June was the worst month for any incumbent President in the modern era.
Joe Biden has just done something in 30 days it took Democrats the previous three and a half years to do.
Ok, perhaps if you asked the Kennedys, they would say November 1963 was pretty bad too, or April 1965 if you were the Lincolns. September 2001 and December 1941 were also historically awful moments in American history. But in terms of popularity for an incumbent President, June 2020 was the worst on record.
Much has been written about the impact of COVID-19 on the President’s popularity. Understandably so, as there is a clear correlation between his overall popularity and his handling of the pandemic. The website FiveThirtyEight reports 55.9% of respondents now view Trump unfavourably, the highest number since November 2017, a number that has been consistently rising since early April. While at the same time, the United States is bucking international trends which see other countries’ COVID cases declining; as the USA’s increases at a rate hitherto unseen. If that trajectory continues, the country is just weeks away from its three millionth national case and Trump’s popularity will likely further decline.
For some, this lays bare what they have always believed. That Trump was incompetent and unfit to lead. COVID is but another demonstration of a President who is sinking the country. But for others, this month has clearly been a moment of reckoning. Polls has shifted radically and quickly.
At the start of June, for example, fewer than 50% of Republicans said they believed wearing a mask was necessary, but by the end of June, 72% of Republicans were saying they wore a mask either some of all of the time. Losing those small battles is impactful. Not least because it was Trump and the GOP who decided to start a War on Science in the first place. But also because those losses are being reflected in the President’s reelection polls.
There are two specific points that should worry the Trump campaign here, beyond the sheer global embarrassment that his mishandling of this crisis brings to the United States. Firstly, the raw pace in which he has fallen in the polls, and secondly, the unprecedented lead Joe Biden has been able to amass over him.
On June 1, Biden held a 6.8% lead over Trump in all general election polls, by July 1, that lead was 9.4%. For context, Obama won in 2008 by a national margin of 7.2%, whereas Trump lost in 2016 by 2.1%. It is more important, therefore, to look at the specific states that allowed Trump to win despite his popular vote lose.
The problem for the President, however, is that he is losing ground just as quickly — or quicker — in those areas.
For brevity sake, I have chosen 11 states, all but one of which Trump won in 2016. They represent 187 electoral votes in total, 75 of which he was able to win in 2016 with fewer than 0.75% of the vote. In every single case the President has lost ground, but the speed in which it has happened incredible.
In arguably the five most competitive states there — WI, PA, MI, FL, and AZ — the Democrats saw their lead over Trump grow, on average, 4.8% points from from November 2016 to the start of June 2020.
Throughout the 30 days of June, that lead increased a further 4.32% points on average. In other words, Joe Biden did in one month something that had previously taken three and a half years to do.
The pace of change puts Joe Biden in an unprecedentedly strong position. Throughout June there have been several stories showing Biden with a lead never seen against an incumbent before. Moreover, what makes this lead stronger is that Biden gains are not just coming geographically, but demographically — amongst key constituents — and thematically — across policy areas such as China, healthcare, and whether the candidate supports ‘people like me’.
One of Trump’s most potent weapons is also becoming less powerful with Biden and the DNC out-raising his opponent for the second straight month. There are even reports of Trump trailing Biden in Kansas.
The ground that Trump has lost as an incumbent has never been seen in the era of modern polling, in fact, the last time an incumbent was ever this far behind, his name was Jimmy Carter and he was months away from losing in a landslide.
The table below shows that while large changes in polling month to month can occur, they typically occur when an incumbent President is not up for reelection. For example, Clinton increased her lead over Trump by 7.6 points during April 2016, Obama increased his lead over McCain by 5.2 points in July 2008, and Bush increased his lead over Gore by a huge 10 points in August 2000. When looking at the incumbent years of 2004 and 2012, however, the biggest jumps are smaller and come earlier in the cycle. Joe Biden’s poll increase in June 2020 therefore is historic and made even more powerful when one considers what states they are occuring in.
We are still five months away from the election. In other words, we are five months on from the Iowa Caucuses. A lot can change. But, as far as polls can be predicative at this stage, virtually nothing happened in June that will give Donald Trump cause for optimism.