4 Months Until Election, Trump Worst-Polling Incumbent in Nearly 3 Decades

The presidential election is just four months away and President Donald Trump continues to fall behind Democratic rival Joe Biden in the race to win the White House.

In an averaging of polls published by RealClearPolitics, Biden led Trump by 9.3 percentage points, at 49.3 percent to 40 percent.

Individually, some polls have put Biden as far as ahead as by 12 percentage points, with a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk poll putting the former vice president ahead of Trump by 53 percent to 41 percent.

For experts closely following the race, the odds are not looking in the president's favor, with Trump claiming the title for worst-performing incumbent in nearly three decades.

The last time an incumbent polled as low as Trump around this time in the election race was in 1992, when the late Republican President George H.W. Bush sought re-election in a three-way race against Independent Ross Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton, who would go on to win.

To date, the 1992 election is the most recent presidential race in which an incumbent lost.

"Right now, Trump is kind of right around where the elder Bush was," Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor and analyst at U.S. analytics and advisory firm Gallup, told Newsweek. In Bush Sr.'s case, he said, the then-incumbent's approval ratings "never changed enough to reach a place where [he] could actually win the election."

According to Gallup's polling data from the 1992 race, in the months of June and July, Bush Sr. was polling in the low to mid-30s, with the exception of a spike following the dramatic, but temporary, mid-July exit of Perot, who would later re-enter the race in October.

Upon Perot's exit, a redistribution of support saw Bush Sr.'s approval ratings spike up to 48 percent before dropping back down again to the mid-30s.

Many would later blame Bush Sr.'s re-election defeat on Perot's return, asserting that the incumbent might have had a better chance if the businessman had not returned and further split the vote.

However, others have pointed out that in the months following Perot's departure from the race, support for Clinton surged to the mid and high-50s, while Bush Sr.'s hovered around the high-30s and low 40s before dropping again amid Perot's return.

Former Democratic President Jimmy Carter saw his polling numbers drop to the 30s around this time in his re-election bid in 1980, according to Gallup polling data.

Carter and then-Republican challenger Ronald Reagan ran a relatively narrow race, despite Independent John Anderson running as a third candidate. Reagan would be successful in the end, however, making Carter a one-term president.

At this rate, Jones said, "if things don't change [for Trump], he's certainly looking like a one-term president" too.

And in this case, he said Trump will not have a third party to blame if he loses the 2020 election race to Biden.

"That's the one thing that's a little different now, for Trump, that I think makes his odds longer," he said. "Even if his approval rating doesn't improve these next months, there is no third party candidate running as in 1992... which is what everybody invokes if they're losing. There's no other candidate to split the vote, so it's all going to go to Biden."

At this point, Jones said, "I think it would take something seismic" in order for Trump to secure a victory over Biden.

David Brady, a professor of political science at Stanford University and the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, told Newsweek that he agrees that Trump's current chances of re-election do not look good.

In March, he noted, Trump had been better situated, fresh from being acquitted by Senate in his impeachment trial and appearing, at least, at the time, to be taking the coronavirus outbreak seriously.

In the short time that has unfolded, Brady said he believes Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as his response to protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest on May 25, may seal the president's fate.

Outside of a "seismic" event or Trump managing to regain support on his own, however, Brady said there is another candidate who could help improve the president's chances of re-election: Biden.

"I don't think that [Trump] can recover on his own," Brady said. "It's going to fall on Joe Biden."

Biden still has to address a number of key issues that could help or harm his chances of defeating the president, Brady said. The first is "spelling out an economic plan," he said. The second is that the former vice president has to say his own vice president would be if he is elected into office.

Who Biden chooses as a running mate, the Stanford professor said, will be telling for voters on what kind of administration the Democrat would hope to lead. Picking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of the liberal left, for example, Brady said, could potentially alienate more moderate Democrats and Republicans who are considering casting their ballot for Biden.

Finally, Brady said, the former vice president has to "lay out what his foreign policy would be," particularly when it comes to China.

With Biden appearing to have shifted his platform increasingly left in recent months, Brady said he believes the Democrat's "big danger" is in losing support among moderates.

In the shadow of Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 election, Brady said, Biden cannot get too confident as he seeks to unseat Trump.

Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, could not agree more. In his view, it is still far too early on in the race to try to predict the November election's outcome based on polling.

"The academic research on this has studied how predictive the polls are of the final election," Ansolabehere told Newsweek. "It turns out it takes until August or September until they start to become pretty predictive."

"Usually," he said, however, "the incumbents... are much stronger than this and it's kind of an indication of a problem at this stage."

Like Brady, Ansolabehere believes Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his response to protests over systemic racism and police brutality have likely had a negative impact on the president's popularity.

"Since the beginning, his personal approval rating was always well below that of his rating for job approval,"Ansolabehere said. However, now, with the economy plunged into a recession, voters may turn further away from Trump over his handling of the pandemic, which critics have said only deepened the economic and health impacts of the coronavirus crisis.

"The policy approval kind of buoyed him, and now they're both taking a hit at this time," he said.

The presidential election might be just months away, but the coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how much can change within the span of a few months.

For Brady, however, the challenges Trump faces in regaining diminished support seem far greater than those Biden faces to secure victory in the upcoming election.

"Biden has some problems he has to solve, but it's easier for him to solve them than for Trump to solve his problems," Brady said. "You could see a set of circumstances in which Trump could win again, but it would be up to errors that Biden would make."

Newsweek has contacted the Trump and Biden campaigns for comment.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks to the White House residence after exiting Marine One on the South Lawn on June 25, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Trump continues to fall behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 election race. Drew Angerer/Getty