The prospect that Trump might fail to secure a second term is very real. Compared to where previous incumbents’ numbers were at this point in the race, Trump is clearly performing badly. For instance, in July of 2004, Bush and Kerry were essentially neck and neck. In July of 1996, Clinton held a commanding lead at 49% approval. In July of 1984, Reagan enjoyed approval ratings above 50%. Meanwhile, Trump is struggling to hold onto more than 40% support against Biden’s 50% support in the polls. The only incumbent to face similar odds was Bush Sr. in 1992, who averaged between 35-40% support for most of the Summer, and we all know how the race turned out later that Fall.
The problem for Trump is that he faces a situation that no other incumbent has faced before, and he has only himself to blame. Unlike previous single term presidents in the modern era, such as Ford, Bush Sr., and Carter, Trump is not facing any serious challengers from the right. Ford, who was unelected and unpopular, faced Reagan on the right. Carter also faced Reagan, as well as a pugnacious Ted Kennedy, and lost. Reagan arguably helped to keep both Ford and Carter from enjoying two terms in office. Then Bush Sr. faced the infamous Ross Perot in 1992. Trump, however, is not facing any serious challenger on the right, and so he cannot blame his poor polling on anyone else in his party.
Trump is also the first impeached president to face the ballot box. Both Clinton and Nixon faced impeachment proceedings mid-way through their second terms. However, at the next elections, the winner was from the party in opposition to the impeached president. Carter took over from Ford after Nixon resigned and Bush took over after Clinton. So, if there is a lesson there, it’s that impeachments, if they have any effect, probably have a negative effect on a candidate’s performance at the ballot box. Americans may not care so much about scandals anymore, and the impeachment may not have hurt Trump’s approval rating much, but Americans still do care about competence and moral character (of some sort) in a president, both of which Trump is sorely lacking.
Of course, competence and moral character are for many voters intertwined with their perceptions of perhaps the greatest indicator of success for incumbents at the ballot box: a strong economy. Until recently, Trump had the strongest US economy of all time. Now, the US economy is damaged and on the brink of a significant collapse. Unfortunately for Trump, that puts him in uncomfortable company when it comes to election history. All four incumbent presidents who lost their reelection bids, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Herbert Hoover, lost due in part to U.S. economic struggles. Granted, not all incumbents fail to win during hard economic times. Neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Calvin Coolidge were elected to their first terms, but they both went on to win the next election on their own despite economic downturns. To find an elected president who won a second term despite an economic crisis in their first term since the Civil War, we have to go all the way back to President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. The reason he won in 1900 despite an ongoing recession, however, was that the recession from 1899 to 1900 was so minimal that only economists noticed it and the voting public was none the wiser. Trump obviously will not enjoy the luxury of an unnoticed recession.
At the root of all of Trump’s problems in the current electoral climate is the pandemic. No previous president has faced a pandemic of the sort that Trump is facing in an election year. With the latest precipitous rise in the number of cases across the country, support for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has fallen to 33% by recent estimates. The most recent ABC News/Ipsos poll shows 67% disapprove of Trump's handling of COVID-19 and an equal share disapprove of his handling of race relations. The fact that the death rate lags behind the case rate by about two weeks for COVID-19 means that these numbers are likely to drop further. Trump has so far enjoyed unbroken support across the board from around 33% of the country. If the death rate rises over the next few weeks and his support drops into the 20s, Trump will be all but certain to lose in November.
As it stands, Republicans are hoping for a historic comeback. There are rumblings that the Republicans are considering replacements for Trump at the top of the ticket. Other rumors are suggesting that Trump might withdraw from the race before the convention if his approval rating dips too low. These are both extremely unlikely scenarios. Republicans are probably stuck with Trump whether they like it or not. There are only a few strategies that can help Trump now, and all of them depend on addressing the pandemic. The damage to the economy is ongoing and will probably not end until there is a vaccine that can allow the lockdowns to be fully lifted. But if Trump can somehow change his tune and implement an effective plan for stopping the pandemic from spreading further, he might be able to stem the bleeding in the polls long enough to make a case against Biden, and therefore win the same way he did in 2016, as the least repulsive option. That could be one way forward for Trump.
Nevertheless, the situation looks grim for Trump. Whereas just a few months ago coming out of the impeachment proceedings he seemed unstoppable, nowadays his candidacy seems nonviable. If something doesn’t change, Trump is on track to deliver a unique and humiliating landslide defeat to the GOP both in the presidential election and the Senate elections. Most notably, if he loses, he will do so without facing any serious challenger on the right, unlike every other single term president since Ford. Even Carter was outflanked on both sides. Trump, however, stands alone with the sole responsibility for the outcome of the election in November.