If you rely on out-of-focus photos of the recent past to predict the future, Donald Trump’s chances of winning a second term as president are small and shrinking.
I put it that way because I want to report on the recent polling on both Trump’s approval ratings, and the state of the race between Trump and Joe Biden. Both of these indicators look quite good for Biden and bad for Trump. But I want to encourage you (and me) to keep our shirts on, and, if you read to the bottom, I will tell you the origin of that “keep your shirt on” expression, which I just looked up and found amusing.
First, a reminder: The election is five months away. Plenty of time for the picture to change and change again, and that’s even more true in a situation where the combination of a pandemic and the aftermath of the recent killing-of-George-Floyd-inspired unrest in cities across create some factors that are difficult to measure or anticipate.
Second, I ask myself daily, and you should too, what measures Donald Trump might take if he thinks he’s going to lose the election, ranging from making it harder for people to vote, to postponing the election (I don’t think he legally can, but he might try), to refusing to recognize the result and participate in a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
Approval rating going down
Setting those aside, and focusing on the recent polling, there are reasons to believe that an anti-Trump wave is building.
First, as measured by his approval ratings, Trump is bleeding support. As usual, to avoid relying overmuch on any one poll, I rely on the average of many polls maintained by the political numbers geeks at FiveThirtyEight.com. As of this afternoon, his average approval number 13.6 percentage points “under water,” at 41.1 percent approval/54.7 percent disapproval. All of the recent movement has been negative (for Trump). That’s the worst shape his approval rating picture has taken, for him, in about a year and a half.
Second, I would remind you of something I recently discussed, which is that a large share of voters don’t much like either Trump or Joe Biden, but, when asked by pollsters, those double dislikers say by an overwhelming margin of 60-10 percent that that they would support Biden as the lesser dislikable one. Trump’s 2016 election relied significantly on getting the votes of the majority of those who said they didn’t like either him or Hillary Clinton.
Third, which is really a reflection of the points in the paragraphs above, Trump is losing support among the key groups that have always supported him most, like Americans without a college degree, and evangelical Christians. He still leads among those groups, but the size of his margin seems to get smaller every time a new poll comes out.
But mostly, when I obsess on this stuff, I try to pay attention to recent polling in swing states. As happened in 2016, a candidate can lose the national popular vote and win the electoral vote by winning a few close states.
Biden polling ahead in most close states
Biden is polling ahead of Trump in most of the close states that were key to Trump’s 2016 election-night surprise. I’ll give you three examples, and I choose them because the poll numbers come from Fox News. Fox pollsters have a much better reputation for fairness among those who rate such things than do most of the Fox opinion stars. Fox recently reported new polls from three swing states that Trump carried in 2016. They showed Biden ahead of Trump by 49-40 in Wisconsin, by 45-43 in Ohio, and by 46-42 in Arizona. Those are not the only states that Trump carried but where he now trails in the polls, but those three by themselves would be enough to change the outcome 2016, and those are Fox News polls.
Lastly, as promised above, the origin of the expression “keep your shirt on.”
Apparently, in early American history, a typical American man owned only one or two shirts. He would take off his shirt before they got into a physical fight so it wouldn’t get torn and ruined. Taking your shirt off was an indication that you were ready to get into a physical altercation, so keeping your shirt on was a way of indicating that you still believed the matter at hand could be settled short of fisticuffs.