By now, polls should have mostly absorbed any potential impact of the conventions and it makes sense to look at them again. Joe Biden’s lead in the national polling average on realclearpolitics is still substantial (6.9%) and double the lead Hillary Clinton had on Donald Trump. I can’t remember an incumbent president running for reelection who was trailing so far behind as Trump does at this point in time of the campaign and who ended up winning. Am I saying that Joe Biden will win? No, because surveys are never a prediction. But I would much rather be in team Biden than in team Trump at the moment.
Let’s look at the underlying dynamics of the race.
Conventional wisdom has it that an election with an incumbent is foremost a referendum on the incumbent. When voting for a challenger, voters merely express a wish. When voting for an incumbent, they render a verdict. In that respect, the job approval rating of the incumbent is crucially important (and was sometimes a better prediction of the vote than the match-up question). At the time of writing, 44% approve of the job Trump is doing while 56% disapprove. This has actually been remarkably stable throughout his term. Trump’s personal favorability ratings are basically the same: 42% have a favorable opinion about him while 56% have an unfavorable one. So it’s not that voters disapprove of the job he is doing but would like him as a person (or vice versa). In addition to job approval and personal favorability, another important indicator is how voters think about the state of the country. At the moment, 27% say that the country goes in the right direction while 67% say it’s off the wrong track. This number has slightly improved but is still dangerously low for an incumbent.
Now, these are all nationwide numbers and one might argue that it’s not really a nationwide, but a state-by-state election. Let us also remember that the state polls were pretty skewed four years ago. But the race does indeed seem to have tightened in the battleground states. Biden is still ahead in the realclearpolitics polling average in most swing states, but the lead has become smaller: Florida (+1.8%), Pennsylvania (+4.2%), Michigan (+2.6%) and Wisconsin (4.4%). In other words: screw the popular vote. This campaign is now all about the electoral college and is actually more competitive than what the nationwide polls might indicate.