CNN  — 

Reality counts. That may be the biggest message of the 2020 presidential campaign so far.

While President Donald Trump shuffles his campaign staff and more Republicans grumble that he has failed to formulate a clear message and stick to it, a wide array of public and private polls signal that he is facing a much more fundamental problem: A preponderant majority of Americans believe he has failed on the country’s biggest challenges, primarily the coronavirus outbreak.

And history underscores the risks for Trump if he cannot shake the negative judgments. While relatively few first-term US presidents have not been reelected, every elected incumbent who has lost since the 20th century began – a list that includes William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush – lost big. And their resounding defeats were rooted in voters’ convictions that those presidents had failed on the biggest challenges facing America at the time.

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Especially ominous for Trump is the finding in multiple polls that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has opened a double-digit lead in the race even though at least as many voters view the former vice president unfavorably as favorably. The large number of voters expressing unfavorable views of Biden as Trump escalates his attacks does worry some Democrats. But the fact that the former vice president is still leading so comfortably underscores how difficult it will be for Trump to close the gap solely by amplifying doubts about Biden if he cannot improve assessments of his own performance, particularly on the pandemic.

Trump’s deficit now “is not something you can tactically maneuver out of,” says Liam Donovan, a Republican consultant. “There has to be some kind of fundamental inflection point that gives people hope or reassurance that some form of normalcy will return.”

Put another way, Trump at this point appears to be running not so much against Biden as against the pandemic. And – as caseloads and hospitalizations soar, the death toll ticks up and the economy remains in turmoil – the pandemic is decisively winning that confrontation.

Presidents William Howard Taft (from left), Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost reelection by large margins.

Trump advisers, like aides to every incumbent president facing widespread public discontent, insist they will make the reelection campaign “a choice, not a referendum” by shifting attention from their own performance to the fitness of their opponent. In practice, for incumbents in both parties, that has proved exceedingly difficult to do.

In races involving a president seeking reelection, polls consistently show that the most powerful predictor is voters’ assessment of that president’s performance. Both the Edison Research exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations and the University of Michigan’s longer-running American National Election Studies underscore the same clear pattern: No matter the virtues or defects of their opponents, incumbent presidents win the vast majority of voters who approve of their job performances and lose the vast majority of those who disapprove, especially those who disapprove strongly.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for instance, in their reelection campaigns of 2004 and 2012, respectively, both won about 90% of the voters who approved of their performances and lost a slightly greater share of those who disapproved, according to the exit polls. Voters who “strongly” disapproved of Obama’s performance in 2012 voted 96%-1% against him, while Bush lost those who “strongly” disapproved of him by 97%-2%.

Likewise, President George H.W. Bush won just 5% of the voters who strongly disapproved of his performance in his 1992 loss and President Bill Clinton won only 2% of such voters in his 1996 victory, according to the American National Election Studies surveys. Back in 1980, Jimmy Carter did slightly better, but even so, 9 in 10 of those who strongly disapproved of his performance voted against him in his losing campaign that year, the same surveys found.

Incumbent presidents, these surveys have found, have generally had greater success at holding the more conflicted voters who report they “somewhat” disapprove of their performances: Carter, Clinton, and Bush father and son each won between about one-fifth and one-fourth of those voters, while Obama carried about 1 in 11.

Trying to change the subject

George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 is considered the most successful recent effort by an incumbent to tilt the campaign’s focus from his own record to the fitness of his challenger, then-Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Bush’s campaign and his allies tarred Kerry as a flip-flopper who had exaggerated his war record in Vietnam, while painting the incumbent as a resolute “decider” who voters could trust to stand by his convictions even when they didn’t entirely agree with them.

But even with that onslaught, Bush pushed his support only to 50.7% of the popular vote, at most a couple of points ahead of his approval rating, which stood just under 50% in many surveys that fall.

There was a “very limited universe” of voters who disapproved of Bush but might still back him because they liked Kerry less, “which made it a real challenge,” says Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to Bush’s campaign. “We had to thread the needle.”

Even with that advertising barrage against his rival, the exit polls showed that Bush faced almost complete rejection from voters who strongly disapproved of his own performance. That precedent underscores the challenge facing Trump, because “the vast majority of his disapprovers strongly disapprove of him,” notes Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

National polls released over the past week by Quinnipiac University, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Washington Post each found that at least 50% of voters strongly disapprove of Trump’s job performance (another 6%-7% of voters in each survey somewhat disapprove of him). Like his predecessors, Trump is facing a stampede to his opponent among those deeply discontented voters: In last week’s Quinnipiac survey, just 2% of voters who strongly disapproved of Trump’s job performance said they preferred him over Biden, while 89% picked the former vice president. (The rest were undecided or preferred third-party candidates.) In the ABC/Washington Post survey, Biden led 94%-1% among those who strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

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Abramowitz recently studied more than two dozen national surveys since early March that asked voters for their assessments of Trump’s overall performance and his handling of other issues, including the economy and the coronavirus outbreak. His conclusion was that voters’ views on Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak predicted their verdict on his overall performance far more than any other issue.

That’s another ominous trend for Trump, because polls have converged. Even as the President on Monday announced plans to resume coronavirus task force briefings and tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask, the Quinnipiac, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Washington Post surveys all found that almost exactly three-fifths of Americans disapprove of his response to the virus. Trump is now facing overwhelming repudiation in the campaign from those with that view: In the match-up against Biden, the ABC/Washington Post survey found Trump winning just 5% of those who disapprove of his coronavirus performance, while Quinnipiac put his support among them at 7% and the NBC/WSJ survey at 10%, according to previously unpublished figures provided by the pollsters.

“I think fundamentally this race is about the handling of a crisis right now, and he’s not handling it well,” says McKinnon. “That is blotting out the sun on everything else.”

While Trump has strikingly disengaged from the struggle against the outbreak, his campaign is investing heavily in efforts to discredit Biden, both by portraying him as a secret leftist and by linking him to the violence that accompanied some of the protests following the police killing of George Floyd this spring. Amid fiery images of urban looting, a new Trump ad declares flatly: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

Cracks in Biden’s lead?

Whether because of Trump’s advertising assault, Biden’s low profile since clinching the Democratic nomination or his intrinsic limitations as a candidate, the former vice president’s own image with the public remains equivocal. The NBC/WSJ and Quinnipiac surveys, as well as an earlier July poll by Monmouth University, all found that about 45% of Americans have an unfavorable view of him; the latter two reported that roughly as many Americans viewed him favorably, though the NBC/WSJ put that number much lower, at only a little over 1 in 3. Another recent Monmouth survey in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania found that slightly more voters there viewed Biden unfavorably than favorably.

These numbers have raised eyebrows among some strategists in both parties, who believe they could signal cracks in the foundation of Biden’s substantial lead over Trump, which CNN put at fully 12 percentage points in its latest poll of polls, released Monday.

“It’s a little bit of a canary in the coal mine,” says McKinnon.

GOP pollster Glen Bolger agrees: “If I were the Biden folks I would be nervous about my image,” he says, particularly because favorability numbers may predict a race’s direction before change is evident in the ballot test.

Most Democrats don’t express as much concern: They note that Biden’s favorability numbers, while mediocre, are much better than the strongly negative views Hillary Clinton faced from voters at this point, and that while voters who held negative views of both candidates in 2016 mostly backed Trump, Biden now leads comfortably among those “double haters.”

Still, Democratic pollster Sean McElwee, co-founder and executive director of the liberal group Data for Progress, says that while he believes “Biden is very much in the driver’s seat right now … the most likely scenario for tightening” is that Trump raises the share of voters who are negative toward both candidates and is then “able to claw back with that share of voters.”

McElwee’s answer is that all the groups in the Democratic constellation should be investing less money making the negative case against Trump – “Trump is already being hit by reality, so to speak” – and more on building a positive case for Biden, especially to younger voters of color. “Right now, there are just a lot of voters who [think] Biden is an old white guy that they’ve never heard of,” he says.

Such dismissive perceptions might threaten youth turnout for Biden. But in national surveys, voters unhappy with Trump are still giving Biden big leads, no matter their views of the former vice president. In last week’s Quinnipiac survey, for instance, just 39% of independents said they viewed Biden favorably, yet he drew 51% of their vote and led Trump comfortably. Even more emphatically, the poll showed Biden attracting almost two-thirds of the vote among those aged 18-34, even though only a little over one-third viewed him favorably.

Biden’s vote share against Trump did more closely track his favorability among some groups – including college-educated whites and seniors – but overall the results underscore the conclusion of analysts in both parties such as Donovan, who says flatly: “It’s not going to be a race about Joe Biden. It’s going to be a race about the President and how he is comporting himself down the stretch.”

Josh Schwerin, communications director and senior strategist for Priorities USA, the leading Democratic super PAC, likewise predicts that Trump will struggle to shift the race’s fulcrum toward any of the targets he’s raising, such as the “angry mobs” and “far-left fascism” he conjured in his belligerent speech at Mount Rushmore commemorating the July Fourth holiday.

“If their plan is to convince voters that the pandemic and recession is less important than Fox News boogeymen, it’s a losing strategy,” Schwerin says. “The most important thing Trump could do to improve his standing is to combat the pandemic, and he’s not doing that.”

What history tells us

In both parties, strategists find themselves deeply ambivalent about whether Biden can sustain his outsized lead in surveys. History points them toward different conclusions.

Recent history says no. Because the country is so highly polarized and closely divided between the parties, many tilt toward the assumptioin that the final result will be closer, maybe much closer, than polls now document. No presidential candidate has won by a double-digit margin since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

But the longer history of incumbents defeated for reelection points to the alternative possibility: that the race remains one-sided so long as most voters are dissatisfied with Trump’s performance.

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First-time incumbent presidents haven’t lost that often in American history: only five who were renominated did in the 19th century and five more during the 20th century. (No incumbents have yet lost in this century.) The 19th-century defeats sometimes involved relatively small shifts in support: For instance, after Benjamin Harrison narrowly beat President Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College in 1888 (while losing the popular vote), Cleveland came back to narrowly unseat Harrison four years later.

But from the turn of the 20th century, the swings have been much larger in races involving defeated incumbents.

Republican William Howard Taft saw his share of the vote collapse by more than 28 percentage points from 1908 to his astonishingly weak third-place finish behind winner Woodrow Wilson and independent candidate Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Republican Herbert Hoover lost almost 19 points off his 1928 vote share in his 1932 landslide defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The vote share of Democrat Jimmy Carter dropped more than 9 points from his 1976 win to his decisive loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980’s three-way race. In 1992, Republican George H.W. Bush’s share of the vote dropped fully 16 points from his 1988 victory, even though Ross Perot’s success at attracting some disaffected voters to his independent candidacy constrained the margin of Bill Clinton’s victory. None of those defeated incumbents attracted more than 41% of the vote, about where Trump is polling today.

The only losing incumbent who kept his race close was Gerald Ford in 1976, and he deserves two asterisks. He’s the only president on this list who was not first elected in his own right (he came to office after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974), and although he finished close to Carter in 1976, Ford’s vote share of 48% still represented a mammoth decline of nearly 13 percentage points from Nixon’s total four years earlier.

The story in the Electoral College is similar. Each of these defeated incumbents experienced a net decline of about 500 Electoral College votes or more: Bush, for instance, went from a 315-vote Electoral College advantage in 1988 to a 202-vote deficit in 1992. Carter went from a 57-vote advantage in 1976 to a 440-vote deficit in 1980. (Taft, Hoover and Ford suffered even greater declines from their party’s tallies four years earlier.)

In today’s highly polarized atmosphere, when partisan attachments are considered much more “sticky” than even a few decades ago, hardly any in either party can imagine such a lopsided result. But if the virus continues to rage, and most Americans continue to believe Trump has mishandled it, he could find himself in the uncomfortable company of Oval Office predecessors who also faced public judgments that they failed – and then paid a massive electoral price.