The Beltway press has spent years normalizing many things about Donald Trump’s radical presidency. Now it seems to be normalizing Trump’s disastrous polling numbers on the eve of his re-election run. Any other incumbent in his lowly polling position would likely be getting hammered by the pundit class as it dubbed his presidency a failure. But not Trump.
In a jarring new poll last week, Quinnipiac revealed that Trump currently trails Democratic front-runner Joe Biden by a whopping 16 points, and trails all the leading Democratic candidates by wide margins. Trump struggles to get above 40% support against key Democrats in the new survey. And, “For the first time since President Trump was elected, more voters say that the national economy is getting worse than getting better,” Quinnipiac reported.
In terms of modern-day politics and re-election runs launched for the White House, that 16-point deficit versus Biden slightly more than one year out from Election Day represents a jaw-dropping number that for any other incumbent would have produced a tidal wave of negative press coverage, and an entire chapter of punditry prose about how Trump’s 2020 chances now appear to be almost nil. But most of the press seemed to shrug at the Quinnipiac results, which arrived on the heels of an Associated Press poll that found his approval rating falling down to a dreadful 36%. Why does Trump seem immune to awful polling numbers as his re-election campaign unfolds?
I’m certainly not here to make predictions about the 2020 election, or to insist that Trump can’t win because his polling numbers are so bad today. But I am here to point out that in basically every modern-era re-election campaign before this one, the press took its cues from polling data and religiously used it to assess the incumbent’s chance of victory. For some reason, under Trump, that cardinal rule of coverage seems to have been cast aside, as journalists often ignore Trump’s historically poor standing.
Note that this see-no-evil coverage comes just weeks after the press tried mightily to prop Trump up and falsely portrayed him as a president enjoying surging popularity. “Trump reaches highest approval rating of presidency in latest poll,” NBC News recently announced. ‘”Poll: Trump’s approval rating hits highest point of presidency,”The Hill insisted. “President Trump’s job approval rating reaches high mark in NPR/PBS/Marist poll after racist tweets,” USA Today proclaimed. And while noting his polling at a soft 44%, The Washington Post stressed that Trump had a real path toward re-election.
Yet none of those reports included any context explaining that Trump’s new “highest” still represents a historically low showing.
For a sitting president in his 10th quarter in office, the average approval rating is 52%, according to Gallup’s analysis. Trump currently sits near 44%. So why was the press so impressed by his middling showings? Trump has rewritten the record books in terms of ratings for a permanently unpopular president, yet the news media cheered when he temporarily inched up to 44% approval.
But here’s the context that really illuminates the hypocrisy of the current Trump coverage and his dismal 2020 polling numbers: Back in 2011, as President Barack Obama eyed his own re-election bid, the campaign press raised all kinds of alarms about his prospects when polls showed him tied with likely Republican opponents. “Barack Obama’s hopes of re-election to the White House next year took a knock on Tuesday with the publication of a poll showing him in a surprise dead heat with one of his Republican rivals, Mitt Romney,”The Guardian warned in 2011, dubbing the survey results a “shock poll.”
Then there was this memorable headline from a 5,000-word New York Times magazine piece that ran in November 2011, surveying his odds for re-election: “Is Obama Toast?” The Times announced that “Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog,” and that was treated as Big News.
Can you even image the hysterical 2011 coverage if a Republican had been polling 16 points ahead of Obama, the way Biden currently polls vis-a-vis Trump? The press would have completely buried Obama and told the Democrat not to even bother running for a second term because his presidency was effectively over. Yet look around today. Do you see that kind of doomsday coverage anywhere for Trump? I certainly don’t.
There’s no question that the media narrative for much of the 2012 election was, “Obama might lose!” Today, it’s “Trump might win!”
Trump’s polling numbers keep getting worse, though. In the must-win state of Michigan, he currently trails every single leading Democratic candidate, including Biden, who leads Trump by double digits. “The new poll also indicates that as many as 20% of Republicans could be looking to vote for someone else,” the Detroit Free Press reported this week. In Virginia, which for decades was considered a Republican stronghold, Trump’s approval has cratered to 27%. Even a recent Fox News poll contained awful news for Trump, reporting that he didn’t break 40% support against any of the top Democratic candidates.
Despite that torrent of bad news, The New York Times recently published a front-page piece claiming that it was Biden who was suffering polling woes. Yes, the same Biden who has a 16-point lead over Trump, according to Quinnipiac. Specifically, the Times claimed that Biden suffered from a lack of “enthusiasm” among Democratic supporters. In other words, Biden was leading, but he wasn’t leading the right way, the Times suggested.
Question: Would most candidates rather be up 16 points against the sitting incumbent president and suffer a so-called enthusiasm gap, or trail the incumbent but be awarded enthusiastic support?
Beltway journalists love to portray Trump as supersavvy and always two steps ahead of Democrats. But that’s not what the actual polling shows today.