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Electoral outlook: Once again, Trump’s path to victory is narrow

Biden may only need one of the toss-up states

Tweets can’t do it. A Sharpie couldn’t do it. Impeachment couldn’t do it. Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic can do it. Apparently nothing can fundamentally alter public opinion about President Donald Trump. And that puts the incumbent in a precarious political position as he seeks a second term.

As of Sunday, Trump’s national job approval rating stood at 45 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove, according to the RealClearPolitics average. That’s worse than a week ago, when his rating was 47 percent approve/50 percent disapprove and some people were hailing his improving numbers. Trump’s standing today is virtually identical to where he was a month ago (44 percent approve/53 percent disapprove) and two months ago (45 percent approve/52 percent disapprove), when the dust had settled from impeachment.

The bottom line is that Trump is a fundamentally polarizing figure. The vast majority of Americans have already decided how they feel about him, whether they think he’s doing a good job or not, and whether they’re going to vote for him in November. Therefore, they view his actions through that predetermined prism.

This dynamic is nothing new. Trump’s immobile job approval rating has been one of the most consistent data points over the last three years. It’s also part of the reason why the president didn’t enjoy a sustained boost when the coronavirus became more of a visible threat.

Trump has a limited political ceiling because he will never get significant crossover support. Even if the fallout is less severe than expected, Democrats will criticize the administration’s slow response, or fall back to other sins they believe the president has committed during his first term. After a bitter campaign and three years in office, Trump has lost the benefit of the doubt with a large segment of the electorate, and that’s virtually impossible to regain.

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If Trump were going to benefit from a rally-around-the-flag effect, which would require Democrats to approve of the job he’s doing, it probably would have happened by now. Not only did President George W. Bush start from a stronger position (his national job approval rating was 53 percent approve and 40 percent disapprove on Sept. 11, 2001, according to RealClearPolitics), but the dynamic changed quickly. A week after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush’s job approval rating skyrocketed to 81 percent approve and 12 percent disapprove. Trump is well beyond that window even as some governors have seen significant improvement in their standing.

Loyal base

On the other hand, if Trump has a low ceiling, he has a high floor: His base is unlikely to waiver. If the situation deteriorates more than anticipated, Republicans will blame China, the Democrats’ focus on impeachment, the media, and state and local governments instead of their commander in chief. A solidified and energized base limits Trump’s electoral floor.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic is a historic global event, the most important political event over the last couple of months was Democrats coalescing around the likely nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden. He’s not a perfect candidate, but he makes it more difficult for Republicans to frame the election as a choice between socialism and capitalism, a tactic that would have been more potent if Bernie Sanders topped the ballot for Democrats.

The greatest danger for Trump is likely to be the economic fallout. For independent voters who don’t blame the president for the pandemic and don’t criticize his response, a loss of faith in the economy and Trump’s handling of it leaves them without a reason to overlook his Twitter feed and personal style. Even if the physical toll on the country isn’t as bad as expected, it’s unlikely that the economy recovers to anywhere near its previous heights by Election Day.

Changing race ratings in the middle, or even beginning, of a crisis is usually not the best timing. But due to the uncertainty in the Democratic nominating contest, Inside Elections hadn’t touched its Electoral College ratings in almost a year. There is still uncertainty, and the race certainly isn’t over, but these ratings now more accurately reflect the state of play.

States move toward Biden

By winning the same states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and adding Michigan and Pennsylvania, Biden would have 268 electoral votes. Then he would just need to win one of the Toss-up states, including Arizona, Florida, North Carolina or Wisconsin. None of those is a guarantee, but having options is a good thing if you’re the Democratic nominee.

Five states are in a better position for Democrats compared to a year ago. Those include Arizona (now a Toss-Up), Georgia (Lean Republican), Texas (Likely Republican), Maine (statewide, Likely Democratic) and Nevada (Likely Democratic). One state is better for Republicans: Minnesota, now rated Lean Democratic.

Trump’s path to victory looks largely the same as it did in 2016. If he wins reelection, it will be through the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. We’re still months away from knowing the true impact of the coronavirus on the size and shape of the electorate. But one thing seems clear: More voting by mail will increase the likelihood that we will not know the outcome of presidential election on election night, and it could take days or weeks to count all the votes.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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