President Donald Trump points to the crowd as he leaves the stage at the end of a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Sometime over the weekend, ABC News received leaked internal polling from the Trump camp, showing abysmal performance against top Democrats in the 2020 field, and in the double digits. This followed a New York Times report from early last week saying that the Trump camp was panicking over numbers.
In response to these stories, the Trump campaign fired its pollsters and appear to be starting over on that front.
Now, there are two scenarios here. The first is that the Trump campaign is playing a long-term game using the classic Sun Tzu maxim of war: “Appear weak where you are strong, appear strong where you are weak.”
It is possible, I suppose, that the team is banking on Democrats thinking their numbers are going up and Trump’s are going down and it’s all because of their issues – like abortion, impeachment talk, etc. – finally breaking through to the general public and winning them over. This theory isn’t impossible, by any stretch, and it would be wonderful to see it played out.
However, it assumes that the entire Democratic Party will fall prey to this ploy, and given a lack of general response over the weekend to those internals, no one seems willing to jump fully in yet… except maybe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is now openly calling for war against Nancy Pelosi.
But there is a simpler answer here: Trump really is down in internal polling.
If that is the case, then people like John Harwood must be feeling pretty damn good right now, as they’re all saying the same thing:
nobody needs “internal Trump polling” to see that he’s in deep trouble and will have a very hard time winning re-election
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) June 15, 2019
Harwood may have a point here… if decades of recent American presidential history didn’t disagree with his assumption here: That polling a year out says anything at all about the state of the presidential election.
In February of 1995, Dole was ahead of Clinton by six points. In June of 2003, Joe Lieberman was the guy who was sure to win the Democratic nomination and George W. Bush was beating him by 16 points. Bush’s father, H.W. Bush, was trading the top spot with Ross Perot on several occasions in the summer of 1992. Prior to that, it was up in the air.
Remember how those elections turned out?
If we expand our search to years where the incumbent wasn’t up for re-election, at roughly the same point for the 2008 election that we’re in now (so, June 2007), Hillary Clinton had the lead in most of the polls, though in a few, Rudy Giuliani was beating both her and Barack Obama for the presidency.
So, at best, you can say that, based on history, polls this far out have about a 50-50 shot of predicting the right winner. If you were to take a dart board, make one color Trump and the other color a generic Democrat, and give a drunk monkey with an eyepatch a dart, you’ll either pick a winner or take out the bartender.
Polling has that effect on people.
Where Harwood screws up is being so sure of his assertions that he leaves little room for error. Let’s say that, sure, Trump is in deep trouble. I can believe that, much in the same way I can believe Trump could be tricking all of the Democrats and people in the media into just thinking he’s down when he’s really not. What I can’t believe is that this is set in stone.
We are a year and a half out, folks. No poll in the world is going to measure the exact right feelings of the electorate, truly capture what the American people are considering when they head to the polls, or even what’s for breakfast on election day. There are dozens and hundreds and thousands of factors that will cause the issues to change and the moods to shift.
Sure, Trump takes a beating when it comes to character – I readily admit that I take part in that – but you cannot deny that his administration has had a positive impact on the economy.
Do you think the American people are concerned with Trump the person or their personal financial situations right now? I can almost guarantee you can ask all the questions you want about his character, but if the economy is still trucking along, it won’t mean much come 2020. It’s the jobs people will consider. They either lost theirs or knew someone who lost theirs during the recession, and now virtually everyone they know has a job. That will (likely) still be the case in 2020. And that’s the case Trump should make.
The only economic negative you could possibly predict prior to the 2020 election is a correction in the market. When the stock market rides high for as long as it has, it is always due to have a correction. Those high numbers will tank – they have a couple of times already this term – and people in the media and the Democrats will all jump on and say “See? It was all a lie!” Even though it’s really not. It’s a regular market occurrence.
We’re near full employment now, so you won’t see as many new hires in the coming jobs reports. Why? There are not as many people left to hire. Again, there will be people who cry out that Trump is actually hurting the economy, but that’s also a lie.
That’s just one area of uncertainty that we know will have an impact on the election. If the Democrats do publicly pursue impeachment, that will be another factor.
Abortion? I know the Democrats will overreach there.
Immigration? Doesn’t look good now, but what if he actually gets something done or Mexico follows through on their agreement with the U.S.?
Healthcare? Does not poll nearly as well when you add context (like how people’s taxes will be affected).
And, speaking of taxes, you can say all you want about who really benefited from Paul Ryan’s tax plan, but we know that much of the American public celebrated getting a bigger refund this year.
That’s just the big issues. Consider Iran’s shenanigans last week and how those might play out. Or the trade war. Or any number of smaller-but-also-important issues we’re seeing in the political headlines today.
You can’t say that Trump’s in trouble. Not definitively – or near definitively, as Harwood does – and not without considering all of the above issues and more. To try and be so certain about this right now is a stupid practice, lazy and completely devoid of intellectual integrity. You might expect journalists with national platforms to be more responsible than that, but hey, those engagements on social media are money, baby.