The New York Times noted Monday that the former vice president has held a lead of about nine points in national polls for over a month—the largest sustained lead for a presidential candidate in almost 25 years. One of the more remarkable entries into that data set was an ABC News/Washington Post survey released Sunday, which showed Biden with a 15-point lead among registered voters. It would be difficult for any rational and honest student of presidential politics to brush these numbers aside.
So naturally, Trump has tried. Beyond tweeting about his “silent majority,” the president recently told Fox’s Sean Hannity that his support has actually been “rapidly rising.”
“I think we are doing very well in the polls,” he claimed, “I think, if you look at the different states, I think we are doing very well.” In an interview with Breitbart on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence backed him up—by contradicting him. “I think polling is broken in America,” he said simply. “I didn’t believe the polls in 2016, and I don’t believe the polls in 2020.” The clues about how the White House actually believes Trump is doing aren’t hard to pick up. Campaign manager Brad Parscale was demoted last week, the highest-profile move yet in an ongoing campaign reshuffle.
But however far Trump falls in the polls, he can depend on the conservative press spinning things his way. Last week, for instance, a Monmouth survey found that 57 percent of voters in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won in an upset by less than a point in 2016, believe there are “secret voters in their communities who support Trump but won’t tell anyone about it,” with 27 percent believing there are “many” of them. This was not so much evidence that many of these voters actually exist as an illustration of how skeptical voters have become about polls since 2016. On his show last week, Rush Limbaugh was happy to suggest that Biden’s numbers in Pennsylvania would erode once “people figure out the extreme left-wing and radical agenda that Biden has adopted.” He also speculated that Democratic strategists themselves disbelieve the polls.
“If the Democrats were so secure in these polls showing that Trump is losing in double digits, come on, folks—and all over the place, in every poll—then we’d have a regular old election, and they couldn’t wait for it,” he said. “They couldn’t wait. We’d have early voting, we’d have people showing up on November 3rd. There wouldn’t be any talk of not voting [because] of Covid-19. They would want this election to happen as normally and as soon as it could. And, instead, they’re still focusing on cheating with dead people, ballot harvesting, mail-in voting.”
On Monday, Limbaugh added that Biden could also be brought down by unforeseen events, including an unexpectedly rapid recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. “What happens if the numbers start reversing and the number of cases goes way down, the number of deaths goes way down?” he asked. “Anything can happen between now and Election Day.”
There are at least two major holes in these rationalizations. The first is that to the extent that polls were misleading in 2016, it was the state polls—like, for instance, Monmouth’s poll of Pennsylvania—that were troubled, not the national polls that have been the subject of so much attention over the last few weeks. Clearly, Limbaugh and others are happy to suspend their skepticism about survey research if the results in question can be framed as positive for Trump. The second is that Limbaugh’s position is effectively both that Trump is already doing much better than the polls suggest and also that Trump had better hope that the coronavirus situation improves before November. To hear Limbaugh tell it, Trump both does and does not require saving.
This is the basic paradox conservative pundits are suspended within, although there are different takes on the events that both would and would not be responsible for a Trump victory. On Laura Ingraham’s show Friday, for instance, Fox contributor Sarah Carter argued that Biden’s climate plan will turn off struggling business owners once they catch wind of it.
“That’s going to initiate a bundle of regulations and really squeeze the small business owner and the workforce,” she said. “And that’s the restaurateurs that you’re talking about. These are the people—the American workforce.” On his show Monday, Sean Hannity focused on recent protests and suggested that Biden supports totally defunding the police. “In 106 days,” he said, “America—you, the American people—you are the ultimate jury. And if Biden, and Pelosi, and Schumer, and AOC, and Bolshevik Bernie, and Beto Bozo implement their plans, let me ask you a question: Who will you call when the police have been defunded and dismantled?”
Again, the balance that these inducements to the base have to strike is to keep voters live to the possibility that Trump might lose, without acknowledging that Trump has politically failed in any meaningful way. Some of the plays in the blame game are quite familiar now—Fox’s Lara Logan told Ingraham Friday that the media and pollsters now giving Trump long odds “just hate this president,” and “will do anything to stop him being reelected.” We’ve also heard Trump say on multiple occasions that the shutdowns in response to the pandemic have been engineered to tank the economy and hurt him with voters. But we have not heard Trump say straightforwardly that he’s truly in trouble. If he doesn’t, the conservative press and Republican voters won’t acknowledge it either, and a Biden victory will be seen as the triumph of undocumented immigrants, the liberal media, and ballot shenanigans over the will of the American majority.
The right’s pundits are right about one thing, though—Election Day is still a good while away, and it’s possible that the race will tighten. Whether Trump will do anything himself to improve his situation remains to be seen. The conservative press, for all their power, won’t be able to do it for him.