To hear Republicans tell it, President Donald Trump is not the underdog that the polling suggests. Though Joe Biden is in a better position today than he has been all year and the president is trailing both nationally and in battleground states well outside margins that could be explained away by a conventional polling error, the GOP isn’t sweating it.
According to the 50 state, district, and county-level GOP officials Politico reporter David Siders spoke with, Trump is fated to be rescued in November by a combination of factors. The first, positive economic news as states proceed with phased re-openings. The second, which is counterintuitive, a general sense of unease and apprehension amid heightened social tensions. “The more bad things happen in the country, it just solidifies support for Trump,” said one North Carolina-based Republican.
Sentiments like these may be attributable to simple cheerleading or just wishful thinking, but they are not reflective of measurable public opinion. The coronavirus pandemic is receding. The economy is reviving in ways that outpace even the most optimistic projections. Democrats are engaged in a circular firing squad and talking about the most radical of policing reforms. And all the while, the president’s support among voters is deteriorating.
Even though the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to circulate across the country, the number of new deaths has been trending downward for months. Though the public is still concerned about the virus and remains cautious about reengaging with the outside world, majorities or pluralities are now comfortable with activities like shopping, dining out, and sending their children to school.
As anxiety over COVID-19 has receded, the economy has begun to recover. Economists had predicted that the national unemployment rate would rise from nearly 15 percent in April to almost 20 percent in May. Instead, the rate of joblessness in America declined unexpectedly, and the labor participation rate increased. Likewise, consumer spending increased at a pace that few experts expected last month. Retail sales jumped by a seasonally-adjusted 17.7 percent in May—the largest single increase over just one month in U.S. history.
What’s more, there are few indications that the bounce back is slowing. “Department store sales in the week ended June 10 were actually above year-earlier levels,” the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip reported. The recovery still has a long way to go, and it’s reasonable to expect this momentum to level off in the coming months—particularly if Congress fails to approve another round of economic assistance. Still, if you were to plot this data on a graph, the recovery has begun to look rather “v-shaped.”
It may take several months for voters to internalize these conditions. And when they do, perhaps the presidential race will tighten. But Trump would have to improve his standing among voters substantially to recover the ground he’s lost in 2020. What should be more distressing for the president’s supporters, though, is that Trump wouldn’t merely have to gain ground; Biden would have to lose it.
Biden’s strength is due in no small part to his support among women. As CNN analyst Harry Enten observed, an analysis of recent live-interview polls of registered voters indicates that Biden has a staggering near 25-point margin over Trump among female voters. Though the president retains the support of men over Biden, his advantage is in the single digits. And because women make up a larger share of the national electorate than men, Biden’s position is the more enviable one.
What should have the president’s supporters truly concerned is that the gender gap remains pronounced across all age groups. In 2016, while Hillary Clinton won the support of women by 13 points, she only managed to win the vote of women over the age of 45 by 3 points (50 percent to Trump’s 47 percent). According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Biden is beating Trump among this demographic today by a whopping 17-point margin. That is a dramatic change from the pre-pandemic status quo. In March, for example, the Post/ABC News poll showed Biden leading among women over 45 by just nine points.
This is the demographic that conventional wisdom suggests should be most attuned to the factors that the GOP seems to believe will save Trump. Women are increasingly in control of household finances, and so it’s reasonable to expect this demographic to be most sensitive to changing economic circumstances. And while Republicans expect the civil disorder that rocked American cities in early June to redound to the president’s benefit, female voters spent the last month leading a stampede away from Trump. A CNN/SSRS survey released this month showed Trump’s job approval rating among women declining to just 31 percent—a significant drop from the 39 percent of women who approved of the job he was doing in May.
With just over four months left before Election Day 2020, Republicans should be getting nervous. As the president’s political condition deteriorates, so, too, have the GOP’s prospects for retaining control of the Senate. Republicans can reasonably expect to retake the seat occupied by Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, but Arizona’s Martha McSally, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Maine’s Susan Collins, and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis are facing the fights of their respective political lives. Recent polls have shown GOP-held seats in Iowa and Georgia are suddenly also in jeopardy. If by Election Day the top of the Republican ticket lags his opponent by a margin even close to what polls currently show, it may be unreasonable to expect voters to split their tickets to the extent that would be required to save the Senate for the GOP.
Republicans are betting that events will intervene and save the president’s fortunes, but there are few indications that Trump has benefited from the nation’s post-COVID recovery or Democratic infighting. That and the president’s refusal or inability to change his behavior has left his party quite exposed. There is still time on the clock for Republicans to change their strategic approach to this election cycle, but they seem more committed to ignoring the evidence that an electoral disaster is imminent.