An interesting point from Amy Walters.
President Trump is at the most precarious political moment of his presidency. Or at least, the most precarious since the summer and fall of 2017 when, in the wake of Charlottesville, the failure to repeal Obamacare, and escalating tensions with North Korea, the president’s approval ratings were mired in the mid-to-high 30s. It was only the success of the tax cut bill at the end of 2017 that brought Trump’s approval ratings back into the 40s, where they’ve remained ever since.
Today, his overall job approval rating sits at 41 percent. Not as bad as 2017, but certainly a dangerous place to be this close to re-election. Of course, this has been a consistent pattern with this president. Like a hammer which only knows how to bash a nail, Trump has one speed. He has never been interested in broadening his base — only in mobilizing it and growing it by targeting and turning out as many Trump friendly non-voters as possible. In states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where non-voters are more likely to be white and working class, the theory is that Trump can win by expanding the pool of Trump partisans, rather than trying to win back (or win over), more traditional and frequent voters.
As such, his ability to win re-election is centered on him being as close in his job approval ratings as his popular vote showing in 2016. The closer he sits to 46-48 percent job approval rating in October, the better chance he has to squeak out another narrow Electoral College win. But, when he gets much below 45 percent, his path to Electoral College victory gets more and more narrow.
Lots of folks short-hand the results of the 2016 election by highlighting Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton instead of his actual vote share. For example, hearing that Trump carried Iowa by 9 points sounds impressive, until you learn that he did so while taking just 51 percent of the vote. Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2012 vote share in more states than Trump over-performed Mitt Romney’s share of the vote. And, in 2018, GOP gubernatorial candidates in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa all took mostly the same percent of the vote Trump did in their states two years earlier. In Ohio, for example, Trump took 51.3 percent of the vote; two years later, Mike DeWine took 50.4 percent.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to understand if Trump’s vote share in 2016 was his ceiling, or whether he has room to grow.
Let’s take this idea and apply it to the data we have for Texas. Since the March primaries, in which Joe Biden effectively clinched the nomination, there have been ten public polls of our state:
All of them included an approval question on Trump in addition to the horse race question, though in a couple of the polls I really had to hunt through the data to find that exact question. Here’s how the approval numbers for each poll stack up against the “vote for” numbers:
Poll Approve Vote ====================== UT/TT 49 49 DT/PPP 46 46 UTT/DMN 45 43 Emerson 46 47 QU 45 44 PPP 46 48 PT/PPP 48 48 Fox 50 44 UT/TT 46 48 PPP 46 46 Avg 46.7 46.3
With the exception of the Fox poll (in which the “disapprove” number was 48 for Trump), the approval number and the “vote for” number are very close. What that suggests, at least if you agree with Walters’ thesis, is that Trump seems to have a ceiling on his support, which in Texas you may recall was only 52.2% of the vote in 2016. Trump’s margin of victory in Texas in 2016 was as large as it was in part because a significant portion of the vote went to other candidates. That’s usually not the case in presidential races here, as we see from the past four races in Texas:
Non-two-party vote totals Year Total ============= 2004 0.67% 2008 0.85% 2012 1.45% 2016 4.52%
Of course, in the three elections before that, Ralph Nader (2.15% in 2000) and Ross Perot (22.01% in 1992, 6.75% in 1996) had a much bigger effect. My point here is simply that the “none of the above” options this time around are much less known and thus much less likely to draw significant levels of support. That makes Trump’s struggle to get near (let alone over) fifty percent in Texas that much more urgent.
Now just because people don’t like Trump doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him, or that they will vote for Joe Biden. Biden does better than Trump overall in approval numbers, and unlike 2016 when Trump won a large majority of the people who disliked both of the major party candidates, Biden is dominating that vote this year. Still, he has a lower overall “vote for” number than Trump does, and as folks like G. Elliott Morris document, there are many dimensions to this question, and the underlying basics still favor Trump in our state. The big picture is that we’re in a close race here, and it won’t take much more slippage on Trump’s part to make Biden a favorite. It also won’t take much of a bounce on Trump’s part to put him firmly in the driver’s seat. For now, it’s close, and it will likely stay that way.