WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has earned the nickname “Teflon Don” for how often he’s survived crises and scandals that would have felled other politicians. But a series of bleak polls in recent weeks has both Democrats and Republicans wondering if he’s finally lost his protective coating.
His performance in the nation’s twin crises this spring has pushed Trump’s approval rating under 40 percent in the latest Gallup survey, as a majority of voters in several polls disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus and recent protests over police brutality and racism. It’s a perilous position for an incumbent: The two modern presidents with an approval rating below 40 percent in June of an election year — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — lost badly, according to Gallup.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, now leads Trump by more than 8 percentage points in an average of recent national polls by RealClearPolitics. That’s a larger average margin than Trump ever trailed Hillary Clinton by in 2016.
“I think it’s increasingly in jeopardy,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz of Trump’s reelection potential. “The president is not communicating that he feels your pain. And pain is what an awful lot of people feel right now.”
The polling has been so bleak, and the president so unwilling to accept it, that his campaign sent a cease and desist letter to CNN after the outlet published a poll showing him trailing Biden by a stunning 14 points among registered voters. “CNN Polls are as Fake as their Reporting,” he fumed on Twitter.
But as America learned in 2016, polls aren’t always right and Trump isn’t a typical politician.
He defied conventional wisdom and won the presidency four years ago despite trailing Clinton in surveys of some key battleground states that he eventually carried. Since then, the president has routinely blasted unfavorable polls as “fake,” even disregarding ones produced by his own team, reasoning that they can be waved away because they were unable to predict his upset Electoral College victory in 2016. (However, an average of national polls fairly accurately predicted Clinton’s 2 percentage point popular vote victory.)
Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said in a statement that the last election “proved that polling is notoriously wrong and has always underestimated the president and his ability to connect with the American people.”
But by dismissing these polls, Trump is failing to see the mounting challenges to his own reelection, as the electorate casts a skeptical eye on his handling of a health crisis that’s killed more than 110,000 people and pushed millions out of work, as well as the widespread social unrest following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
“I think he’s in an incredibly dire position,” said Ian Russell, the former head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “For the last three and a half years, he’s really campaigned as if you need 40 percent to win, and that’s just not realistic.”
Since taking office, Trump has failed to reach out significantly to voters beyond his core white and conservative base, which hurt Republicans in the 2018 midterms and could fell him in November. Faced with a pandemic and widespread demonstrations for racial equality, the president last week battled the Pentagon over a desire to rename military bases named for Confederate generals and baselessly accused a 75-year-old protester shoved to the ground by Buffalo police of being a “provocateur.”
Instead of broadening his message to appeal to a wider swath of voters ahead of an election, Trump has narrowed it, argues Republican strategist Doug Heye. “The issue of Confederate statues — that is not going to win a broad based coalition,” Heye said. “That is completely a play to his base, and on anything that may veer from what his base wants, he won’t do.”
Playing on racial anxieties also wasn’t successful for Trump in 2018, when Democrats handily won the House back from Republicans. “What did he want the 2018 elections to be about in the final two weeks? A massive migrant caravan in Mexico,” Russell said. “And it flopped.”
Luntz pointed out that the president’s best line from 2016 was “I will be your voice,” which appealed to the generally less partisan and small group of undecided voters who decide elections. He estimates that only about 6 percent of voters are truly undecided, fewer than in 2016, and that they predominantly care about the character of a candidate, not their policy positions.
“What they were looking for was to be heard and to have a voice in Washington,” Luntz said. “He’s not offering them that now.”
The president has lost significant ground with some of the constituencies who sent him to the White House in the first place. Trump beat Clinton among non-college-educated white women by 27 points in 2016, according to CNN exit polls. But in a recent Washington Post poll, Biden trails Trump with white women without a college education by just 6 percentage points. Those voters are also less likely than their male peers to view Trump as trustworthy or to say he cares about people like them.
Other polls suggest trouble for Trump with the older voters he carried easily in 2016, as several surveys show him losing to Biden with voters over 50.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous number for Trump is his approval rating, which has predicted the reelection prospects of every president in recent decades. No modern president has won another term with a final pre-election rating of below 48 percent. Barack Obama, who dipped to 46 percent approval the June before his reelection, was able to rebound to above 50 percent after running an aggressive campaign painting then-opponent Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat.
“Trump is starting with a much lower base," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution think tank who analyzed the approval ratings of incumbents. “Even if he were able to raise his approval rating by Obama’s 6 percentage points, he’d still be in a very marginal position.”
Those who worked on Clinton’s presidential campaign, however, cautioned that Trump was able to recover more than once from what looked like mortal blows — including the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes where he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals and the feud he started with a Gold Star family. Both times, Trump’s standing plunged in head-to-head polling, but he showed a knack for changing the subject and training the national discussion on something else. He’s also managed to reverse previous drops in his approval rating while in office: It dipped as low as 35 percent in 2017 following his refusal to clearly repudiate white supremacists in the immediate aftermath of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.
“There is no one punch and you’re done with him, ever,” said Amanda Renteria, who was Clinton’s national political director.
But this time, Trump faces a much lower profile rival in Biden, who stopped public appearances until recently due to his home state’s stay-at-home order. And the election itself has been overshadowed by the international emergency of the coronavirus, the ensuing economic fallout, and a new civil rights movement.
“I’ve been through cycles since the ’60s and there’s never been less focus on a presidential election in modern American history,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Trump is trying to define Biden, but nobody’s paying any attention.”
The election, at the end of the day, could become, “Trump vs. Trump,” he predicted.