By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — There are 196 days to go until we vote.

An eternity.

In the past 196 days, Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick came and went, the president was impeached, Joe Biden was resurrected, and 42,474 Americans were killed by a mysterious virus.

Moral of the story: anything can, and will, happen.

Still, enquiring minds wonder – what kind of shape would President Trump be in if the election were held today?

Let’s ignore the Biden/Trump matchups (they never mean anything this far out) and the presidential job approval numbers (they never change), and focus on one of polling’s most telling questions: is the country on the right track or the wrong track?

This is a better gauge of public mood than horse-race questions that go straight to the partisan brain stem. It asks for assessments of the present and the future. It’s a blank check for respondents to fill in with their angst.

And they tend to be hard markers. According to analysis by the Daily Beast, “right track” has outpolled “wrong track” just three times in the past four decades – during the Reagan-era economic boom of the mid-1980s, after 9/11 as the nation rallied around Old Glory, and the late 1990s during a hot economy and a red-hot Clinton impeachment.

In a brand-new Harris/Harvard Center for American Political Studies poll of 2,394 registered voters, the public sees us on the wrong track by a 19-point spread, 55-36%. That is about the norm these days – the Real Clear Politics poll average spread is 22%.

You’ve got to hand it to those 36%. They are undaunted by the pandemic’s carnage and the economic collapse. They are doing so well or are so deeply enamored of Trump’s leadership – or both – that even our current agony cannot erode their contentment.

I suspect this is Trump’s basement floor. His job approval average is 46%, 10 points higher. Some portion of that 10% will likely stick with him through all this. But they’re not loving the way things are going, and aren’t shy about saying so to a pollster.

Let’s be generous and throw four-fifths of them to the incumbent. Added to his ‘til-death-us-do-part 36%, that gets the president to 44%, close to his RCP average 43% in head-to-heads with Biden.

Where will the rest of his support come from?

According to the Harris/Harvard poll, Trump is virtually tied with Biden on the questions of who can best manage the economy (Trump 49% Biden 51%) and who can best promote job creation (Trump 51% Biden 49%). But it’s hard to envision those numbers growing for Trump given the economic debacle he now presides over; the right track/wrong track numbers on the economy have cratered from 49% right track/41% wrong track in February to 58% wrong/32% right now. The percent of people saying their personal financial situation is improving collapsed from 38% in February to 21% now, with 40% saying it’s getting worse compared with 24% back then.

Perhaps our economic health will come roaring back by November, but the only people I hear predicting that are the president and his minions.

Speaking of desperate spin, Trump would love to revive voter interest in immigration, a winning issue for him in 2016. (But not in 2018; remember the caravans?) Good luck with that. The Harris/Harvard poll finds only 19% citing immigration as an important issue, with the virus (63%) and the economy (41%) dominating.

Right now, the frantic Trump campaign effort to stoke backlash against stay-at-home orders and brand him as the champion of early reopening doesn’t look promising. Even though 80% of Harris/Harvard respondents don’t have a family member with the virus or think they’ll get it anytime soon, only 13% say the safety measures taken so far have been too strict. Eight in 10 believe social distancing is working. By a 64% to 36% margin (there’s that 36% Trump hardcore again), they believe shelter in place orders need to continue, and 79% of them think it should be for another month or longer.

How about those marathon daily briefings from the White House, the president’s primary campaign outlet these days? Two-thirds of the Harris/Harvard respondents watch or hear about them, and 45% say they increase their favorable view of Trump. But 36% have an unfavorable reaction, with another 18% saying they don’t move the needle either way.

And the incumbent lacks a key ingredient that boosted Obama when he overcame sagging job approval numbers in his 2012 re-election campaign – likability. The Harris/Harvard poll shows 55% dislike him personally, while only 33% do like him.

If the election were held today, these numbers suggest, voters would fire a president they don’t like, don’t trust, and aren’t listening to.

Wrong track, indeed.

Jon Keller


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