls in Minnesota (50% Biden to 41% Trump, a 9 point margin), Nevada (46% to 42%, a statistically insignificant 4 point margin) and Wisconsin (48% to 43%, a 5 point margin). They’re all within 2 points of where the 2018 cumulative House vote in each state ended up, after reallocating the uncontested races. The only state where the Times result differed by more than a few points from the 2018 House vote was New Hampshire, which put Biden and Trump well within the margin of error at 45% for Biden to 42% for Trump. It was also the state with the widest margin of error of any of the four states polled.The polls are part of a larger picture suggesting Biden’s best path to an Electoral College majority seems to be through the Great Lake (i.e. Rust Belt) battlegrounds and Arizona. Meanwhile, Biden’s numbers are a bit worse in Florida. As it turns out, Democrats did very well in the Great Lake swing states in 2018. They won the gubernatorial and Senate races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They also won a Senate race in Arizona for the first time since 1988. Florida was more or less a disaster in 2018 for the Democrats. They lost both the Senate and gubernatorial races by less than a point each. This trend even goes down to the county level where Trump, like the Republicans in 2018, seems to be outperforming himself in Southeast Florida compared to 2016 baseline while doing worse in the Tampa area.Obviously, there are some slight differences in the numbers between 2018 and 2020 (e.g. Biden’s actually up in Florida right now, while Democrats lost statewide in 2018), but overall they look quite similar. Despite this data, there will be some who remember an unpopular Trump winning in 2016. There’s a key difference between 2016 and 2018 and 2020, however. Hillary Clinton was on the ballot in 2016. She was a below par candidate. Her net favorability (favorable – unfavorable) rating of -12 points in the exit polls was not only vastly below then-President Barack Obama’s net approval rating (+8 points), but her net favorability rating was below that of the Democratic Party as a whole (-2 points). Trump won on the backs of voters who disliked Clinton more than they liked Trump.In 2018, Trump wasn’t running against any single candidate. He was, if anything, running against the Democratic Party as a whole. The Democratic Party as a whole wasn’t all that more popular than they were in 2016. They were more popular than Clinton in 2016, though. This year, Biden, the standard bearer for the party, is about as popular as the Democratic Party as a whole was in 2018. His net favorability in live interview polls since the convention stands at +2 points, which is nearly identical to the +1 points the Democratic Party had in the 2018 exit polls as well as the -2 net favorability rating it had in 2016. Biden’s ratings are far better than Clinton’s in 2016. The only thing that seemed to have mattered to the Republican Party’s election hopes in the last four years has been Clinton’s unpopularity. If that continues to be the case through this election, Trump will almost certainly lose because Biden, not Clinton, is on the ballot.
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