Long before COVID-19 or the economic collapse that followed in its wake, President Trump gambled his re-election prospects on the assumption that his base would be enough to ensure his re-election. Since the first days of his presidency, Trump rewarded those who already liked or voted for him and ignored — or just outright alienated — everyone else.

And this past week, with polls showing him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by double-digits and with only three weeks left until Election Day, Trump is once again spending all of his time in his comfort zone; calling into friendly cable TV and talk radio hosts.

To be successful, this ‘thread the needle’ re-election strategy required four main elements: 

  1. A united, enthusiastic and engaged GOP base
  2. A deeply flawed opponent 
  3. Decent support among independent voters (Even as Trump ran up the score among his base in 2016, he also carried independent voters by 2-points.)
  4. Third-party candidates siphoning off enough votes to allow Trump to win key states with a plurality as he did in 2016

Oh, and of course, it would also help to have a good economy, and not have a majority of Americans think that you have mismanaged a major health crisis. 

Right now, only #1 is there for him. Even that rock-solid support from his base is looking shaky in the wake of his disastrous debate performance and COVID diagnosis. 

Here’s where he is on the other three key elements:

2) Joe Biden has never been popular, but he’s also never been as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. 

For example, the early October NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds Biden’s favorable ratings at 43 percent — not all that much better than Hillary Clinton’s 39 percent at this point in 2016. But, when you look at their unfavorable ratings, Biden’s are 10 points lower than Clinton’s (41 percent to 51 percent). As important, the intensity of dislike for Biden (28 percent strongly disapprove) is also, well, not as intense as it was for Clinton, who, at this point in 2016, was deeply unfavorable to 40 percent of voters. 

3) Trump is trailing Biden among independents in the most recent national polling by Fox News, CNN and Pew by 14 to 18 points. 

Polling done this week in key swing states by Siena/New York Times finds Trump trailing independent voters by 11 points in Pennsylvania and 25-points in Arizona. Even if you turn out your base at high levels, you can’t win an election if you lose independents by double digits. 

4) At this point in the 2016 election, 14 percent of registered voters in a Pew poll said they planned to vote for a third-party candidate.

 In the end, the non-Clinton/Trump vote was six percent. The most recent Pew poll (Sept. 30-Oct. 5) finds just five percent of voters choosing a third-party candidate. As such, we should expect that third-party candidates will comprise a much smaller percentage of the electorate this year — probably around 3 percent.  The lower the third party vote, the harder it will be to carry a state with less than 50 percent. In 2016, Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida with less than 49 percent of the vote. 

As important, however, is the fact that those 2016 third- party voters and voters who didn’t vote in 2016, lean heavily to Biden now. According to the most recent Pew survey, Biden leads among 2016 third party voters 49 percent to 26 percent (23 points). Biden leads among those who didn’t vote in 2016, 54 percent to 38 percent. 

In other words, Trump has not converted many of those ‘up for grabs’ voters to his column. That means he is more dependent than ever on pumping up and turning out those who have always been with him. But, there’s no evidence that he has been able to drive up his margins among those who are his biggest supporters. 

This August, I compared Pew polling taken in July with the results of their 2016 validated vote survey (basically, a post-election exit poll that uses official voting records). What I found was that Trump was hitting his 2016 share of the vote among most demographic groups. But, that his 2016 vote seems to be his ceiling. 

The most recent Pew survey finds this same dynamic in place. The good news for Trump, he’s not doing any worse with white, college-educated voters today than he did in 2016 (37 percent now versus 38 percent in 2016). But, he’s also not doing any better among those in his ‘base’ (white voters, white non-college voters, or men). In fact, since July, Trump has seen a deterioration in his support from men (he was down four points from his 2016 showing back in July; by early October, his support among men dropped to 45 percent, a seven-point drop from 2016). 

Meanwhile, Biden has improved on Clinton’s performance with almost every single demographic group — most significantly with men (+8), white non-college (+6), seniors (+5) and independents (+11). 

There are still three long weeks of this campaign to go. Can the race tighten up between now and November 3rd? Absolutely. Could there be a big ‘hidden’ Trump vote — not ‘shy’ Trump supporters but the kinds of pro-Trump voters who pollsters, despite all the changes they made to weighting post-2016, still fail to capture? Perhaps. But, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohen wrote last week, “Joe Biden leads by enough to withstand a repeat of the polling error in 2016.”

Given the kind of year 2020 has been, it’s best to prepare for the unexpected. But, it’s also important not to ignore what’s in front of us today. Trump is a president who is deeply underwater with only a few weeks to go in an election that lacks many of the things - like a deeply unpopular opponent and significant third-party support - that benefitted him back in 2016. 

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