If you look at Donald Trump’s polling lately, it sure looks like he’s in trouble for reelection.
A June 11 Quinnipiac poll showed Trump losing 40-53 to Joe Biden. He’s also down 51-42 to Bernie Sanders, 41-49 to Kamala Harris, 42-49 to Elizabeth Warren, 42-47 to Pete Buttigieg, and 42-47 to Cory Booker.
All plausible contenders at this moment can take heart in the fact that just 40 to 42 percent of the population feels like voting for Trump’s reelection. The public is mostly saying they want to vote for any Democrat, and the strongest pattern so far indicates better-known Democrats do better than the more obscure ones.
None of this means that Trump is a sure bet to lose the election in 2020 — public opinion can change fast and there’s nothing particularly predictive about polling this far out — but it’s a pretty clear snapshot of public opinion right now.
Trump, for now, is unpopular. FiveThirtyEight’s’s polling average shows Trump currently has a 42 percent approval rating. He’s unpopular and losing despite the huge field arrayed against him; he’s unpopular and losing despite Democrats’ confused message on impeachment; and he’s unpopular and losing despite some very real continued ability to successfully manipulate the media.
The head-to-head polling doesn’t really tell us much about events 18 months in the future, but it does tell us there’s no counterintuitive process whereby Trump secures the votes of tons of people who say he’s doing a bad job as president. He is getting the votes of basically the exact same share of the population as thinks he’s doing a good job. And as of now, that doesn’t look like it’s nearly enough people to win.
Democrats are very anti-complacency after being taken by surprise in 2016. Ben LaBolt, a former Barack Obama spokesperson who now works at a communications consulting firm, set a lot of heads on fire over the weekend with an Atlantic article charging that Democrats were blowing 2020 already. Trump is spending a ton of money on reelection ads, LaBolt argued, and Democrats aren’t running their anti-Trump ads yet. Obviously, consultants would love it if rich Democrats would turn their anti-Trump fervor into early ad spending, but whatever Trump is doing right now clearly isn’t working. Saving resources for the future when he may hit upon something that does work and needs to be countered seems perfectly sensible.
Rather than being either complacent or paralyzed by fear, Democrats should probably take a modest amount of reassurance from Trump’s bad polls and try worrying about everything else for a minute.
There are some things to worry about! Democrats have done pretty well in 2019 special elections, for example, but considerably worse than they did in 2017 and 2018. Their special surge in 2017 represented a huge increase in grassroots activism and energy in response to Trump’s win. The 2019 backslide seems to reflect a post-midterms diminishment of that intensity. Yet in state elections this year in Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana, Medicaid expansion — and with it health care for tens of thousands of people — will be on the line. These are tough elections about which available public polling has little to say and where time, energy, and money are likely to be extremely valuable.
Then there’s the 2020 Senate map. To govern in 2021, Democrats will need to win a long-shot Senate race or two as well as winning two races in Arizona and Colorado, which are by no means gimmes. The real question is will whoever winds up running in Montana, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Texas, and elsewhere have an energized and determined group of people behind them. Democrats have struggled to secure the party establishment’s most favored recruits in several of these races, though there are limits to the central party’s recruiting wisdom.
There are no guarantees of anything in politics, but it’s as close to a sure thing as you’ll find that these important, down-ballot elections are going to be tougher races than the presidential election.