Two months ago, President Trump planned to run for reelection on low unemployment, a robust stock market and a strong economy. The coronavirus recession has undone those plans, but Trump is still running on the economy—by claiming to be the best candidate to fix it.
The odds are lining up against him. Voters still think Trump is better on the economy than his likely Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. But there are two problems with that. First, we’re in the early stages of a punishing recession that’s likely to get worse before it gets better. That will erode Trump’s support on the economy. Second, voters like Biden more than they liked Hillary Clinton in 2016, which could limit the portion of people voting for Trump simply because they dislike the Democrat.
“I see this as a coin toss right now, but Biden is operating with the lucky penny,” Ben Koltun, senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors, says on the latest episode of the Yahoo Finance Electionomics podcast. “It’s clear that a majority of America does not want Trump to be reelected. And Biden seems to be the kind of generic Democratic alternative who’s acceptable in terms of the economy.”
Biden has plenty of vulnerabilities. Trump has a national stage and the showman’s instincts to use it effectively. Biden, for the time being, is under lockdown at his Delaware home, doing low-wattage interviews that aren’t making a lot of news—except when he insisted an alleged sexual assault charge from 1993 was bogus. That’s obviously the wrong kind of attention.
Trump’s campaign has vastly outraised Biden’s, and Trump’s infamous base is sticking with him, despite the president’s shaky handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a litany of Trump statements underplaying the virus that has now killed more than 70,000 Americans. Trump’s approval rating has remained steady at around 44%, and it has jumped to 49% in Gallup’s survey, matching the highest mark of his presidency.
Yet Biden’s underdog status seems to be working. Several competitors outraised and outspent Biden in the Democratic primary, yet he stampeded to victory after the first three contests. “He's being outspent and outshined by Trump right now,” Koltun says, “but he's still high in the polling. When you look back in history, he's at the strongest position of a challenger against an incumbent since FDR was facing Herbert Hoover in 1932.” (Roosevelt won that election with 89% of the electoral vote.)
Biden also has an edge Hillary Clinton lacked when she ran against Trump in 2016. Biden’s net favorability rating is roughly 0, which means an equal portion of voters both approve and disapprove of him. Clinton’s in 2016 was in the range of -15. Trump’s net favorability rating is around -8, so he’s at a disadvantage to Biden. There will probably be fewer Independents voting for Trump because they dislike Biden. And among voters who dislike both Trump and Biden, the portion saying they’ll vote for Biden is 32 points higher than Trump’s share.
Polls aren’t gospel, as Trump’s surprise win proved in 2016. And much can happen between now and the election on Nov. 3. But with the coronavirus still spreading and no sign yet of an economic recovery, the uncertain outlook is another risk for Trump. “There’s a lot of risk we’re not prepared for,” Koltun says. “A continuing flareup of the coronavirus and a reemergence in the fall. There’s a lot of downside from the kind of hope Trump is trying to propel onto voters for his reelection and the state of the economy.”
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.