The question arises, again and again, what are the polls telling us about the U.S. presidential election? Three specific data points tell us a lot.
First is the president’s number. In Fox News polling, pitting President Trump against former Vice President Biden over the course of the last 12 months, Mr. Trump’s number is 40% (see page 9, Question #11 of the linked polling data). That’s what he gets.
Sometimes it’s 38% and sometimes its 41%, but the number is 40%. If his number remains stuck at 40%, President Trump will be defeated in November by a wide margin. He needs to get his national number up to 45% to have a realistic chance of winning re-election in the Electoral College.
In the “key” battleground states, his number has to be 46% or better, in order to be within margin-of-error reach of 50%. To win Michigan, for instance, he’s going to need at least 49% of the vote there. A poll showing Trump “leading” Biden in Michigan 42%-to-40% doesn’t mean he’s two percentage points ahead of Biden. It means he’s seven points shy of his “number.”
In 2016, the “number” foretold the demise of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In national polls, she consistently led Trump by 5–7 points (roughly speaking) but her number was always shy of 50%. In the battleground states, her number rarely topped 46%.
If you’d just followed her number and looked at nothing else throughout the fall campaign, you would have said on the morning of the election: “it’s going to be a tie.” And you would not have been surprised when the results came in later that evening.
The second number is the President’s standing with senior citizens In 2016, among voters 65 years of age or older, Trump defeated Clinton by 9 percentage points (53%-44%). At the moment, he trails Biden among senior citizens by 5% (roughly 48%-43%)
Seniors are important because they vote. They are not apathetic. They depend upon Social Security and Medicare and they go to the polls to protect their “investment” in those programs. If the shift in sentiment amongst seniors doesn’t reverse itself over the next 6 months, Trump is a goner. His “senior number” must be at least 50%.
The third number is environmental. Richard Wirthlin, who served as President Reagan’s pollster throughout Reagan’s career in national politics, probably conducted 1000 polls for his principal client over the course of 20+ years. The first question he asked, in every national survey he conducted, was this (paraphrased): “Do you think think the country is on the right track or headed in the wrong direction?” This question became known as “right track/wrong direction.” Mr. Wirthlin called it “the national temperature check.” Political people followed the results obsessively. The old pros still do.
In the run-up to the 1980 general election, wrong track “beat” right direction by a better than two-to-one margin. In the run-up to the 1992 general election, wrong track “beat” right direction by a better than two-to-won margin. In both cases, the incumbents (Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush) lost by substantial margins.
The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked the right track/wrong direction question with different wording: “When it comes to the country these days, do you generally feel that things in the country are…(a) under control, or (b) out of control?” An astonishing 80% of the poll respondents said they thought “things in the country” were/are “out of control.”
That’s what is known in politics as a “headwind.” It’s very hard to win re-election when a headwind is blowing against you at 80 miles per hour.
Can the president turn it around? Of course he can. In the words of one veteran Democratic political operative, “Democrats can screw up a winning lottery ticket.” But the path is narrow. There’s little, if any, margin for error.
Which is why the president’s reportedly foul mood is fully justified. The numbers are aligned against him. The team around him is over-rated. Not-MAGA Republicans are side-eyeing the exits. The press is kicking his head in every day.
You can almost hear him thinking: “Maybe I should give Steve (Bannon) a call. What’s his number?”