Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson, who writes frequently for CNN Opinion, is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and a former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. You can follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. Bradley Honan is the CEO of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and analytics firm. He has advised the campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Tony Blair and scores of down ballot candidates over the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyHonan. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
One need not listen hard these days to hear the sound of Democratic pollsters and pundits gleefully cheering that the end of President Donald Trump’s term in power is finally in sight – Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day on January 20th, 2021.
Such Democratic groupthink goes as follows: the Covid-19 pandemic has killed more than 130,000 Americans and shows no signs of letting up; the economy has been plunged into the deepest recession in decades; and amid ongoing protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Democrats are fired up and ready to vote as never before.
Moreover, a diverse array of national polls couldn’t be clearer: Trump is in deep trouble nationally – with Joe Biden leading him by double digits.
Democratic strategists seem to believe this means that Biden has successfully cut into the President’s support among key parts of his political coalition: white voters, suburban voters, independents and voters who are middle aged and older. And the latest polling shows that even GOP strongholds like Georgia and Texas could be in play this fall.
It seems Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.
Those declaring Trump politically finished should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that “the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”
As Paine tells it, the rumor appeared to emerge because Twain’s cousin, who shared his legal surname of Clements, fell ill and papers were reporting that Twain was possibly dying. The chattering classes may be in for a nasty November surprise. There are lots of reasons to suspect that Donald Trump may be the Mark Twain of American politics – in that reports of his political demise may be grossly exaggerated.
Like a modern-day street magician, Trump keeps pulling out new tricks to stymie Democrats at the polls when they least expect it – as he did this past May when Republicans took back a Congressional seat in deep blue California, the first time the GOP had gained a seat in the state in 22 years.
Let us be clear: We are political consultants who have spent the better part of the last 20 years working to get scores of Democrats elected across America. It gives us no great joy to think about Trump getting a second term, but here is some of what keeps us awake at night:
Americans usually don’t fire sitting presidents
Only three sitting US Presidents have been fired in the last 75 years, and that number could easily have been only one. After pardoning Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford went on lose to Jimmy Carter by a squeaker. Carter barely won Wisconsin and Ohio and a switch of 144,384 votes in New York would have reelected Ford.
In 1992, Bill Clinton beat George Bush, winning less than half the popular vote (43%), with 19% going to Independent Ross Perot – a plurality, but not a majority. Since the 1930s, only Ronald Reagan was able to successfully unseat an incumbent president and beat him by a healthy margin – as a rule, Americans just don’t decisively – or regularly fire sitting presidents.
Trump’s numbers are down by a lot less than one would expect given, well, everything
Let’s state the obvious: America has been turned upside down over the last few months. The country has been all but shut down during the Covid-19 outbreak, and ongoing efforts to combat racism are fundamentally changing America. Sure – Trump’s numbers have taken a hit – but the problem for Democrats is that they are not down as much as his abysmal performance deserves.
The latest Fox News poll shows Biden is leading Trump by 12 points, up from a lead of eight points back in May. Bottom line, the country is in tatters and Biden’s lead has grown by a paltry four points. No typo – Biden’s lead has increased by just four points as a surge of coronavirus is gripping large swaths of states that typically vote red.
How is Biden doing today among the White voters without a college degree in the swing states that Trump won in 2016? Biden’s support, according to The New York Times / Siena College Poll, has him rising by a single point with this group since October – that’s the extent of the momentum Biden has gotten by winning enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination in reaction to Trump’s poor performance over the last four months. A single point!
How about non-White voters – many of whom are taking to the streets and demanding justice and equality? Biden, according to the New York Times/ Siena College poll, has made virtually no gains whatsoever – up only two points among Black voters from 74% in October 2019 to 76% in the most recent poll and up just one point among Hispanics, from 35% in October 2019 to 36% today.
In fact, according to an early June 9% of Black voters are supporting Trump today – essentially the same level of support The Donald enjoyed in 2016.
And Biden’s margin with the critical emerging Latino segment of the population is not where it should be. He leads by 24 points compared to the 38 point margin Hillary Clinton won them by in 2016.
So after everything that has happened since the death of George Floyd, including the president’s repeated demonization of Black Lives Matter protesters and embrace of racist symbols, Biden is exactly where Clinton was with Black voters – holding a majority of their support – and is running less well with Latinos. Biden’s margin over Trump is 14 points less than Clinton’s was – not exactly a reassuring reality for us Democrats.
Summertime polls are not predictions of November results
Polls conducted over the summer can be unreflective of the general election’s outcome. Recall that in July 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush was trailing Michael Dukakis by 17 points and went on to win the election by eight points that November.
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In early September, President Harry Truman was down about 13 points against Thomas Dewey, a race Truman would go on to win.
And four years ago, polling in June 2016 showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by 12 points, a similar lead to what Biden enjoys today.
What’s the takeaway? Polls are nothing more than a snapshot in time – they are neither a forecast, much less a prediction.
Strong economic marks for Trump
More than any issue voters choose a president on the state of the economy – and this is the one place where Trump remains strong. According to a Gallup poll, about half of the country approves of his handling of the economy.
The New York Times/ Siena College poll also shows that in battleground states, Trump’s economic approval number is 56% – hardly an argument for showing him the door.
Biden is lackluster
Democratic pundits love to fill the airwaves with praise for Biden who has been running a campaign that is mostly about letting Trump be Trump and not getting in the way of things like his botched US Covid-19 response, refusal to wear a mask in public and his threats against those protesting systemic racism.
The other way to read that is that the Biden camp seems to have settled on the 2020 election being a referendum on Trump – Biden simply doesn’t need to promote or advocate for his agenda for change. The Lincoln Project – a coalition of Never Trump GOP consultants – is running a far more effective campaign to sway public opinion against Trump than the Biden camp at this point.
Based on Biden’s current performance and how he nearly lost the Democratic primary and especially given his poor debate performances.
Biden isn’t a strong enough candidate to win by himself – he still needs a big assist from a flailing Donald Trump.
For Democrats there is a lot at stake these days – but counting Trump out is a mistake. Democrats need to be ready for the Trump machine to pull out all stops to stay in power. From voter suppression to an October surprise, anything is possible – and this race is a long way from over.