Could Trump Really Be President Again?
It's not nearly as far-fetched as most of us would like to believe.
CNN senior data reporter Harry Enten argues “The chance of Trump winning another term is very real.”
Aside from the obvious “Dumb and Dumber” jokes, my first thought at seeing the headline was that, given the fact that we have only two viable political parties and Trump seems to be running away with the Republican nomination, of course the chance is real. But Enten’s point is less prosaic.
Donald Trump is facing two indictments, with the potential for more. Political wisdom may have once suggested the former president’s bid for a second White House term would be nothing but a pipe dream. But most of us know better by now.
Trump is not only in a historically strong position for a nonincumbent to win the Republican nomination, but he is in a better position to win the general election than at any point during the 2020 cycle and almost at any point during the 2016 cycle.
Emphasis mine. That seems nuts, right?
Again, the first piece seems to be baked in but Enten really hammers it home:
No one in Trump’s current polling position in the modern era has lost an open presidential primary that didn’t feature an incumbent. He’s pulling in more than 50% of support in the national primary polls, i.e., more than all his competitors combined.
Three prior candidates in open primaries were pulling in more than half the vote in primary surveys in the second half of the calendar year before the election: Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Gore remains the only nonincumbent to win every single presidential nominating contest, while Bush and Clinton never lost their national polling advantage in their primaries.
Today, Trump’s closest primary competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has fallen below 20% nationally. No other contender is at or above 10%. This makes the margin between Trump and the rest of the field north of 30 points on average.
A look back at past polls does show candidates coming back from deficits greater than 10 points to win the nomination, but none greater than 30 points at this point. In fact, the biggest comebacks when you average all the polls in the second half of the year before the election top out at about 20 points (Democrats George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008).
Obama did fall nearly 30 points behind for a brief period in the fall of 2007, though his comeback the following year and that of Republican John McCain (another eventual nominee who trailed by over 10 points nationally) points to another reason why Trump is so strong right now.
Obama was within single digits of Clinton and Iowa poll leader John Edwards at this point in the 2008 cycle. Similarly, Clinton’s edge was in the single digits over Obama in South Carolina at this stage of the campaign.
On the Republican side in 2008, the primary deck was much more unsettled than the national numbers indicated at this point. Rudy Giuliani was up nationally, but he lagged behind Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney couldn’t get much above 30% in either state, unlike Trump right now.
McCain (whose candidacy is often held up as an example of how DeSantis might come back) was always considerably closer to the national and state front-runners than anyone is to Trump at this moment.
As much as I’d like for a non-crazy candidate to emerge as the GOP nominee, getting us on the road to having two reasonable parties, Lloyd Christmas has better odds.
Of course, winning the primary is one thing for Trump, who has led in almost every single Republican primary poll published in the past eight years.
What should arguably be more amazing is that despite most Americans agreeing that Trump’s two indictments thus far were warranted, he remains competitive in a potential rematch with President Joe Biden. A poll out last week from Marquette University Law School had Biden and Trump tied percentage-wise (with a statistically insignificant few more respondents choosing Trump).
The Marquette poll is one of a number of surveys showing Trump either tied or ahead of Biden. The ABC News/Washington Post poll has published three surveys of the matchup between the two, and Trump has come out ahead – albeit within the margin of error – every time. Other pollsters have shown Biden only narrowly ahead.
That’s just nuts, right?
But, sure enough, RealClearPolitics has Biden with less than a 1-point margin over Trump in their polling aggregate. And most of the polls are of registered voters—likely voters historically skew more Republican. FiveThirtyEight doesn’t seem to be aggregating the Trump-Biden polls just yet most of their head-to-heads show Trump with a lead—although they seem all over the place. (Interestingly, Biden does considerably better against DeSantis while Trump, DeSantis, and even Trump Jr. wipe the floor with Kamala Harris.)
To put that in perspective, Trump never led in a single national poll that met CNN’s standards for publication for the entirety of the 2020 campaign. Biden was up by high single digits in the late summer of 2019. Biden is up by maybe a point in the average of all 2024 polls today.
Surveys in the late summer of 2015 told the same story: Clinton was up by double digits over Trump in late July and up by mid-to-high single digits by the end of August 2015.
Obviously, we’re a long way away from November 2024 and polls taken this far out are pretty meaningless. But it’s astounding that a guy who’s under multiple indictments and was just found civilly liable for raping a woman is essentially tied with the sitting President in the polls.
And, as we all know by now, we don’t elect Presidents in a national popular vote but rather through the bizarre intermediary of the Electoral College, which currently gives a considerable advantage to the Republican nominee.
The fact that the polling between Biden and Trump is so close shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Elections are a choice between two candidates. Trump isn’t popular, but neither is Biden. The two, in tandem, would be the most disliked presidential nominees in polling history, if their numbers hold through the election.
Honestly, I’m not sure this is a meaningful metric. At this point, any major party nominee starts with 50 percent disapproval simply because of partisan enmity.
All that being said, the 2024 election will probably come down to a few swing states. Polling in swing states has been limited because we’re still over a year from the election.
One giant warning sign for Democrats was a late June Quinnipiac University poll from Pennsylvania, a pivotal state for the past few election cycles where Trump rallied base supporters in Erie on Saturday. The state barely voted for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020.
Trump was up on Biden by 1 point in the Quinnipiac poll – a result within the margin of error, but nevertheless a remarkable achievement for the former president.
Again, that’s just one poll ridiculously far out. And, even if Trump had carried Pennsylvania in 2020, its 20 electoral votes wouldn’t have been enough to swing the election. Then again, if he’d carried Pennsylvania (which he only lost by .7 points) he’d likely have carried Georgia (.2%), North Carolina (1.4%), and Wisconsin (.6%) as well and easily won re-election.
Honestly, this far out, I’m not following the horse race at all closely. But the underlying dynamics are concerning: the combination of our highly polarized environment and our skewed institutional structures make the possibility of a Trump re-election a quite real possibility.