There have been a host of polls over the past couple of weeks, both nationally and in various states, showing Joe Biden opening up a massive lead over Trump — sometimes by double-digit margins. Couple that with Trump’s abysmal approval ratings recently and some may be tempted to conclude that Trump’s political obituary for November can be written right now. However, things will almost certainly change between now and Election Day, and it’s wise to keep some perspective.
There’s a good chance that Biden’s polling surge is temporary, and that in the coming months Trump’s support levels will tick back up while Biden’s drop a little. However, I would caution against reading too much into that movement if/when it happens. You may begin seeing headlines asking, “Is Trump surging at just the right time?” or “Is Biden’s absence from the campaign trail finally starting to hurt him?” There will likely be a simpler answer, though: early summer was when Biden peaked and when Trump hit his lowest point — and both trends were temporary and destined to “regress to the mean.”
It’s true that Trump remains deeply unpopular. He’s the only president in the history of modern polling (i.e., since the 1940s) whose approval rating has never hit or surpassed 50%. Moreover, in head-to-head polls against Biden, the former vice president has held a very stable national lead over Trump since the beginning of the year of about 6–7 points. It’s possible Biden maintains a double-digit lead all the way to November — or even until early voting starts in ~100 days — but it’s likelier that his lead over Trump will return to something like that 6–7-point margin. (Of course, it’s also important to remember that our elections are not decided by a national popular vote, but the Electoral College.)
This election is likely to come down to three major factors: 1) Biden’s performance in a handful of key swing states (including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and, to a lesser extent, Georgia and North Carolina), 2) how the pandemic affects who turns out to vote, and 3) whether people have an easy time casting a ballot in the face of concerted efforts to make it difficult to vote. Other events may occur in the remaining months that alter the political landscape slightly, but short of, say, nuclear war with China, these are the three fundamental factors that will decide whether Biden wins.
I’m more optimistic than some about Biden’s chances; I know there’s a contingent of folks who won’t believe Trump can be defeated until they hear the networks call the race for Biden. There is, of course, still a long way to go, and as we know all too well, a week during the Trump era can feel like a year. Anything can happen between now and November. Nonetheless, looking at the race today and considering the trends of the past six months, I would much rather be Biden than Trump, and that’s unlikely to change between now and Election Day.