President Trump’s job approval rests just 2.5 points below that of former President Barack Obama’s at the same point in their presidencies, which in 2012 was less than six months before Obama trounced his Republican opponent in the general election.
It’s a potentially hopeful sign for the president as he enters a tough reelection campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden amid a raging pandemic and a worsening economy.
On May 14, 2012, Obama’s job approval rating hit 48%, with Trump on Thursday reaching 45.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics national average. Obama went on that year to defeat Mitt Romney by 3.9 points in the popular vote, 51.1% to 47.2%.
“I’m still convinced there is a shy Trump supporter, a hidden Trump vote, that voters who are unwilling to tell somebody on the telephone that they’re supporting him are going to vote for him,” pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies said. “I’m convinced that number is at least 2 to 3 points.”
Trump’s average disapprove numbers remain high, however, at 52%.
If Trump is in Obama’s range as far as national job approval ratings, he is in a range where he can be reelected, said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “The challenge is going to be, does Trump run a really good [reelection campaign]? How will his reelect compare to Obama’s? Obama was able to destroy Romney’s image.”
Mackowiak pointed to voters who dislike either candidate. “The single most important thing to look at right now is that for people who disapproved of Trump and Hillary: They hid the numbers, but they went for Trump pretty decisively,” he said. “The people that dislike Biden and Trump, they’re going for Biden about 6 to 1. That’s got to change. He certainly needs to raise Biden’s negatives.”
He added: “I think that’ll happen as Biden gets out there. He’ll make more mistakes.”
Newhouse agreed that Biden needed to enter the frame to balance the race.
He said that Trump fares better with an opponent, but because of COVID, Biden is staying hidden. “The sooner it moves from a referendum to a choice between Trump and Biden, it’ll be a tighter race.”
Biden is running a “Rose Garden strategy,” only the garden is in his basement. The strategy refers to a president who doesn’t leave the White House to campaign and is usually reserved for incumbents “who feel pretty good about themselves.”
Polling from 17 key states shared by the Trump campaign with surrogates on Tuesday showed Trump closing in on Biden. Trump’s approval was up 9 points from three weeks earlier, now tied with Biden at 48%.
“Biden’s folks like to look at national polls. And Trump likes to look at battleground state polls,” Republican pollster Bradley Blakeman said.
“Democrats did the same thing with Hillary,” he said, and likened Trump to “the old Aesop fable, ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’”
On a national level, Trump was always behind Hillary, Blakeman noted. “But what Trump understood was that it doesn’t matter what the national polls say. It matters how you’re doing in electoral vote counts in battleground states. And he was doing the math and understanding that he could lose the popular vote, which he did.”
Confidence in Trump’s ability to rebuild the economy polled higher among voters than the prospect of Biden doing so. He led the former vice president by 15 points.
Newhouse believes that the general election will be about the economy and the direction of the country come November. “Americans want to look through the front windshield,” he said.
“Come election time, Americans are asking themselves, ‘Am I better off today than I was four years ago?’” Blakeman said. Under the circumstances, “The answer is no. But the question I think this cycle is going to be, ‘Do I trust the president to take us through this crisis to better days?’”
Three states stick out as crucial for Trump: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
“They’re going to be hot spots,” Blakeman said.
“The reality is Trump has a very narrow path to reelection, but it is a clear path. And it is basically the same map as last time,” Mackowiak said.
“People want to talk about Georgia and Arizona. It’s Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — those three alone,” Mackowiak said.
He added: “It will depend a lot on where we are in the fall, in terms of the economy and with coronavirus, but I think whoever wins those three states is overwhelmingly likely to be the next president.”
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