Biden's lead over Trump drops, now almost identical to Hillary's at this point in 2016

Biden's lead over Trump drops, now almost identical to Hillary's at this point in 2016

Political junkies were chattering about this comparison on social media this afternoon. On August 6, 2016, Clinton led Trump by 6.3 points. Today Biden leads by … 6.4 points.

If you look more closely at the 2020 graph, you’ll find that Biden led by 9.3 nationally as recently as July 27. In the past 10 days alone, he’s shed nearly three points. Harry Enten of CNN noticed the trend and published a piece this morning arguing that Trump had finally stopped the bleeding he’d been doing through June and July. Biden’s lead right now is identical to what it was on March 15, right about the time America was entering the age of COVID-19 and months before the protests over George Floyd’s death broke out. Trump has erased all of the polling damage he suffered in the interim — for the moment.

The fact that Trump’s standing hasn’t gotten any worse may come as a bit of a surprise given the rise of coronavirus cases and deaths nationally. Biden leads Trump by double-digits on who is more trusted to handle the virus, and the issue is a top one for voters.

The answer to this slight mystery may lie in the fact that issues surrounding race relations have faded from the news. Coverage of protests isn’t anywhere close to where it once was. And although voters don’t like Trump on coronavirus, they like him even less on race relations. So it isn’t shocking that Trump is holding or may have even gained a point.

That said, it’s tough to see how Trump could win if coronavirus is the big issue come voting time. As I’ve noted before, the candidate who leads on the big non-economic issue of the day pretty much always wins in elections not determined by the economy…

But in a year in which we are facing unprecedented circumstances, Trump is staying in the hunt.

It could be that Biden’s shrinking lead is due to a batch of quirky polls and that it’ll begin to grow again once those polls age out of RCP’s average. For instance, The Hill/HarrisX has him leading Trump 43/40 in its latest survey. No other pollster has him polling anywhere near that low (probably because The Hill/HarrisX is more generous than other outfits about letting people say they’re undecided instead of choosing one candidate or the other). Another recent poll from Emerson has Trump reaching 46 percent; the last time a different outfit had him that high was in May. So maybe Biden’s lead is sturdier than it seems at the moment and is being disguised by outliers.

Or maybe not. Three pollsters have had Trump at 45 percent or better over the last two weeks. He hadn’t seen consistent numbers as high as that in a long while.

There are two caveats about the 2016/2020 comparison, though. One is that the Democratic convention four years ago was held in late July. Clinton got a big bounce from it in early August, ultimately soaring to a lead of 7.9 points over Trump. Biden’s current lead over Trump owes nothing to a bounce of any kind. In fact, because the Democratic convention is shaping up to be entirely remote this year, there may be no convention bounce for either candidate. All of which is to say that the 2016 polling at this point in time shows Hillary at (nearly) her best and Biden at his recent worst. And yet they’re still even.

The other caveat is that the trajectories of these two races remain very different. Here’s the final year of polling of the Trump/Clinton race. Note the volatility, with Hillary swinging out to big leads and then having them collapse:

By September 19, the 6.3 point lead she enjoyed on this date in 2016 had fallen to less than one percentage point. Contrast the volatility of the Trump/Clinton race with the stability of the Trump/Biden race:

Trump has never led. Not only has he never led, he’s never been within four points of Biden. Of course, he doesn’t strictly need to lead: If he’s within two or three nationally on Election Day, as he was four years ago, he’s capable of threading the needle in the battleground states despite losing the popular vote. But it’s an open question if he can get to within two or three given how stable Biden’s lead has been and how passionate opinions are about Trump, pro and con. Who’s still making up their minds about him?

As for why Biden’s lead has slipped, I think Enten hit it on the head. Although he’s been ahead solidly all along, his lead ballooned when the anti-racism protests took off. As those protests have faded, some of the air in the balloon went out. Combine that with the spectacle of leftists laying siege to the courthouse in Portland, rising murder rates in big cities, and the fact that the “southern wave” of new COVID cases in the Sun Belt and California has eased a bit and Trump has returned to the bubble of contention.

To get fully back into contention he’ll need either meaningful progress on containing the epidemic, I think, or a series of unforced errors by Biden that alienate voters somehow. But what are the odds of that?

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