The headline news from the most recent Post poll was that President Trump remains behind or tied with all major Democratic contenders. The takeaway should have been that if this poll is correct, Trump is almost a lock to win.
There are two reasons that this is the case. The first has to do with the electoral college; the second has to do with the likely campaign dynamics over the next year and a half.
Trump won the electoral college in 2016 despite receiving roughly 46 percent of the popular vote because his coalition is highly tilted toward non-college-educated white voters. Those voters are shrinking as a total share of the national electorate, but they remain the largest group of voters in the electoral-vote-rich states of the Upper Midwest that he flipped from blue to red. That means Trump will get higher shares of the vote in those states than he will nationally.
The Post’s poll showed Trump performing nationally at levels that suggest he would get close to or more than a majority of the vote in at least four of the five key Midwestern swing states. Take his job approval rating: The poll showed him at 47 percent approval among registered voters. The 2018 exit polls showed Trump’s job approval was higher than his national average by three points in Wisconsin and eight points in Ohio. By extrapolation, the Post poll implies his job approval is at or above 50 percent in enough states for him to carry the electoral college.
Trump’s standing gets stronger when we look at the mock ballot questions. He receives between 46 and 48 percent of the vote among registered voters against any Democrat except Joe Biden. In 2016, he ran about 1.5 to 2 points ahead of his national showing in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. There’s no reason to think that he won’t do the same in 2020 given the nature of his coalition. That means the Post poll implies he will get between about 48 and 50 percent in each of these states. If he does that, he almost surely will win at least one of them — and with that, he wins reelection.
Democrats could point to recent polls showing Trump’s standing in these key states to be lower than he needs to win. But we should take most of these polls with a grain of salt. In both 2016 and 2018, state-level polls in Midwestern swing states significantly underestimated support for Republican candidates. There’s no reason to think that any of these state-level polls have worked out their methodological kinks in the past six months.
The Morning Consult poll that tracks Trump’s job approval rating by state is also unreliable. That poll showed Trump’s net job approval rating in November 2018 at zero in Ohio, minus-10 in Wisconsin and minus-2 in Arizona. But the exit poll, which samples actual voters, put his net approval rating at plus-7 in Ohio, minus-four in Wisconsin and plus-2 in Arizona.
The campaign’s likely dynamics also mean these numbers are more a floor than a ceiling on his potential support. Trump is a divisive figure, to put it mildly. But although opinions on him and his performance are fixed, his job approval rating has slowly crept up over the past five months so that it now stands at 45 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. One can see those numbers declining in the case of war or recession, but it’s hard to see why a normal campaign season will drive his support lower than it already is.
The opposite is true for Trump’s opponents. With the exception of Biden, his Democratic opponents are nowhere near as well known as he is, giving him plenty of opportunity to define his opponent as that person emerges. That’s what happened in both 2004 and 2012, the last two times an incumbent ran for reelection. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both broke into significant leads in early September as voters focused on comparing the incumbent they knew with the challenger they didn’t. Indeed, the Post poll showed Trump leads «a Democratic candidate who you regard as a socialist” by six points. With almost every Democrat running as far left as they can to appeal to the party’s progressive wing, it seems likely that 2020 will see another election-year break for the incumbent.
Trump is certainly not a shoo-in. His popularity remains low, and even a slight loss of support would keep him from winning. The Post poll is also one sample. As noted, the current polling average shows Trump receiving slightly less support, and that if that level is accurate, then he would narrowly lose the key states he needs to win.
But those considerations detract from the main takeaway. Because of the composition of his coalition, Trump does not need to win the popular vote to win reelection. All he needs to do is get close, and the Post poll shows he’s already close enough to win.