Can Trump overcome Biden's lead in the polls?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The president’s reelection bid appears to be in serious trouble. He currently trails presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by nearly 9 points, according to an average of the most recent national polls.

Polls of key swing states tell a similar story. Biden is running ahead in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania — all states Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016 as part of his Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton. States that Trump carried by a solid margin four years ago like Ohio, Georgia and even Texas now seem within reach for Democrats.

Biden led Trump by less than 5 points in national polls in February, but his advantage has expanded over the past few months as voters have broadly disapproved of Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Some Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s low polling numbers may hurt their chances of holding on to the Senate as well.

Why there’s debate

With just over 100 days until the general election, polls suggest that the president will have to mount a remarkable comeback to have a chance at winning a second term. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone from either side of the aisle arguing that another Trump victory is impossible.

A big reason for optimism in Trump’s camp is that he has overcome a large polling deficit before. Clinton held a double-digit lead in early 2016 and was up by as much as 7 points just a few weeks before Election Day. Polling experts point out that national polls often make a race look less competitive than it really is. The peculiarities of the Electoral College mean that Trump could get millions fewer votes and still cobble together enough states to win, as he did four years ago. National polls in 2016 were mostly correct in predicting Clinton would win the popular vote. Trump won by outperforming polling in a few critical swing states.

The coronavirus is likely to be the decisive issue for most voters in the 2020 election, experts say. Trump has lagged in polls as the outbreak in the U.S. has gotten worse, but that trend could easily reverse if the state of the pandemic shifts. The president’s critics also say he’s shown a willingness to resort to antidemocratic tactics like sham investigations, voter suppression and foreign interference — which may be enough to tip the balance in the election.

Despite all those factors, many experts see ample reason to believe Biden’s lead is more or less insurmountable. The simple truth, they argue, is Trump can’t win if he doesn’t get the coronavirus under control. Evidence points to the pandemic and economic fallout getting even more severe, rather than subsiding, over the next few months.

Trump’s reelection strategy beyond the virus also appears to be falling flat, political observers say. He has repeatedly tried to use the Black Lives Matter protests and destruction of monuments to paint the left as a threat to law and order, but the message doesn’t appear to be resonating with voters. His attacks on Biden also seem to be much less effective than the tactics he used to sour the public’s opinion of Clinton four years ago.

What’s next

Trump demoted his campaign manager Brad Parscale last week. It remains to be seen whether his new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, will make any major changes to the president’s reelection strategy.

The Democratic and Republican conventions, typically raucous affairs with large crowds, will be scaled down dramatically because of the coronavirus when they’re held next month. The first presidential debate is scheduled for Sept. 29.


Opportunities for Trump

There’s reason to question the accuracy of polls

“If history can teach us anything, it is that the experts can get it wrong. … Exactly four years ago (in June 2016), Hillary Clinton led Trump in the polls by 5 percentage points. The night before the election, the intelligentsia was still confidently predicting a Clinton win. The next day, Trump stunned the world.” — Richard Lim, Washington Examiner

The situation in the country could improve by election day

“To state the obvious: A coronavirus cure would help (not that he would have anything to do with it), as would clear evidence that the economy is on the mend.” — Paul Brandus, MarketWatch

Biden is an uninspiring candidate

“Biden voters are voting much more to oust Trump than because they want Biden. However, not liking the other guy did not sufficiently help Bob Dole, John Kerry or Mitt Romney defeat Clinton, Bush or Obama.” — Tom Del Beccaro, Fox News

Trump still has tools left that could turn voters against Biden

“Polarization is a powerful thing and despite all the sturm and drang from the Trump White House, most voters might just end up coming home. It’s important to remember that President Trump has yet to unload his full arsenal — from the inevitable smear campaigns to the possible investigations the Justice Department could launch to undermine Biden.” — Julian Zelizer, CNN

Trump will try to undermine the election to win

“In every respect, the Trump plan for 2020 is shaping up to be an election outside anything in modern American experience. Trump’s only hope is to manipulate, distort, and suppress. He is acting now to realize that hope. Be warned, and be prepared.” — David Frum, Atlantic

Polls may not be showing Trump’s true level of support

“Are there ‘secret Trump voters’ out there, Americans who are certain to vote for him but unwilling to say so to a pollster? Sure. I don’t know how many there are, and what percentage of the electorate they are. If they’re not close to ten percent, Trump’s in deep trouble.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

The coronavirus is a wild card that could lead to any outcome

“We’ve never truly dealt with this kind of thing in modern political history. And however bad things look for Trump, strange things — perhaps even stranger than we saw four years ago — could happen.” — Aaron Blake, Washington Post

Hurdles for Trump

Democrats are unlikely to fall victim to complacency after 2016

“Thanks to what happened in 2016, there is probably no Democrat in the entire country who is ‘overconfident’ right now. Until a wooden stake is pounded into the 45th presidency, the possibility of another Trump threading-of-the-Electoral-College win, or even a post-election Trump refusal to accept defeat, will keep Democrats on their toes and alert to any negative trends.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Trump’s win in 2016 doesn’t mean he’ll repeat the same feat in 2020

“The boring reality is that Trump won a margin-of-error race between two historically disliked candidates, in hindsight the equivalent of a .300 hitter getting on base with a dinky single into left field. He has no magical powers.” — Peter Hamby, Vanity Fair

Even if polls are imperfect, Biden is still well ahead

“If the election were held today, Mr. Biden would win the presidency, even if the polls were exactly as wrong as they were four years ago. The reason is simple: His lead is far wider than Hillary Clinton’s was in the final polls, and large enough to withstand another 2016 polling meltdown.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

Trump has shown no signs of turning around the trends that are sinking his campaign

“The three most significant threats to Trump’s reelection are the pandemic, the country’s terrible economic situation, and the eagerness of Democrats to turn him out of office. In every case, the president has chosen not just to avoid taking actions that might help him win, but to actively worsen his situation.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

Attacks on Biden aren’t landing

“Republicans have been reduced to trying to argue that Biden is just a Trojan horse for other, far more left-wing, figures in the party. But it’s an argument that founders since Americans just watched Biden win an extended primary campaign in which he was repeatedly assailed for failing to meet various progressive litmus tests.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox

Trump has lost his ability to control the media narrative

“2020 appears to be the year that Teflon Don’s superpower of distracting us from one scandal with the next one is finally starting to fail him. He now faces two stories that he can’t push out of the headlines, no matter what outrageous things he says or what antics he pulls: The coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protest movement.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon

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