Why the Electoral College may not be able to save Trump's reelection chances

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Why the Electoral College may not be able to save Trump's reelection chances
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at an event on "protecting seniors with diabetes" in the Rose Garden White House, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in Washington.AP Photo/Evan Vucci
  • With less than five months until the election, it's increasingly unlikely that President Donald Trump will be able to repeat his success in 2016, when he lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
  • Trump has underwater approval ratings, is receiving poor marks for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and race relations, and is behind in several key swing states.
  • The president also faces demographic challenges with independents, white women, and voters 65 and older.
  • In 2016, the winner-take-all dynamics of the Electoral College led to Trump carrying Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point.
  • This year, that same dynamic may work against him.

With Election Day in just under five months, President Donald Trump could see his Electoral College firewall collapse out from under him.

The president faces a triple whammy of historically low approval ratings, poor marks for his handling of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent protests over racism and police brutality, and being on the defense in several key states he narrowly carried in 2016.

The circumstances and polling data are likely to evolve and certainly don't guarantee a huge loss for Trump, who won in 2016 despite polling well behind the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, for much of the election cycle.

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But for an incumbent president who has been in office for over three years, Trump finds himself in an increasingly precarious position.

The latest Gallup poll, conducted from May 28 to June 4, found Trump's approval rating at 39% and his disapproval rating at 57%, putting his approval in about the same territory as President Jimmy Carter at the same time in his presidency.

Nationally, Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee, leads Trump by 8 percentage points in Real Clear Politics' average of general-election matchup polls.

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Of 76 national polls in Real Clear Politics' tracker conducted in the past six months that included a hypothetical general-election matchup between Biden and Trump, Trump led Biden in only two.

The latest survey from a major pollster that found Trump and Biden tied was a Fox News poll conducted in early April. The most recent survey that found Trump leading Biden was an Emerson College poll conducted from February 16 to 18.

Why the Electoral College may not be able to save Trump's reelection chances
Pennsylvania elector Carolyn Bunny Welsh holds her ballot for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump before casting it at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Americans don't vote for president in a national election — they vote for electors who vote for president. Forty-eight states — all except Maine and Nebraska — use a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who gets the highest percentage of the vote wins all the state's electoral votes.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by just over 3 million votes while winning the Electoral College, thanks to razor-thin victories by margins of less than 1 percentage point in crucial swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

While the machinations of the Electoral College helped Trump sweep to victory as a populist outsider in 2016, the same system could work against him in 2020.

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In the pre-pandemic days of 2019, when the economy was booming, many analysts pointed to Trump's strength among non-college-educated white voters and the large proportion of those voters in the nonvoter pool in key swing states that gave Trump room to grow in 2020.

Since 2016, the predominately white and working-class "Obama-Trump voters" have received a significant amount of media attention. But another group has received substantially less scrutiny.

There remains a segment of voters who shifted from Mitt Romney in 2012 to Clinton in 2016, helping Democrats flip 40 seats in the 2018 midterms.

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Amid the pandemic and the nationwide protests, this cohort could pose serious trouble for Trump's reelection chances in places like Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.

In addition to Trump trailing Biden in national polls, he is behind in several of the key battleground states he carried in 2016 and shows signs of vulnerability in Republican-leaning states that he carried with much larger margins, like Ohio and Georgia:

  • In Wisconsin, which Trump carried by 0.7 percentage points in 2016, Biden leads head-to-head polling by 4 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. Trump hasn't led a high-quality poll of the state against Biden since a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February.
  • In Michigan, which Trump carried by 0.3 points in 2016, Biden leads by 7.3 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. Trump hasn't led Biden in a Michigan poll in either RealClearPolitics' or FiveThirtyEight's tracker since early March.
  • In Pennsylvania, which Trump carried by 0.7 points in 2016, Biden leads Trump by 3.3 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker.
  • In Florida, which Trump carried by 1.2 points in 2016, Biden leads Trump by 3.4 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. The latest polls finding Trump leading Biden in a general-election matchup were released in early March.
  • In Arizona, which Trump carried by 3.5 points in 2016, Biden leads Trump by 3.4 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. The most recent poll in FiveThirtyEight's tracker to find Trump leading Biden outside the margin of error in Arizona was conducted in December by Trump's own pollster, Fabrizio, Lee & Associates.
  • In North Carolina, which Trump carried by 3.6 points in 2016, Trump leads by only 0.3 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker.
  • In Ohio, which Trump won by 8.1 points in 2016, Biden leads by 1 point on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. The most recent poll of Ohio, conducted by Fox News from May 30 to June 2, found Biden leading Trump by 2 points.
  • In Georgia, which Trump won by 5.1 points in 2016, Trump leads Biden by 7.5 points on average in RealClearPolitics' tracker. But a spate of bad Republican internal polls point to troubling signs for Trump and other Republicans in the state.

Biden's expanding the map and putting states like Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia in play puts Trump on the defense and makes the Trump campaign invest resources in states previously thought to be locked down.

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Outlets including Insider, The New York Times, and Axios have reported that Trump is concerned not just with the results of public polls, but with his own internal polling numbers, which show him well behind Biden.

Why the Electoral College may not be able to save Trump's reelection chances
In this April 7, 2020, file photo voters line up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election in Milwaukee.Associated Press

Biden's strength among older Americans could give him an edge in several swing states

One of Trump's key demographic victories in 2016 was voters 65 and older: CNN exit polls found he won the group nationally by a 7-point margin, 52% to 45%.

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Trump won these voters by even larger margins in key battleground states, carrying the group by 23 points in North Carolina, 17 points in Florida, 13 points in Arizona, and 10 points in Pennsylvania, CNN found.

Not only does this group have the highest voter turnout of any other age bracket, but they also tend to favor Republicans over Democrats nationwide.

Trump's performance among older Americans in 2016 was about on par with Romney's in 2012, but Biden has thrown a wrench into that dynamic.

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By mid-May, Biden was pulling away from Trump among older voters in public polls, and the Trump campaign's internal numbers on these voters aren't encouraging.

Some research has indicated that Biden broke away with older voters even before the coronavirus outbreak. In July, Biden held a 10-point lead over Trump in a Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape survey, outperforming Sen. Bernie Sanders by 6 to 8 points in his matchup against Trump, The Washington Post reported.

That survey found that older voters tended to perceive Biden as more moderate than Clinton, which may help set him apart from fellow septuagenarians like Trump and Sanders.

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Biden has cleaned up among older Americans in the Nationscape polls except among those who describe him as "very liberal." In the latest poll, 56% said Biden was liberal or very liberal, 22% said he was moderate, 8% said he was conservative, and 14% said they didn't know where his ideology sits.

Trump has been trying to salvage his 2016 margins with older voters, but so far it hasn't gone according to plan.

In late May, Trump held a seniors-focused event at the White House. But his riff about whether he should be taking insulin ended up stealing the show.

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Why the Electoral College may not be able to save Trump's reelection chances
Protesters walk during the Women's March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.Mario Tama/Getty Images

As if these headwinds weren't troubling enough for the Trump campaign, an enduring dynamic from the 2018 midterms also poses a problem.

Trump continues to trail Biden among women, sitting 21 points behind in the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll (conducted from May 28 to June 2) and 19 points behind in a recent Monmouth University survey (conducted from May 28 to June 1).

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Clinton won women by a 13-point margin over Trump in 2016, NBC's exit polling found.

With Biden also leading Trump by 10 points among independents in the NBC-Journal poll, the question of where to even begin — much less how to close each gap — looms large over the Trump campaign.

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