The Comeback Trump Needs Hasn't Happened in 72 Years—And He Has 100 Days

In 100 days, Americans will head to the polls—or in the time of coronavirus—mail in their ballot.

The marker represents a time when voters typically begin to tune into the election, but with offices, schools, stadiums and concert venues closed because of the pandemic, it would arguably be hard to find someone not attuned to the nation's future.

President Donald Trump, whom polls said in 2016 would not win the election, is trying to hold on to his office. But the state of the race now is dire for him, with Joe Biden enjoying a double-digit lead in national polls and sizable advantages in critical swing states. Anything could happen in the next 100 days, but as history shows, surprise wins and losses can happen. Look at Harry Truman. And Michael Dukakis.

In 1948, Truman, whom biographer David McCullough wrote "could be intemperate, profane, touchy, too quick with simplistic answers" and "could use racial and religious slurs" in private conversation, often sparred with the media and insulted his opponents. Sound familiar? Also like Trump, Truman was an incumbent losing by 10 points in the summer—even a Newsweek poll suggested a Dewey win. Truman needed the last 100 days of his campaign to make up for lost time—he would go on to win by 4.5 percentage points.

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Non-incumbent candidates who have a wide lead might not want to get too comfortable. In 1988, Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead according to a Gallup poll before going on to lose. George H.W. Bush, who also was vice president at the time, won.

In fact, since 1980, three presidential candidates who lead polls in July lost the popular vote, although two—like Trump—took the Electoral College, according to a USA Today analysis. In three other races, candidates with slim leads at this time won big—like Barack Obama did against John McCain in 2008, the analysis showed.

But when it comes to elected incumbents—unlike Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt after his death—presidents running for reelection have a record to be judged on. The only one who was down as much as Trump right now was Jimmy Carter, according to CNN, who lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide. He won only six states.

The only other incumbent who lost, according to CNN, was George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton, but his race is instructive to show just how little time is left for Trump to change his campaign's fortunes. While the first polls showed Clinton down by 40 points, the race was basically a tie by mid-July of 1992.

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And then there was 2016. Many supporters of the president scoff at today's polls, arguing that polls once showed Hillary Clinton would beat Trump. But Clinton won the popular vote, yet lost the electoral college. One factor that contributed to the surprise win was polling error—they lacked weighting for education because non-college-educated voters tend to support Trump more strongly. Those problems were fixed by the 2018 midterm elections.

Donald trump
U.S. President Donald Trump walks away after speaking during a news conference about his administration's response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at the White House on July 23, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Trump announced new guidelines for schools to re-open as the U.S. reported more COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks (915,000) than it did during all of June. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty

What Trump faces now is this: Clinton never enjoyed the polling leads that Biden does.

Marist College and Quinnipiac University polls, for example, showed Clinton leading Trump in Pennsylvania 39 percent to 38 percent in July 2016. A Real Clear Politics average of Pennsylvania polls in the lead up to the election showed Clinton up a similar 1.5 percent.

But a Monmouth University Pennsylvania poll released last week shows Biden leading 52 percent to Trump's 42 percent. A New York Times/Siena College poll last month showed the same exact lead for Biden, 50 percent to 40 percent.

The Real Clear Politics average shows Biden leading by 8.7 percent and he has also consistently polled over 50 percent in recent months, something Clinton never did.

So if Trump wants to avoid Bush's fate in favor of one like Truman's, changing the dynamics of the race is the easy way to do it, said pollsters who spoke to Newsweek.

"Historically, since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and realigned the parties, it's been very difficult to impossible for a Democrat to garner and hold a 13 to 15 point lead in national polling," said Cornell Belcher, Obama's pollster in both his races. But while wide leads are hard to maintain, Belcher said it's hard for Trump to change the state of the race with a pandemic hanging around in the lives of voters.

Belcher also said that Trump's white base is abandoning him—and that spells trouble.

"White college women are breaking away from the Republicans and Trump in a way that is unprecedented in modern politics," he continued. "Biden's up a solid double digits over Trump with college white women. It's very difficult for Republicans to compete in the suburbs if they're losing white college women by a tremendous margin."

However, the unprecedented nature of the year so far means things could change. For example, a vaccine for the virus could emerge in the fall, the economy could improve, or Biden could stumble in debates.

Pollsters who spoke with Newsweek also cautioned that the race will continue to see ups and downs in the polls.

And experts who spoke to Newsweek said the dynamics changing enough in the next three months to upend the race is unlikely.

"People listen to what the government says, they rely on the government, and they let them down, Albert Morales, the senior political director of polling firm Latino Decisions, told Newsweek. He said his own uncle is struggling with COVID-19.

"Even Republicans in Texas, they're angry now. It's personal," he said.

The Comeback Trump Needs Hasn't Happened in 72 Years—And He Has 100 Days | U.S.