Joe Biden has led the national polls in the race for the presidency every day since he entered it some 500 days ago. But that doesn’t mean he’s a shoo-in for the country’s highest office, Amy Walter says.
The national editor of The Cook Political Report presented a session on the November election during the first day of NCSL Base Camp 2020, an online meeting discussing important issues for legislators, legislative staff and other interested parties. At this point, Walter says, that lead, along with other factors, point to the president remaining “a very serious underdog for reelection.”
At the beginning of 2020, Walter says she would have called the race for the White House a very close one, with Trump’s polarizing governing style “keeping his base happy and energized but doing very little to build outside of that base.”
Much of Trump’s plan for reelection in early January, Walter notes, seemed to depend on the economy staying on course, along with a continued record-level low unemployment rate. But still, she notes, the president’s overall approval rating failed to break the 45-46% range.
“In fact, he’s the first president in modern polling history to never hit a majority of support from voters,” Walter says.
He had also hoped for an opponent, such as Bernie Sanders, who he could clearly contrast himself with as he was able to do with Hillary Clinton, she adds.
“Then we hit March and a lot of those theories fell apart,” Walter says. Sanders lost the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden, who, she notes, is not without faults, but, in both national state polls, has scored much higher ratings than Clinton did at this point in the campaign.
COVID, Race Relations
But the two most important factors that have changed the trajectory of the race, according to Walter, are COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Both of those crises, like with any crisis for a leader, provide risks but also opportunities,” she says. For a moment in late March, Gallup approval rating numbers for the president were up to 49% for the first time. “It looked as if the president could use this opportunity to show voters that in time of crisis he was up for the challenge—that’s what folks are looking for in their leaders.”
But over the ensuing months, Walter says, voters have become much more soured on the president’s handling of the pandemic, protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing and the way he’s handled race relations.
“So instead of this election being either a referendum on socialism, a referendum on a great economy or a referendum on a really lousy opponent who is a corrupt part of Washington, like the president was able to do as a candidate in 2016, this race is fully a referendum on Donald Trump and the way he conducts himself and has conducted himself in office,” she says. “And that’s not a good place to be for this president.”
Of course, Walter notes, Trump has never lost the support of his base.
“The floor is still pretty solid for the president and so he’s in a better place than, say, some other incumbents in previous elections,” she says. “When things were going very badly, they found that they drained support from their own voters. That’s not happening with this president. He still has Republicans united around him, but he’s not doing well with voters that he needs to win the elections, specifically independent voters, older voters, women, especially suburban women voters. These are all the kinds of voters Donald Trump won last time, these are voters that Mitt Romney won in 2012. This is a very, very dangerous place for an incumbent president to be.”
Adding to the danger: Unlike 2016, according to Walter, just 6% of voters say they are still undecided. At this point in the 2016 election, she says 17% of voters were undecided.
“The feelings about this president are pretty well settled and they haven’t moved all that much in the last four years,” she says. “In fact, the overall range of whether you approve or disapprove of the president has stayed in a very narrow band throughout. This is a president who never got a honeymoon, but this is also a president who hasn’t seen his support collapse like other presidents in challenging times, like George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter.”
The Voting Process
One other big question for the outcome of this election: Not just who will vote, but how they’ll vote.
“Never before has the way we vote been so politicized,” Walter says. “Overwhelmingly Democrats say that they’re voting by mail. Not surprisingly, given that the president continues to rail against absentee mail-in voting saying that it’s rigged or it’s suspicious, Republicans overwhelmingly say that they’re going to vote in person.”
The other big issue, Walter says, is the way votes will be counted. “Each state does it a little bit differently,” she says. “Some states are very well prepared for the deluge of absentee or mail-in states, some states this is the first time that they’re going to be dealing with this kind of issue.”
She says all the secretaries of state and election officials she’s been speaking to and interviewing, know what’s coming and are getting as prepared as possible. “Will mistakes happen? Of course they will,” she says. “But they’re not going to be blindsided by what’s to come.”
What has her concerned is how heated the rhetoric around voting has become.
“What I worry about is there being a period of time where we don’t have the answers to who won the White House, who won control of the Senate, and in that vacuum are a lot of conspiracy theories that get put up on websites and social media,” she says. “… The worry is that by the time the ballots are finally counted and winners are declared that half the country believes the process itself is invalid and that the integrity of the very election is in doubt, not just the winner. And that is a very, very dangerous place for us to be as a country. I’m hoping that won’t be the case.”
Lesley Kennedy is NCSL's director of publishing and digital content.
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