Until the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump counted on a surging economy to propel him to re-election. In a sense, he still does.
Hardly a day passes when Trump doesn’t predict that pent-up demand will ignite a new economic boom later this year.
But the president’s political problem is that the economy won’t likely surge enough, if at all, before Election Day, and that failure will shape the 2020 election agenda.
Six months before Americans choose the next president, the deadly combination of health and economic crises threatens to make Trump the third modern president — along with Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush — to lose re-election due to an economic recession.
The issues are intertwined. A major factor slowing any economic rebound is the Trump administration’s failure to provide the massive testing needed to assure Americans it is safe for them to resume their normal lives.
Despite his efforts to blame the nation’s governors for any shortages, medical experts, state executives from both parties and public polls all fault the federal government for the shortage in materials to expand testing.
Polls show the public trusts governors more than Trump, and approval of the way he is handling the crisis has dropped to pre-pandemic levels.
As a result, Trump trails Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic rival, by an average of six points in the Real Clear Politics average, and even more telling, in every swing state where recent surveys were taken.
Trump supporters note Biden’s six-point margin resembles the seven points by which Hillary Clinton led Trump at this time four years ago.
Still, several factors suggest that current numbers may be more indicative of the projected result than the comparable ones in 2016. They include:
Incumbent woes. Re-election bids are generally referendums on incumbents, job approval usually equates to electoral support, and Trump is the first modern president whose job approval never reached 50%.
Unusually, his current job approval in the mid-40s is several points higher than the percentage who say they’ll vote for him. “It suggests that some may be okay with what Trump’s doing but dislike how he handles himself,” said Daron Shaw, the Republican co-director for Fox News polls.
Straying seniors. In a NBC-WSJ poll, Biden led Trump by nine points among registered voters over 65, among whom Trump beat Clinton by seven points. A recent Quinnipiac University Florida poll showed seniors disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis, a reversal from last month.
Democrats united. In 2016, lingering hard feelings from the bitter Democratic nomination fight between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders helped Trump. Post-election polls showed more than one in five Sanders primary voters backed either Trump or another candidate.
The 2020 Democratic primary battle ended far sooner, without acrimony, though some Sanders supporters remain unreconciled. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll showed 80% of Sanders voters already back Biden, a number likely to rise as Democrats focus on the need to beat Trump.
Trump predicts he will win in a landslide. But neutral observers are increasingly skeptical. Trump is in “an increasingly precarious position for re-election,” wrote National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, calling current trends “more suggestive of a Democratic blowout than a second Trump term.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a syndicated columnist.