A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by Liz Marlantes.

Trump's position in polls isn't pretty – but a small electoral map could help

Why We Wrote This

The president is running further behind his likely challengers than any incumbent in modern history. But a historically small number of states likely to be competitive may benefit him.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Donald Trump visits the Shell Pennsylvania ethylene cracker plant on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 in Monaca, Pa. The facility, which critics claim will become the largest air polluter in western Pennsylvania, is being built in an area hungry for investment. Pennsylvania is one of a small number of states likely to decide the 2020 election.

Dear reader:

“In the pre-Trump era, any incumbent with his current math would be treated like a dead man walking.” That’s Axios’s Mike Allen, pointing to an array of warning signs for the president – from a 41% approval rating, to polls showing him trailing all of his top Democratic opponents, to the fact that disapproval of his performance outweighs approval in key swing states.

In fact, President Trump’s position is unprecedented in modern history. “No incumbent president has ever polled this poorly against his likely challengers at this point in the campaign,” writes CNN’s Harry Enten. Looking at incumbents going back to World War II, he finds that 9 of 11 presidents led their prospective challengers at this point in time, while the two who trailed – Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama – were behind by just four and one points, respectively. By contrast, recent polls show Mr. Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by double digits.

And yet, despite all this, many journalists and political observers seem to think the president may win. Mr. Allen chalks it up to fighting “the last war” – the chattering class got burned by underestimating Mr. Trump’s strength during the 2016 campaign, the thinking goes, so they’re overestimating it now.

But there’s another factor at work: the Electoral College. After all, Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots last time around, but won the White House because of narrow victories in a handful of key Rust Belt states. The political analysts sketching out possible Trump victories aren’t ignoring his poll numbers – indeed, some suggest he might lose the popular vote by an even larger margin. But as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz recently put it, the entire election may once again come down to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida. And there are reasons to believe that Mr. Trump could pull off victories in all of those states, where the electorate tends to be a little older and a little whiter than the nation as a whole.

To be sure, the 2020 election is still more than a year away, and there are a number of factors – from the economy to foreign affairs to things we can’t foresee – that could upend the calculus. But it’s easy to envision a historically weak president benefitting from a historically tiny electoral battleground.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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