The biggest challenge for President Trump isn’t that he’s running behind former Vice President Joe Biden with less than three months left in the campaign. Instead, it’s that the race itself has been remarkably stable.

This RealClearPolitics poll average chart from 2016 looks like an echocardiogram: spike up, drop down, spike up, drop down. Clinton would build a big lead, only to see that lead evaporate, then open up again. As I wrote back in September of that year, every time a candidate was in the media spotlight, their poll numbers suffered. “When it [the spotlight] hits them,” I wrote, “it exposes their flaws instead of highlighting their strengths. Their poll numbers and their favorability numbers sink...The more it lingers on Trump, the better for Clinton. The more it shines on Clinton, the better opportunity for Trump to close the gap.” 

2016 RCP Average: Trump vs. Clinton

This year, the pandemic, the Biden campaign’s discipline at keeping their candidate away from spontaneous media appearances, and Trump’s unwillingness to step out of the daily coverage, has meant the spotlight has been trained solely on the president. 

This full-time coverage wouldn’t be a bad thing for a popular president. But, for Trump, whose job approval rating is hovering between 40-42 percent, a referendum election is a sure loser. As such, the RealClearPolitics polling average chart has fewer peaks and valleys. Instead, the gap between the top blue line (Biden) and the bottom red line (Trump) has remained pretty consistent.

2020 RCP Average: Trump vs. Biden

But, just because the polls are steady, doesn’t mean that they are completely static. We see movement around the edges. For example, according to the FiveThirtyEight model, Biden’s 9.6 percent lead in June has narrowed to an 8.3 percent lead in July. 

In trying to account for the change, we often dig into the cross tabs to see which demographic groups are responsible for this movement. Is it from seniors? Or those Obama-Trump voters? What about non-college white men?

In analyzing the last 18 months of polling from the Polling Consortium (which includes over 20,000 interviews), the AFL-CIO’s Mike Podhorzer has found that most of that movement can be attributed to a group he dubs “partisan bystanders.” These are people who either hate both parties or don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about either party. Some of them aren’t paying all that much attention to politics. Some of them are more checked in on politics. But, they are not deeply invested in their partisan allegiances. Podhorzer estimates that about 15 percent of the electorate falls into the ‘bystander’ category. 

According to Podhorzer’s analysis, this group cuts across demographic lines. They aren’t defined by demographics. They are defined by their lack of partisan attachment. 

In order for Trump to make a meaningful dent in Biden’s margin, he needs to make Biden an unacceptable alternative — or hope that Biden does that on his own through some sort of flub or misstep. It is also conceivable that by the fall, COVID is not our biggest problem. There may be another issue or threat that is even more all-consuming. But, if this race stays on the same steady trajectory it’s been on for the last 18 months, Trump remains the decided underdog. 

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