If you apply the traditional rules of politics to current polling, this should be simple.
Rule 1: It is very difficult for presidents to win reelection amid or soon after a recession.
Fact 1: Gross domestic product contracted at an estimated annualized rate of 3.5 percent in the first quarter (about 1 percent in real GDP), according to the Congressional Budget Office, and will contract by 40 percent in the second (real GDP: 12 percent)—in other words, a recession. And not just a recession, but with unemployment rates north of 20 percent, more like a depression.
Rule 2: If President Trump’s approval ratings are underwater in late June and real GDP contracts by 12 percent in the second quarter, the well-respected “time for change” election model says there’s no chance he’ll get 270 electoral votes.
Fact 2: Trump’s approval numbers haven’t been positive since February 2017. He’s currently upside-down 44–52 among registered and likely voters. As the coronavirus death toll climbs into six figures by the end of the month, it’s hard to see that getting much better, especially and given how steady his polling has been.
Conclusion, part 1: Joe Biden should win, and it shouldn’t be close.
Conclusion, part 2: If Biden wins big, Governor Cooper will win big, and North Carolina Democrats will do well up and down the ballot. It’s not just that Cooper is trouncing GOP competitor Dan Forest right now; it’s that Cooper consistently polls well ahead of Biden in the state. So if Trump-Biden is a dead heat here, Cooper could win by four or five, maybe more. In a strong Democratic year, Dems will make a run at the gerrymandered state House and reclaim several seats on the Council of State: labor commissioner, insurance commissioner, lieutenant governor, maybe agriculture commissioner, too. Oh, and Cal Cunningham will stomp Thom Tillis.
On the other hand: The betting markets heavily favor Trump, and for a not-unfounded reason. While the first half of the year will be an economic disaster, the CBO forecasts significant improvement in the second. Unemployment will still be in double digits, but if there are clear signs of progress—and if the pace of coronavirus deaths tapers over the summer—voters might credit Trump with the recovery.
Revised rule 1: The thing about Trump’s steady poll numbers? That goes both ways. So far this year, the best Trump’s approval has been in the website 538’s aggregator is 46.2 percent; the worst, 42.7 percent. So while he has a ceiling that seems destined to keep him underwater, he has a floor that’s likely to keep him in the game no matter how bad everything else gets.
Revised rule 2: Trump can win at 45 percent approval for two reasons. First, his strategy doesn’t require you to like him; his strategy requires just enough voters in just the right states to loathe and/or be terrified of Biden and Democrats in general. Second, the composition of the Electoral College means that Trump can lose the popular vote by 5 million and still win the election; such a victory, however, requires him to win North Carolina.
Reconsidered conclusion: The political scientist Rachel Bitkofer wrote recently, “In 2020, in places where partisan competition is equalized … it will be the coalition that is angrier and/or more frightened that wins that battle.” While historical data portend a blue tsunami, the peculiarities of the Trump era do not. North Carolina is a state where partisan competition is near equilibrium, and Trump is at his best politically when he’s fomenting anger and fear. That was his MO in 2016, and it will be his MO in 2020. It will trickle down in ways that benefit other Republicans on the ballot. He’ll attack Roy Cooper and Cal Cunningham and prop up Dan Forest and Thom Tillis at his rallies. If the presidential race is close, the margins between Cooper and Forest and Cunningham and Tillis will shrink. Polarization will do its work.
The hell with it: I have no idea what’s going to happen this fall. Neither do you. Neither does anyone else.
The Great Lockdown is unlike any financial disaster we’ve seen before: It came on suddenly, caused not by an acute economic weakness but by a public health crisis. If there’s a V-shaped recovery—meaning things go back up as quickly as they collapsed—Trump will benefit.
But that probably won’t happen. Even as states reopen, demand for restaurants and retailers and services and entertainment venues will lag until there’s a vaccine. That means unemployment will remain high, some businesses will close, and because of declining revenue, state and local governments will hike taxes and slash services to meet shortfalls, which will only make the economic picture gloomier. Maybe Trump can spin it as an unavoidable calamity. If there are signs of life on the horizon come September or October, he’ll call it a comeback.
Of course, if he’s faulted for 100,000-plus deaths and a depression, it’s game over. Or at least, it should be. Here, too, Trump benefits from a new playbook. A side effect of a polarized culture is that Republicans distrust mainstream media sources and turn instead to what are essentially propaganda outlets. Negative information about the president doesn’t always get through.
I’m focusing on Trump to talk about North Carolina’s future because the two are intertwined. That’s the only thing I’m sure of. If Trump tanks here, the state GOP will tank, too; it has no breakout stars or a reservoir of goodwill. If Trump narrowly wins, he still might not pull Tillis and Forest over the finish line.
Reconsidered conclusion 2: It’s also possible that we have a second coronavirus wave in late October, the General Assembly fights tooth-and-nail against making mail-in voting easier, the election becomes a debacle, and nothing I’ve said in the previous 900 words matters one bit.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.
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