DANIEL VAUGHAN: It’s crunch time for Trump

Starting off this Monday, there are 15 days left until the 2020 General Election is here, and we end another cycle. If President Donald Trump is going to make a move in the polls, the time for that to happen is now. He needs to narrow the polling gap and get the election back into a puncher’s chance range; otherwise, it’s going to be a short election evening. We’ll know the results quickly, and it’ll be Democrat Joe Biden in a landslide.

There’s been considerable chatter in election pundit circles that Trump has not yet made a move in the polls, tightening the race as he did in 2016. But people forget how late the polls closed for Trump in 2016. On October 18, 2016, Hilary Clinton hit one of her peaks in the polls, hitting 49% in the RealClearPolitics averages, with a 7.1 point lead over Trump.

On October 22, 2016, Clinton still held a 6.1 point advantage over Trump. But every day after that, Trump’s lead rapidly narrowed over Clinton. By November 2, 2016, polls showed a dead heat with Clinton’s lead falling under two points. The last two weeks of the campaign ended up deciding the race, as late-breakers went for Trump and Clinton’s voters, rocked by the infamous Comey letter to Congress, were depressed, and didn’t vote in the numbers Trump’s base did.

In pure electoral numbers, we know Trump doesn’t need the same numbers he got in 2016. If you’re drawing the map up, it’s possible Trump holds the same electoral advantage, loses more voters in states that don’t matter, and win. Elections analyst Dave Wasserman made precisely this argument:

Democrats’ worst nightmare came true in November 2016 when Hillary Clinton captured 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump but he still comfortably prevailed in the Electoral College, 306 to 232. As much as they would like to purge that outcome from memory, Democrats would be unwise to write it off as a fluke: In 2020, it’s possible Trump could win 5 million fewer votes than his opponent — and still win a second term.

The final results led to Clinton holding a 2.1 point lead in the so-called “popular vote,” because she piled up votes in states that didn’t matter to the final result, like California, New York, and Texas. If Trump can win the electoral college with a five million vote gap between himself and Biden, that’s likely going to translate into a Biden poll lead more in the four- to five-point range.

If Trump is going to do the same thing, those numbers need to start moving this week and next, and swiftly.

Starting this week, Trump sits at 42.4% in the RealClearPolitics average. That’s not far off from where he ended in the 2016 polls of 43.6%. He hasn’t lost that much ground in the polls. Biden is just polling higher than Clinton ever was at this point. Biden’s last peak in the polls was October 11, 2020, at 10.3 points over Trump. As we enter this week, that lead has slightly shrunk to 8.9 points.

Before the first debate and Trump’s brush with COVID-19, the race had tightened on September 29, 2020, to 6.1 points. In general, this race has stayed between six to eight points. If the 2016 race had a natural gravity of a Clinton two to four-point lead, the 2020 race has had Biden’s natural gravity as a six to eight-point lead. The question is: can Trump narrow that below six points?

We’re going to get the answer to that question soon. If you’re Trump, you need a negative story on Biden to hit now and dominate every news cycle between now and the election. In 2016, the email dumps and Benghazi hearings forced Clinton to ride the news cycles. At the same time, Trump faded into the background, and people were reminded why they disliked Clinton. Trump needs the same to happen to Biden, and the sooner, the better.

The only other card Trump can hope for is that his campaign is pulling in new voters, who pollsters typically don’t count. Traditional polls only include people who have voted in past elections, not new voters. Trump’s campaign has had a constant ground-game in battleground states, whereas Biden has held back on that front due to the virus. If ground games matter, this could end up being an unseen boost for Trump.

And on polling, to our best knowledge, the polls are accurate. That said, one great unknown is whether or not the coronavirus is impacting polling quality. We’ve never polled during a global pandemic. Do people respond the same way? Are pollsters getting a typical voter on phone calls? We don’t know. Right now, everyone is proceeding assuming standard polling methodology is good, and there’s little reason to doubt that. But if there is a big miss, look for coronavirus impacts on polling to be part of the explanation.

If none of these issues matter, Biden holds onto a large lead, and those polls are accurate, then there’s only one scenario that plays out election night: Biden wins in a landslide. We play many of these “what-if” scenarios for Trump because he pulled the upset in 2016. Biden’s lead has been so steady that examining Trump’s possibilities is the only exciting thing to do. But a Biden landslide is not off the table.

In fact, those are likely your only scenarios late election night. Either we’re looking at a long night and a narrow Trump win, or a short night and a Biden landslide. Either way, if Trump wants a shot here, he needs polls to tighten over the next two weeks. This is when it happened in 2016, and Trump needs the same thing again this year.