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President Donald Trump leaves with first lady Melania Trump after her speech to the 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)
President Donald Trump leaves with first lady Melania Trump after her speech to the 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)

Trump’s unlikely path to victory

He could still scrape together an Electoral College majority in the Midwest

Some Republicans are looking to 1988 as a model for turning around a sinking candidacy and surging to victory. George H.W. Bush, who trailed Michael Dukakis by as much as 17 points after the Democratic convention, ended up beating the Massachusetts governor by more than 7 points in November.

The parallel is less than perfect. Mr. Bush was not an incumbent president with a record to defend, and Mr. Dukakis was not well-known to the electorate. The Bush campaign defined Mr. Dukakis before he could define himself. By contrast, Mr. Trump has a substantial and controversial record, and former Vice President Biden is a familiar figure. Then-Vice President Bush was liked and respected across party lines; Mr. Trump’s character and conduct has raised concerns among even some of his supporters.

Mr. Biden’s campaign is gaining momentum. A CBS/YouGov survey conducted right after the Democratic convention suggests that it strengthened Mr. Biden’s hand. Before the convention, some 49% of Biden voters said they were voting for him to oppose Donald Trump. That figure has fallen to 42%. Meanwhile, some 38% said they were supporting Mr. Biden because they liked him, up from 29% before the convention.

As President Trump prepares to address the Republican convention on Thursday, he trails the Democratic presidential nominee by about 9 points. No incumbent in the past half-century has been so far behind at the start of the conventions.

Still, a Trump victory is far from impossible. Although the Democratic convention was successful, it did open up some political vulnerabilities. The convention did not focus on Mr. Biden’s policy agenda. A plurality of Americans told CBS/YouGov that they thought the recent focus on discrimination against minorities had gone too far, an impression the convention did nothing to dispel. There was little outreach to white working-class voters who are reconsidering their support for Mr. Trump.

The president hasn’t done much to expand the narrow base that gave him only 46% of the popular vote in 2016, but this is not necessarily a formula for defeat. As an analysis by Brookings Institution demographer William Freyshows, more than 60% of the 2016 non-voters in the “Blue Wall" states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were whites without college degrees. Compared with 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election, turnout rates among these voters, fell by 7 percentage points in Wisconsin, 5.7 points in Michigan, and 2.7 points in Pennsylvania. Restoring their turnout to 2004 levels could allow President Trump to repeat his 2016 Midwestern success, even if Democrats do better in the suburbs and large cities. He could eke an Electoral College majority even if he loses Florida, where he now trails Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump has other strengths. The sharp economic downturn has reduced but not eliminated the advantage he holds over his challenger on the management of the economy. While his support among African-Americans has not increased, his tough immigration policies and unyielding social conservatism may have improved his standing in some parts of a diverse Hispanic community.

The president’s second-term agenda as announced at the Republican convention may also help. Reducing America’s dependence on Chinese manufacturing will appeal to voters across party lines, as will requiring new immigrants to support themselves financially. On balance, defending the police will play better politically than calls to defund them.

The Democratic Party’s newfound unity is a mixed blessing. The Biden campaign was compelled to accept compromises with forces well to the former vice president’s left, exposing him to charges that his agenda is unaffordable, even if he raises taxes by trillions of dollars, which may itself be a political liability.

The same is true for Mr. Biden’s decades of public service. Most people think that he has the experience to be president. But Mr. Biden has voted for policies that turned out poorly, such as the Iraq war, and he has changed his mind on issues such as the Hyde amendment that forbids public funding of abortion. Although he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his record on important foreign policy issues is hardly impregnable.

This said, President Trump faces an uphill battle to win re-election. His job approval rating sits well below the share of the vote he will need to prevail in the electoral college. He is behind Mr. Biden in nearly every swing state, and the president will have to spend time and resources defending states—Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Texas, among others—that he won handily in 2016. More than 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may turn out to be the pivotal election issue.

On the eve of the 2016 election, analyst Nate Silver was ridiculed for giving Mr. Trump a 3 in 10 chance of winning. As of today, he puts the odds of a Trump victory at 26%. That seems about right.

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