The polls are real, and there is no doubt Trump is facing a serious challenge. But those polls don't tell the whole story. Recently, we have seen a number of indicators to suggest not that the polls are completely wrong, but that the race might change in its final days.
Start with a jaw-dropping number from Gallup. In a survey taken Sept. 14-28, the polling organization asked voters their version of the famous Ronald Reagan question: "Would you say you and your family are better off now than you were four years ago, or are you worse off now?" A whopping 56% said yes, they are better off now. Remember that the poll was taken recently, after months of anxieties associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdowns and the accompanying economic plunge. And a solid majority still said they are better off today than before Trump was elected.
Trump's number was better than any other recently reelected president. In December 2012, just after Barack Obama was reelected, 45% told Gallup they were better off than four years earlier. In October 2004, just before George W. Bush was reelected, 47% said they were better off. Trump's 56% is better than both.
Normally, one would expect a president in office at a time when a strong majority felt better off than four years earlier to be in a strong position for a second term. Yet Trump is trailing Biden by 10 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls and is also behind, by various figures, in key battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
And then there's this: Gallup also asked, "Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with [Trump or Biden] on the issues that mean most to you." Forty-nine percent said they agreed with Trump on their most important issues, while 46% said the same thing of Biden.
And then there's news that in some critically important states, Republicans are strongly outpacing Democrats in signing up new voters. "Of the six states Trump won by less than 5 points in 2016, four -- Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- permit voters to register by party," NBC reported at the beginning of this month. "In all four states, voter registration trends are more robust for the GOP than four years ago." More robust than Democrats, too. In Pennsylvania, NBC reported, Republicans added 135,619 new voters this summer, while Democrats added 57,985.
Then there is Trump's job approval rating. In the new poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, it is 45%. While by no means great, that is higher than his position in the polls versus Biden. Which leads to the question asked by Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende in an interview with The New Yorker: "Who are these people that approve of the job he's doing but aren't going to vote for him?" Perhaps they are people who are going to end up voting for the president, no matter what they may say now. "There are people who like his policies, but hate his persona," Trende continued. "But it could also be that these are voters who are saying they're undecided, but they really aren't."
So why isn't Trump leading in the polls? Or at least even in the polls? In part, because so many voters say they are turned off by his personality, his manner, his style, his public performance in office. In the same poll in which 56% said they are better off than four years ago, Gallup also asked whether voters "agree or disagree that [Trump or Biden] has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have."
Forty-nine percent said Biden has those qualities, while 44% said Trump has them. Other polls, while finding that voters see Trump as a strong leader, have highlighted voter unhappiness with his personality.
In The New Yorker, Trende was asked about Trump's handling of coronavirus -- polls show the public strongly disapproves of it. But the polls in New York State also show the public strongly approves of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of the virus, which has been an indisputable disaster. How to make sense of that? "People want to hear presidents giving moving speeches, even if what they do isn't that effective," Trende said. "And [Trump] just couldn't do it."
Trende went on to note that, of the major things Biden is promising to do to defeat coronavirus, Trump is already doing them. But for many voters, Biden outlines his plans in a more pleasing, palatable way than Trump. "That's what people want," Trende said. "To just say you're going to do something to make it better and look like you care. And Trump's just incapable of that."
Which leads to the great irony of Trump's current status. He had an advantage over other 2016 contenders because of his celebrity, because he had for years been the star of a highly rated television show. But now he is struggling because, even though he can point to solid accomplishments -- on the economy, deregulation, judicial appointments, tax reform, defeating ISIS, reducing illegal immigration and more -- he has not given some Americans the performance they want. They want a president who acts like their vision of a president. Trump doesn't.
And that, more than issues, more than whether voters are better off today than they were four years ago, might be the deciding factor in 2020.