BOSTON (CBS) — The end of Labor Day weekend is often described as the true start of the presidential campaign, a time when voters start to really focus on their choice. But recent history and current polling suggest that moment may have come and gone.
In the modern-day era of saturation coverage of politics, presidential races involving an incumbent seem to be decided way before Labor Day. George W. Bush led John Kerry narrowly in February of 2003 and beat him narrowly in November. Barack Obama led his closest GOP challenger (Newt Gingrich, believe it or not) by four points in November 2011 and beat eventual nominee Mitt Romney by four a year later.
And look at some of the findings of the most recent CBS News/YouGov national poll that has Biden with a ten-point lead:
- Eighty-six percent of likely voters say it’s a done deal, they’ve decided who they’re voting for. Eleven percent say they strongly support their candidate and probably won’t change.
- Just three percent say they might still change their minds. That’s barely outside the survey’s margin of error.
Translation: short of a meltdown in the debates or some totally unforeseen news event, the die is cast here.
Yes, there’s a lot of campaigning and advertising to come with aggressive attacks by each campaign on the other. Isn’t there a chance all that will move voter opinion?
Not according to what voters said when the pollsters asked them to describe the main reason for their preference. Nearly half of Biden’s voters are backing him because they want to get rid of Trump, suggesting there’s little the president can do to peel them away from the Democrat.
But only 18% of declared Trump voters say theirs is an anti-Biden vote, they’re with Trump because they like him (73%) and he’s a Republican (9%). That points to severe limits on Trump’s ability to boost his support by demonizing Biden.
Interest in this election is off the charts and has been for some time. That likely means there are fewer persuadables than in a “normal” race or one without an incumbent.
The earth shifted under the Trump campaign in March when the pandemic hit; in the CBS News/YouGov poll, he continues to get poor marks for his handling of the disaster, and for his response to civil unrest sparked by police brutality against African-Americans. Sixty percent believe the economy is doing poorly.
While Trump can try to create an alternative reality of his pandemic response and the economic outlook, it looks like an uphill battle. So is effectively painting Biden as an incompetent menace.
When you’re a challenger – especially one running against an unpopular establishment figure like Hillary Clinton with baked-in positives and negatives – it’s a lot easier to make big promises and surf favorable spin about yourself.
When you’re the incumbent – not so much.