Those of us who would very much like to see President Trump go down to a decisive defeat in November have plenty to worry about. The race could narrow in the coming weeks. A Trump lead based on votes cast in person on Election Day could give way to a Biden surge in mail-in ballots that our embattled president will seek to discredit, sending the whole process of vote-counting spinning into chaos.
But as we head into the first of three debates between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, it's worth pausing to remind ourselves that another scenario is far more likely — which is that the outcome of the election will comport with every reputable poll going back months. Those polls have consistently shown Biden with a large and incredibly stable lead. Yes, we should prepare for the worst. But we also shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Biden supporters seem to be headed toward a much happier outcome.
The pervasive anxiety among Democrats is understandable. Many thought Hillary Clinton was on track for easy victory four years ago, and they've never recovered from the shock of what happened instead — or from the horrible realization that it's possible for a Republican to win the presidency while losing the popular vote by three million votes.
But Democrats are also responding to the preternatural confidence of their opponents. Whenever I write a column sharply critical of Trump, I receive emails and direct messages through social media platforms from Republicans unwaveringly convinced that Trump will win re-election in a massive landslide that will at long last humiliate me by demonstrating my worthlessness as a pundit and the cluelessness of my likeminded colleagues in the liberal media. That kind of assertion, received often enough, can't help but inspire second thoughts. Could it be true? What am I missing? Might Biden actually be cruising toward a crushing loss I'm just too blind to see coming?
Such doubts might be natural for an empirically minded journalist. But the truth is that there is no evidence at all to back up the confidence of the unwavering Trump voter. Sure, it's possible that the president could prevail by once again barely carrying several battleground states while losing the national popular vote by a wide margin. But there is no indication at all that Trump is headed toward a landslide victory. (Even the comically Republican-friendly Rasmussen poll still frequently shows Trump's approval rating underwater.) The far more likely scenario is that dozens of polls are correct in showing that Biden is on track to win and win big.
Those dozens of polls show Biden with a large (roughly 7-point) national lead and a smaller but equally solid advantage in the crucial battleground states. These leads have been incredibly stable over time. Something very close to 50 percent of the country wants Trump gone under any imaginable circumstance, while something between 42 and 44 percent will support the president no matter what. These two voting blocs are frozen solid, immobile.
How do we know this? Because nothing has changed the overall shape of the race over the madness of the past nine months. Not the deadliest pandemic in a century. Not a massive economic downturn. Not the worst protests and urban unrest in 50 years. Through it all, Biden has maintained his lead. The closest Trump has come to overtaking him since the pandemic lockdowns began last March was a brief period in May when he got within 4.4 points of Biden in RealClearPolitics' polling average. Since then, Biden has led Trump by anywhere from 5.9 to 10.2 points. On the eve of the first debate, Biden leads by 6.9.
A race in which one person consistently leads by that wide of a margin is a race that person is overwhelmingly likely to win.
But couldn't the race narrow over the next five weeks, placing Trump within reach of the same inside straight he pulled last time? Sure, it could. And it probably will tighten a bit. But tightening beyond a couple of points is pretty unlikely at this point — because Trump has proven himself incapable of appealing to voters outside of the right-wing Republican base that's already maximally committed to him.
The past few months is when we would have expected a floundering incumbent president to make a broader pitch for support. Instead, Trump has repeatedly shown that he's only capable of talking and governing like a prime-time Fox News pundit, despite the fact that Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham speak to an audience, at most, of just five million viewers in a country where something on the order of 140 million will vote for president.
Denying the pain and alienation and hardship of living through COVID-19 while the death toll rises above 200,000 with no end in sight; stoking racial tensions and violence in the name of "law and order"; trying to jam a right-wing nominee onto the Supreme Court to replace the widely admired liberal jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg; refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power to his successor if he's defeated — each of these Trump moves over the past few months is red-meat thrown at the right, who devour it ravenously. But it turns the stomach of everyone else.
Trump's own presidency serves as an endless loop of negative advertising against his own re-election.
For all of these reasons, it's exceedingly unlikely that the debates are going to change anything about the dynamic of the race. I suspect Biden will come off fine and certainly exceed the absurdly low expectations the Trump campaign has set for him. But the real insurance policy is Trump himself, who with every word is guaranteed to remind viewers who don't take their cues from Tucker Carlson's incendiary hate-rants that they just want Trump gone, no matter who his opponent is.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the man who would replace Trump, at least he isn't Trump. That thought, echoing through the minds of millions of voters throughout this awful year and repeated endlessly over these final five weeks, is and will remain the key to Biden's likely win.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.