Every presidential election has its unique circumstances but this one is more extraordinary than most, not least in that it is taking place while the world struggles with a pandemic – and the United States is the country worst affected.
But even before the crisis began, both Republicans and Democrats saw this as an epochal contest. For Republicans, it is an opportunity to finish the job, proving to the Washington establishment — the “swamp” — that despite impeachment, investigations into Russian collusion and a chaotic, disorganised White House, with unprecedented turnover of administration officials, the president’s voters still have his back.
For Democrats, it is their only shot at curtailing the Trump presidency, correcting America’s path and — depending on which wing of the party.
Four months ago, Donald Trump’s odds of winning a second term had never looked better. After an easy acquittal in his impeachment trial, his approval rating had reached its highest level in three years, and was approaching the upper-40s range that delivered re-election to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Unemployment was at a 50-year low, setting him up to take credit for a strong economy. And Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, had won the popular vote in each of the first three Democratic primary contests.
But even by Mr Trump’s frenetic standards, the tumble in his political stock since then has been remarkably abrupt. First, Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s moderate and well-liked vice-president, pulled off a comeback for the ages, surging from the verge of dropping out to presumptive nominee. Then covid-19 battered America, claiming at least 110,000 lives and 30m jobs. And just when deaths from the virus began to taper off, protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd convulsed cities across America. Mr Trump’s callous response has widened the empathy gap separating him from Mr Biden into a chasm.
Even at the president’s high-water mark in February, he trailed Mr Biden by five percentage points in national polling averages. That deficit has now swelled to eight. Polls of swing states tell a similar tale. Mr Biden is not only ahead in the midwestern battlegrounds that elected Mr Trump the first time, but also in Florida and Arizona. Even states that Mr Trump won easily in 2016, such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio, look competitive. There is little question that if the election were held today, Mr Biden would win in a near-landslide.
The election, of course, will not be held today. In fact, more time remains between now and November 3rd than has passed since Mr Trump’s impeachment trial. And given the devotion of the president’s base, Mr Biden is probably approaching his electoral ceiling, whereas Mr Trump has plenty of room to win back soft supporters.
Indeed, there are good reasons to expect he will. First, the latest jobs report suggests that the economy may have bottomed out. In 1984 Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale by declaring “Morning in America”, though unemployment remained high by historical standards. Mr Trump plans to make the same argument. The Black Lives Matter protests could also backfire on Democrats if they rally white voters behind the “law and order” candidate, as they are thought to have done in 1968.
Given all this uncertainty, it is tempting to conclude that it is too early for predictions, and call the election a virtual toss-up. That is the view of bettors, who currently make Mr Biden a bare 55-45 favourite. Yet a hard look at the data and at history suggests that this is too generous to Mr Trump.
Syed Tahir Rashdi