‘Slipping and Sliding down the Polls’

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he departs from the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from episode 233 of The Editors.

Rich: So Jim Geraghty, I have the RealClearPolitics Biden versus Trump polling page up right here. I’m just going to read you some numbers going back to . . . This is a CNBC poll from the 10th and 12th of June. And I’m just going to run through to the latest poll. Biden plus ten. Biden plus eight. Biden plus twelve. Biden plus nine. Biden plus twelve. Biden plus 14. Biden plus nine. Biden plus eight. Biden plus four. Biden plus eight. Let’s look at Wisconsin, Jim. Wisconsin. Biden plus twelve. Biden plus 14. Biden plus nine. Biden plus eight. Biden plus four. Biden plus eight. Sorry, that was the general election again. Florida, Biden eleven. Biden plus seven. Biden plus six. Biden plus nine. These are the real Wisconsin numbers. Whoops, now I’m on Florida. I’m back on Florida 2016 for some reason. Wisconsin, here it is. Biden plus nine. Biden plus eleven. Biden plus four. Biden plus eight. Trump plus one. Let’s do Pennsylvania just for fun. Pennsylvania, Biden plus ten. Biden plus three. Biden plus five. Jim Geraghty, what do you make of it?

Jim: Well, for all the listeners who lost track of all those numbers in there, let me summarize what Rich just laid out over the last couple of minutes. Everything is bad. The polls are bad.

Rich: There was a Trump plus one in one of these states. Florida maybe. Was it Florida or Wisconsin?

Charlie: Wisconsin. It was the Trafalgar poll in Wisconsin.

Rich: Trafalgar. I think Trafalgar has him up in one of these other states, too. I won’t bore our listeners by trying to find where it is.

Jim: Broadly speaking, the big three swing states up in the upper Midwest, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, they all look pretty bad. Florida, maybe not looking bad but still not looking great. Every now and then Arizona, which everybody kind of thinks of as a Trump state, not looking that great. Iowa and Ohio, two states that Trump won by pretty sizable margins last time, not looking great. Well actually, there’s a fairly consistent movement across all the polls, across all the country of anywhere I would say from two to five to ten points against Trump towards Biden. Now, when you have this discussion with Trump supporters, they’ll jump up, and they’ll say, “Hey, there are some people out there who don’t want to tell a pollster that they’re voting for Donald Trump, but they’re going to vote for him anyway.” I think that’s true. I think that’s probably . . . I don’t know what percentage of the population that is. I don’t know what percentage of the electorate that is. I think it’s probably worth one or two points easily. Five points? Not so sure. The idea that it’s going to overcome a ten-point deficit we’re seeing in these polls, I’m rather skeptical of it. And I certainly would not want the Trump campaign to walk around saying, “Oh don’t worry; we’re totally doing fine.”

And I think probably what might have been a particularly useful canary in the coal mine, for weeks and months we’ve been hearing, “Oh, don’t worry; don’t worry about these polls. Polls were wrong in 2016.” Brad Parscale is building the Death Star. By the way, if you’re going to compare your campaign to some sort of science fiction device or instrument, please don’t pick one that blew up twice when a small underfunded band decided to go after it. Probably what I think was the steam coming out of the engine for the Trump campaign was the Tulsa rally last week. The turnout was nowhere near what the Trump campaign expected. Parscale himself was saying a million tickets had been requested. And yeah, maybe some people were afraid of the protesters. No doubt I think some people were understandably worried about catching coronavirus at a large indoor event with crowds. Maybe some of the factor was people who ordered tickets who had no intention of showing up. But let’s face it; it’s Tulsa, Okla. It’s Trump, it’s a Saturday. There’s really no good reason for him to not be able to put a decent crowd together. And the fact that this was so much lower than they expected, I think that convinced even the skeptics on the Trump campaign that no, they’re not winning this race. Everything is not fine.

The interesting thing is, I actually think one of the most encouraging headlines I saw, even articles that I saw in the past week was by Politico, June 27th, “Trump Knows He’s Losing.” Trump admits that he’s losing and the story begins, “The president has privately come to a grim realization in recent days. People told Politico, amid a mountain of bad polling and warnings from some of his staunchest allies that he’s on course to be a one-term president.” You can’t solve a problem unless you see a problem and unless you recognize it’s a problem. And I think the worst possible thing for the Trump campaign between now and November would be to walk around saying, “We don’t have to worry about any of these polls. These polls are meaningless. We’re still doing fine. We’re still doing great.” Look, there’s a very simple way to explain why Trump would be in lousy shape up against Joe Biden at this point. When in fact, at the beginning of the year, he was not in that rough shape.

For a long time the idea is: Okay, these Democrats have taken over the suburbs. There’re a whole bunch of white soccer moms and minivan-driving dads out there who abhor what the president does. They just don’t like what they see. They can’t stand what he’s saying on his Twitter feed. But that’s okay because we’re going to make up for it amongst blue-collar whites in those key swing states. Well, that works when unemployment is between 3 percent and 4 percent. That doesn’t work when unemployment is in double digits, and it’s easy to see some white blue-collar workers saying, oh, you know what, I’m pretty disappointed with this presidency; maybe I should give this guy Biden a try. I don’t think the cake is fully baked yet. I don’t think that Trump is actually defeated yet. He just needs to run a very different campaign from here on out. And I thought your observation on the Corner the other day, Rich, where you know, asked by Sean Hannity this ultimate softball, what do you want to do in your second term? And Trump gives this meandering Mississippi River of an answer that talks about how experience is good and I didn’t think experience was good before. John Bolton’s a real SOB.

If I had the chance to talk to the president, I would say, “Mr. President, you need to start talking to people about what will happen in your second term and what you can deliver. People need a sense of what will happen. You need to lay out an extensive second-term agenda.” I think this argument you’ve seen from . . . I don’t often agree with Sohrab Ahmari about all these other guys who are saying, you got to put up a forthright defense of the American Founding, the American principles. You need to say, this is a good country. We have laws, and we’re not perfect, but we are seeing this violent anarchist movement that wants to tear down everything we have, and I will not stand for it. That’s a message that can win. But you can’t wake up every morning, watch the TV and complain on what you see on cable news. And you’ve got to get rid of . . . Anyway, so I’ll stop for my usual . . . I think the polls are that bad. I think he is on course to lose. I think there’s time to fix it, but he’s got to get focused, and time is ticking away right now.

Rich: It’s kind of funny. Some of Trump’s worst moments have been on Hannity. And they’re so bad exactly because Hannity has zero intention of making them bad. It involves whiffing on a softball. But Charlie, what do you make of the general terrain?

Charlie: I really like that the impression that Jim did of Trump was actually of Chris Mathews. They have similar hair maybe. That’s such a good Chris Mathews impression, Jim. What do I think? I think Biden is winning and is likely to win. I don’t think that Biden will win by ten points when it comes to Election Day. There’s a small part of me that wonders if we’ve been here before, but that’s not based on any intelligent analysis. It’s just the lizard part of my brain remembering how sure I was that Hillary Clinton was going to win and also remembering seeing some similar—

Rich: You weren’t 100 percent. In your defense, you weren’t 100 percent sure. There’s that moment I starkly remember we were sitting in your office. We might have been recording a podcast. We were recording a podcast. You had the sizable office back in the old NR world headquarters, and you were playing around with 270 to win or the RealClear electoral map. And I remember you pointing to 270 on the Trump side. And it involved those blue wall states. Playing around with those blue wall states.

Charlie: Yeah, so I should probably separate out the year because at this point in the summer of 2016 I was absolutely convinced that Hillary was going to win. And we were seeing similar polling at the state and the national level, and we were also being told that Republicans were going to lose the House and the Senate. I would need to look up the numbers, but I distinctly remember them being down by about seven on the generic ballot in the House. As it got closer to it, yeah, I started to play around with the map and to wonder. And then there was one incident which I think I texted you about, Rich, where I went to get a haircut in Connecticut, and all of the people who worked in this old-fashioned barber shop were either second- or third-generation Hispanic immigrants or Italian Americans. And all of them were for Trump. Every single one. And it made me wonder. Not that he won Connecticut, but there’s just something about the way they were talking about Trump and Hillary that made me wonder. But I didn’t think that Trump was going to win even on Election Day.

And I’m not saying that this is the same. I don’t think it is. But there’s a part of my brain that’s just been humbled by that experience. I also remember Romney being up seven points in the Gallup poll a lot in 2012. And I look at these Florida polls and sure, maybe Biden’s up eight. Entirely possible. It’s also true that Andrew Gillum was up over Ron DeSantis by seven points on Election Day in 2018. And that’s partly because of who votes in Florida. So there’s a part of me that is of the view that this is a bit early and that we don’t know. And the other contrarian view that I have is that Donald Trump is losing the people he is best suited to win back. If Biden were 80 to 15 or 80 to 20 with Hispanic voters, I would think, game over. But he’s not. Trump’s actually not doing as badly with Hispanic voters as you would assume. He seems to have kept about the same amount of black support, which is very low. But he hasn’t gone to a 1 or 2 percent. He’s at 8 or 9, and enthusiasm for Biden seems to be lower than usual. Where he’s really suffering is with seniors. Especially white seniors and white working-class women.

Now, I don’t think he’s going to, but if the election becomes an actual election, those are the people you would assume he would be best placed to win back. My problem in seeing him winning and the reason I think Biden is winning and will win, is that as Jim says, I’m not really sure what he can do. The economy’s not going to go back to where it was by the end of the year. He’s not going to gain a reputation for having guided us through the coronavirus storm by the end of the year. He is unable to articulate why he wants to be president for four more years. He’s very easily distracted. And although I understand why he’s criticizing the Supreme Court for its decisions over the last two weeks, “vote for me and I’ll appoint different justices than the ones I already appointed” is less likely than not to be a winning message. So I can’t quite see how he gets on track. I am nonetheless a little bit hesitant at this stage, both because of what happened last time but also because of who it is that he seems to be losing.

Rich: Yeah, so Jim, my problem is given what happened in 2016, I just don’t think I could ever count Trump out again. If these were the polls a week out, yeah. I guess I’d count him out. But we’ve got four months to go. The difference though is the nature of the opponent. Biden is not as hateable as Hillary Clinton. There was a stark number I believe in the last New York Times/Siena poll that had Trump down 14, which kind of seems like a lot. But just had Biden’s very unfavorable number. And it’s 20 something. I don’t know, 23 something. And Hillary’s at this point, I believe it said it was like at 46. And Trump is about 46 very unfavorable. So he’s where Hillary was. Now he was also where Hillary was in 2016 with a very a . . . But still managed to win. And the other thing that’s going on now is Trump’s a known quantity. He’s not the change candidate anymore. And he’s had these two crises that people have a really negative view of his handling of them. And absent having some other crisis that he handles in an unquestionably confident and deft manner that people really approve of, it’s hard to see how he can unring the bell of his numbers on the coronavirus and on police/race relations.

Jim: Yeah. Look, you’re not running on potential and promise anymore. You are a known quantity. I have a suspicion that a key ingredient of that unexpected 2016 victory came from the sense of, people who were not thrilled about the course of the country under the two terms of Obama, including quite a few Obama voters. People forget, the year heading into Election Day 2016, we had the San Bernardino shootings, we had the Orlando shootings. We had the shooting of the cops in Dallas right before the convention in Cleveland. I remember heading out to that Republican convention in Cleveland and being really afraid there’s going to be some mass shooting or some sort of terrible terror attack. There was a sense . . . If you look in the right places, there was a sense that the country was coming apart at the seams in 2016. Of course now it looks like the good old days. This is where the president has to govern where he is, and he cannot keep running this sort outsider insurgent campaign because you’re the president now. You’re in charge. You are the status quo whether you like it or not.

You need to make the case either that things are going well, which is going to be very, very tough considering the circumstances or probably the better argument is, I had things going really, really well and then this terrible virus came over here from China. And it’s a challenge like we’ve never seen before and haven’t seen in 100 years. And it forced us to shut down the economy that was the goose that was laying the golden egg. If you keep me in charge, once we get this virus under control, I can keep government policy in a direction to restore the golden goose. I can get us back, and you know the Democrats don’t do that. You know the Democrats are going to want to raise taxes. You know they’re going to want to do the crazy New Deal. Sooner or later, Joe Biden will succumb to the Bernie Sanders side. Joe Biden was not put on this earth to stand up to the left wing of the Democratic Party. Joe Biden is a back slapper. Joe Biden wants everybody to get along. Joe Biden will not stand up for you. He couldn’t even stand up for the businesses that were being trashed by rioters.

There’s an argument to be made. Except the president needs to focus and do that, and he can’t run on his own personal grievances. I think it was Ramesh who made this very good point. The Trump campaign of 2016 was about doing things. Building the wall, immigration security. We’re going to bring back U.S. domestic production. Just on the issue of China alone there was an enormous potential for the president to get on this. But he’s got to stop thinking about like, China is merely a—

Rich: I can’t believe you did this, Jim. I was just about to steal Ramesh’s point, and you stole it before I could get to it. I would express Ramesh’s point a little differently, or maybe this is a different point. Some of my best punditry is based on stealing Ramesh’s points, Jim.

Jim: Here you go.

Rich: Don’t hone in on my territory here.

Jim: I’ll spike the volleyball over to you.

Rich: I don’t know whether Ramesh has written this or just said it. But the thing about the 2016 campaign is Trump was hitting on issues that were under-discussed in our politics, underappreciated among the political elite. Fears of terrorism, concerns about illegal immigration, concerns about de-industrialization. Whereas this time around, very often his obsessions are just totally his obsessions or the obsessions of a very small group of people that might include us on this podcast. Probably includes a lot of our listeners. But Obamagate and Section 230 and these are not things that hit people where they live, and what I wonder about, Charlie, going back to Jim’s point in his first answer, that’d be great if Trump gave a speech about how this is a good country. You know, we have this wonderful Constitution. We need to defend our heritage. I certainly think he should give that speech. Any president should give that speech at any given point in time. But I just wonder if the toppling of the statues and all the rest of it infuriating and appalling to us, whether the average voter cares about it so much.

I’ve basically been on board Jim’s theory. There’s going to be some sort of backlash to what’s been going on. But I wonder if it’s just not top of mind enough for the average voter.

Charlie: So we have the opinion of the cause delivered by a Ponnuru, R. and joined in concurrence with Geraghty, J. and Lowry, R. I feel I should dissent just to make it a proper case. I think Ramesh is right, and I think that there is something to what you just said, Rich, but I think that that is only the case if you look at this narrowly. One of Trump’s problems is that he’s not eloquent. He is incapable of developing an argument, and he is incapable of nuance. And this is a moment that requires both. Now, four years ago just by talking about, just by mentioning topics that had been swept under the rug for so long, he had people sitting at home for better or for worse and saying, “I think that. I want to talk about that.” You could distill the entire immigration question, which is a complicated topic, down to “build the wall.” And people would hear, he cares about this. You could distill the question of China into a few soundbites. You can’t do that when you’ve been in charge for four years. Because you have to defend your record and explain why it’s different than the aspirant’s. But also this is a moment which calls for Trump to thread needles. The coronavirus question is complicated. You can’t just say, open up our businesses. You have to acknowledge this is a real threat. People have died.

And the same is true of these protests. You have to acknowledge that what happened to George Floyd was terrible, and historically African Americans have been persecuted legally, systematically. But also to defend some of America’s great figures and to defend America’s virtue. And Trump’s contributions thus far are to tweet three- or four-word sentences in all caps. LAW AND ORDER. KEEP THE STATUES. I think that there is a real appetite out there for a defense of America. But he hasn’t made it. He’s been oddly silent. For all of the worry about Tom Cotton, and for all the, in many cases, correct anger at what happened in the park outside the White House, Trump’s been fairly hands-off. There’s been no real moment where he has become the avatar of a movement that doesn’t think America is rotten to the core. At least not beyond his usual platitudes. And one of the problems with being so effusive as he is, is it loses its currency. If you say all the time, this is the best, this is the greatest, this is the most influential, this is the . . . People say, “all right, whatever.”

You look back to presidents that have capitalized on this, you look back to Ronald Reagan when he first ran for governor of California, and he ran against the students at Berkeley and indeed the faculty at Berkeley. Find the video on YouTube of him telling them that they were in charge of spoiled children. If you look at Richard Nixon in 1968. They were pretty clear. They weren’t battering rams, and they weren’t just mouthing platitudes or shouting three-word slogans. They were clear about what it is that they thought. I do think maybe the statues per se aren’t American’s No. 1 concern. But I do think that the sort of sentiment that was expressed by Drew Brees about the importance of the flag, what it meant to him, what he thought about when he looked at it. The generational argument. The Burkean argument for America. I think that is extremely poignant and extremely poignant for a majority and extremely poignant for what it’s worth, for an awful lot of minorities. I don’t like this narrative that we’re seeing. The white person’s country. That’s absolute nonsense.

It’s very important that we acknowledge disparities and historical persecution. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t lots and lots and lots of non-white people in this country who love it very dearly and who are glad to be here. Trump has an opportunity to be that guy. Joe Biden is not going to be a caricature. He’s not going to be a stereotype. He’s not going to burn the flag. So Trump if anything has to do it more than he would otherwise. But he’s not. He hasn’t sent in the authorities to shut down what’s happened to these statues. He hasn’t made a big speech about it. He hasn’t had a great sister–soldier moment where he just says no. He’s absent. And for all the talk about Joe Biden being in his basement, so is the president. And without that sort of action there’s just really no rationale for him beyond people saying, well we need him as a bulwark against Joe Biden. But that just doesn’t sell in the way that it did against, say, a Hillary Clinton.

Rich: Yeah Jim, there are, I’m going to say it, things that I don’t understand about Trump’s view of the presidency. But I think I do understand them. But rhetorically I don’t understand why given the opportunity to give a national speech about American history and our heritage and our heroes, I’d love to do that. I wouldn’t want to do any other presidential duty, but I want to do that. And by the way, our listeners are wondering, we’re going to talk about the Russian intelligence thing probably later in the week when we have a firmer bead on it. But I’d love to read the presidential daily brief every day. The best gossip basically around the world gathered by the most adept spies in world history and surveillance techniques served up in a binder on your desk every morning. Who wouldn’t want to read that? And the president of the United States, you can have dinner with anyone you want, you can reach out to anyone you want. Any historian. Any issue expert at your beck and call. And instead of sitting and watching Fox News, which I can do as an ordinary American every night not being president of the United States.

But these things don’t appeal to him because what he’s really . . . He’s in the job for the show. He wants to be the center of attention every day and to vent and say whatever he’s feeling at any given moment, no matter how reckless or heedless like that villages thing he retweeted. And be the center of attention and watch people talk about him every morning and every night and during a lot of the day on cable TV.

Jim: Yeah. Maybe we’ll talk about this a bit later in the podcast when we start talking about the coronavirus stuff, but there’s considerable evidence that Donald Trump doesn’t actually enjoy the job part of being president. He likes all the pomp and circumstance. He likes the title. He likes being the center of attention. But it’s not like you see him spending a lot of time hashing things out with legislators and trying to put together some sort of majority to pass a bill. He clearly has very little interest in the details of policy. At one point you had said something about all the different things he could talk about, and Charlie mentioned the tweets of three or four words all in caps that he does. Do you know what’d probably be helpful, guys? If he’d stop retweeting videos of his supporters shouting “white power.” That’s probably not helpful at a point of a national conversation about racial inequities and stuff like that. That’s probably not helping. Yeah, I know the other guy said you’re not supporting him, you’re not black. Somehow we’ve managed to pick the two least self-aware, sensitive, erudite septuagenarians to run for president this cycle. But there is a . . .

At the end when Trump couldn’t articulate that second-term agenda . . . Basically what is the cause? What does America get if it reelects Trump? More Trump. Him. Him being in the White House is the victory. So you’ve had some very interesting arguments of what does Trump really want to do in a second term? I think the first attack against Barack Obama from the John McCain campaign that drew blood was the celebrity ad. And Barack Obama was not merely a celebrity president, but he definitely leaned into it. Doing the picks on ESPN and doing the wacky videos with BuzzFeed and all the appearances on late-night talk shows and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. Barack Obama was a full-spectrum celebrity for a good portion of his eight years. And I have a suspicion that’s part of the job. That may have been how Trump thought the job was. And guess what? Being president involves a heck of a lot more than that. Particularly when you’re facing major crises of urban unrest and this terrible pandemic going around.

And if Trump doesn’t win reelection, I think a big chunk of the reason will be, he never really understood the job and never really wanted to do the parts of the job that are necessary to succeed in the job.

Charlie: I have never wanted to be president, which is good because I can’t be. But watching Trump gives me that strange instinct. You know when you’re watching sports and you just sort of kick your leg out to try and kick the ball in soccer or if you’re watching baseball and you see they’re just going to miss catching it, you sort of put your arm out? I just sit there watching Trump so often and sort of just wish I could substitute myself—

Rich: Yeah. I can do that better.

Jim: You just got this yearning for mind control. Just for a short period of time.

Charlie: I never felt like that before.

Rich: I can see as Charlie’s striding boldly in a black and white picture from the White House to St. John’s Church after the protesters had been tear-gassed. You’re like, I could have done that better.

Charlie: Yeah. I mean for a start, I think I would have said, if anyone is liable to get hurt or moved in order for me to do this, let’s not do it. It is a different feeling because with Barack Obama, I opposed almost everything he did. He was built in a laboratory to annoy me politically. But I never thought, “well I would do it better.” I thought, you have an ideology that I don’t share and I really wish you weren’t there. But with Trump it’s like watching someone drop the ball all the time. You just want to stand up and say, oh no, don’t say that. Oh no, don’t do that. Here’s . . . It’s just genuinely frustrating.

Rich: Jim Geraghty exit question to you. At this juncture, which is more likely in November, a Joe Biden landslide or another Donald Trump narrow Electoral College victory without winning the popular vote?

Jim: Joe Biden landslide. Didn’t take me very long to make that decision.

Charlie: Yeah. I think it’s more likely that there’ll be a Joe Biden landslide.

Rich: I’m going to say more likely narrow Trump victory because I think the race will close up, and I don’t see the landslide happening at this juncture. But I don’t totally discount the possibility that ten days out this race could really flip and could be an utter catastrophe for Republicans. But at the moment I’m more likely a Trump narrow victory, but obviously the most likely scenario is just a solid, non-landslide Joe Biden victory.

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