To describe the current incumbent’s predicament, substitute Trump’s botched coronavirus response for Carter’s inability to free American hostages seized by Iran. Then look at the numbers.
Today, Trump’s national polling deficit of around 10 percentage points matches Carter’s popular vote deficit against Ronald Reagan — who won a 44-state landslide while fellow Republicans seized control of the Senate.
Trump’s base keeps him afloat
The first is the sturdiness of the narrow Trump political base, centered on less-educated, rural, evangelical and blue-collar Whites.
Elected in 2016 with just 46.1% of the vote, the President has remained unpopular overall throughout his term. But despite the pandemic, economic downtown, racial unrest, and Trump’s erratic and provocative behavior, his loyal supporters have kept his job approval from dipping much below the 42.5% floor of late last week in the fivethirtyeight.com polling average.
“Trump is the worst President ever — I can’t imagine historians will spend more than 10 minutes debating that,” says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. But “he really has developed a rock-solid base.”
That’s largely because present-day polarization has left the GOP far more ideologically homogenous than Carter-era Democrats were.
Vestigial Democratic ties in the nation’s most conservative region helped the former Georgia governor sweep the South in his 1976 victory. His troubled tenure collapsed that conservative support, cutting his first-year job approval of 75% in half by the fall of 1980. Carter ended up slightly outpacing his job approval to draw 41% of the popular vote.
Polarization and demographics
The second reason: the combination of polarization and demographic change has left individual states more politically distinct from one another.
In 2000, George W. Bush won the barest of electoral victories while losing the popular vote to Al Gore by half a percentage point. In 2016, Trump captured a larger share of electoral votes while suffering a larger two-point defeat in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
This year, the contours of individual battlegrounds mean Trump would have a fighting chance for re-election even if he loses the popular vote by twice that much. The 2018 mid-term elections, when antipathy toward Trump and his policies gave Democrats a clear overall edge, proved the point.
Democrats surged nationally to recapture control of the House. But they fell short in some critical battleground races for governor and Senate.
“Even an eight-point national lead wasn’t enough for Democrats to flip Ohio or Iowa,” notes Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. “It wasn’t enough to hold onto Florida.”
Today Trump runs significantly better in the electorally decisive states than he does nationally. The difference between Biden sweeping all of them, or barely enough to win, could end up very thin.
Moreover, narrow Trump victories in more conservative-leaning battlegrounds such as Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina could limit his party’s losses in Senate races. In 2016, every Senate contest went to the party of the presidential candidate carrying the state. In any case, no one believes Democrats can match the 12-seat Senate gain that Reagan fueled for Republicans in 1980.
The 2016 effect
The third reason analysts shrink from predictions of a blowout for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is simple skittishness. Their failure to anticipate Trump’s 2016 victory makes them reluctant to trust their instincts and polling evidence now.
“Everybody has PTSD from four years ago,” Sabato says.
National 2016 polls actually ended up close to the mark. But some surveys in key battlegrounds underestimated the size of the working-class electorate. Those errors, combined with Trump’s strong finish among late-deciding voters, produced his Election Day shocker.
Polls could be off again this time. Of course, there’s no guarantee that errors would underestimate Trump’s support now; in President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, polls underestimated his margin of victory in key states.
The pandemic is this year’s big X-factor
One uniquely hard-to-fathom variable is the effect of the pandemic on voting patterns. The huge volume of ballots already cast by mail and in-person early voting point toward mammoth turnout.
In 2018, the pattern of turnout increases favored Democrats. No one can be sure how much of today’s early surge reflects fear of catching the virus at crowded Election Day polling places, as opposed to disproportionate enthusiasm for either side.
Yet there are suggestions in late-campaign polling that Trump could face something resembling a Carter-sized defeat after all. Dave Wasserman, a leading expert on House races, says surveys in competitive districts show a consistent swing of eight to 10 percentage points away from Trump.
Wasserman has also calculated what the national standing of Biden and Trump among key demographic groups, if it held across battleground states, would imply for the outcome. That calculation shows Biden, like Reagan 40 years ago, winning more than 400 electoral votes.