If summertime polls were reliable, or even predictive, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis would have a presidential library and the Bush family wouldn’t be an American political dynasty. But they’re not, so he doesn’t and they are.
People forget, but Dukakis opened up a 14-point lead over then–Vice President George H.W. Bush by the time the national party conventions rolled around in 1988. The pundit class interpreted that as America rejecting limited-government Reaganism and an ideological approach to governing in favor of a non-ideological, technocratic approach that focused on what worked, à la the so-called Massachusetts Miracle.
That was before the Bush campaign got going. By the time his team, led by the legendary Lee Atwater, got finished, Dukakis’ miracle turned into a mirage, just like the idea of him in the White House. Bush won the election with almost 49 million votes, 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent, and carried 40 states. Remember that the next time folks try to tell you Donald Trump is finished.
Admittedly, Trump has a tough row to hoe, but that was true in 2016 too. Trump never led in the polls. The debates were a sloppy mess. And he had more than one “setback” during the general election that led most forecasters to conclude he was over and done, fully baked, had bought the T-shirt, worn it out and sent it to Goodwill, and was certain to lose.0:29/2:09
He lost the popular vote—but that matters little. Americans don’t decide presidential contests based solely on who gets more votes. It’s where those votes come from that matters.
Had it been a popular vote contest, both campaigns would have approached the contest differently. But instead, they focused on swing states and largely abandoned voters in states they were sure to lose. That’s why Trump went for Wisconsin, which Hillary Clinton never once visited, but didn’t focus on New Jersey, which Clinton was certain to win but is a big state with many Trump voters.
The bottom line is both parties can make the math work for them regardless of which style of campaign is conducted and whether or not the popular vote determines who wins. The national polls that show former Vice President Joe Biden with a commanding lead, at least at this point, are almost meaningless.
The trends are important, and with as many polls showing Trump behind nationally and in key states, it’s no surprise there’s been a change at the top of the president’s campaign team. And there will probably be more to come, but the outcome of the race is not at all certain.
Consider a survey released Wednesday by Rasmussen Reports, a firm with a reputation for leaning to the right but also for more often being right than the media polls. It showed Trump and Biden neck-and-neck, with the former vice president at 47 percent and the president at 45 percent among the likely voters surveyed with a plus/minus 2 percent error margin.
Statistically, according to Rasmussen, the race is tied. Considering the pollster had Biden starting the season with a 10-point advantage over the president, one can argue his lead is shrinking even if the other polls don’t show it.
There are a lot of reasons polls differ, including sample size, the types of voters surveyed and the weights applied to the breakdown of the participants, so the sample in the view of the pollster resembles the likely makeup of turnout in the fall. One could almost say there’s as much opinion going into how the polls are done as they measure.
One major finding in all the surveys is Biden’s continuing lead among non-affiliated voters. Independents matter since, in every presidential election since 2000, the number of ticket-splitters has been in continual decline. It’s no secret that self-described independents have a particular dislike for Trump’s tweets, his rough edges and his approach to the presidency.
Trump’s running against that right now, not Biden. He’s running against his own image, something that’s impossible for almost everyone to do. That changes once the Republicans start defining the former vice president as something more than “Sleepy Joe” and “Basement Biden” and start talking about what he’d do as president. The list of things they have to work with is fertile indeed.
The GOP’s mission is to make independents especially but all voters worry more about what Biden might do as president than they care about what Trump does. If they can convince those voters to believe Biden is the tax hike guy, the one who wants to abolish the suburbs and resume the bad trade deals that send America jobs overseas, then Trump’s not out of the race at all. In fact, he probably wins.