INDIANAPOLIS  – The original sin of any credible political operator is to base campaign assumptions on the previous cycle. In the context of the American presidency (particularly from a Hoosier perspective), 2016 was a historic doozy.

While some point to 1968 as the last year for such political volatility, the year 2016 that produced the Trump/Pence ticket was utterly unpredictable, prompting the frequent “Anything can happen” forecast from these quarters.

The June 23, 2016, edition of Howey Politics Indiana  is worth revisiting: “This is the official posting of a tsunami watch for Indiana. With Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at best in transition and in all probability, in a mode of outright implosion, with Gov. Mike Pence locked in a dead heat along with sagging reelect and job approval numbers, and with Pence attaching his dinghy to the political equivalent of the RMS Titanic, the potential for severe down-ballot trauma for Hoosier GOP nominees is heightened.”

The 2016 tell-tales for HPI’s June 23 “tsunami watch” were these: Hillary Clinton had a $42 million to $1.3 million cash-on-hand advantage over Donald Trump; she outraised Trump $1 million to $58,000 in Indiana; she had a 700-to-69 campaign staffing advantage; Clinton had 100% dominance in swing state advertising; Trump’s approval in a Washington Post/ABC Poll was 29% while just 65% of Republicans viewed Trump favorably (Clinton’s 46% approval in a CNN/ORC Poll was historically bad for a Democrat); and Sabato’s Crystal Ball had Indiana in a “likely” Trump category instead of the normal “safe” designation.

As we now know, Trump’s reversal from a “blue tsunami” to a 19% plurality in Indiana as he cracked the “blue wall” in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania began in the first week of July. That’s when FBI Director James Comey announced he wouldn’t prosecute Clinton for her email scandal, but in doing so issued what was practically a “political indictment” of the Democrat (Comey would sound Clinton’s death knell two weeks from the November election when he announced another probe of her email scandal, but didn’t mention an FBI investigation of Trump’s Russia ties). Trump would choose Gov. Pence for his ticket, helping to coalesce the social conservatives and bring Indiana fully into his fold.

In a race pitting two nominees with historically high negatives, Trump bested Clinton as the perceived lesser of two evils. NBC pollster Fred Yang observed, “For Trump, it wasn’t ideological, it was style. It didn’t matter what he was saying, just that he was loud and strong and emphatic. That is what a chunk of the electorate, certainly Republicans, are looking for even if it seems to go against the party orthodoxy.”

With June about to end at the halfway point of the volatile and unprecedented 2020 cycle, President Trump and Vice President Pence face a pandemic that has claimed 120,000 lives in a span four months with a first wave resurgance now underway, an economic meltdown unseen since the Great Depression, and the George Floyd police murder scenario that has put hundreds of cities and towns across the nation on edge.

Annie Lowrey, writing in The Atlantic, points to the economy and pandemic as troubling for the incumbent: “The Trump administration has repeatedly argued that there is a trade-off between the country’s economic health and its public health. But economists and physicians have repeatedly argued that that is untrue; ending the pandemic would have been the single best thing the federal government could have done to preserve the country’s wealth, health, and economic functioning. The Trump administration, in its hubris, obstinacy, and incompetence, failed to do it.”

Lowrey continues, “At least four major factors are terrifying economists and weighing on the recovery: The household fiscal cliff, the great business die-off, the state and local budget shortfall, and the lingering health crisis. Three months ago, the pandemic and ensuing shelter-in-place orders caused mass job loss unlike anything in recent American history. A virtual blizzard settled on top of the country and froze everyone in place. Nearly 40% of low-wage workers lost their jobs in March. More than 40 million people lost their jobs in March, April, or May.”

2020 much more ominous

At this similar point in the 2020 cycle, the analysis is much more ominous for President Trump and Vice President Pence. The U.S. is experiencing a second surge in the first wave of COVID-19 cases, with Wednesday’s 45,000 daily cases (compared to 5,000 in the European Union) surpassing that of mid-April. This comes after President Trump said last week the pandemic was “fading away” and Vice President Pence suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that new data was reason for “celebration.”

The Real Clear Politics poll average on Tuesday had Joe Biden with a 10.1% lead, 51.0% to 40.9%. State polls are now catching up with the outlying national polls. Biden was leading key battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona by at least 4% in RCP averages. The congressional generic was +8.5% for Democrats.

In a Fox News Poll last weekend showing Biden with a 50-38% lead, Biden’s favorable/unfavorables stood at 53/44% compared to 43/56% for Trump. On the question, “Do you think Donald Trump cares about people like you?” some 57% said no, 37% said yes.

A New York Times/Siena College Poll published Tuesday had Biden leading 50-36% with a 22% lead among women, 39% lead with Latinos, and a 21% lead with independents.

“There is no question Biden is ahead today,” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is also a columnist for The Hill, said. “There is no guarantee that being ahead today means you are going to be ahead tomorrow. But in 2016, there were a lot of people saying [Trump] will change, he will grow into the job. No one is saying that today.”

Evan Berryhill, writing in Townhall, casts the kind of doubt that nags any Democrat with the deja vu feeling from November 2016, questioning the veracity of polling. “In the CNN and Quinnipiac polls, only 25% of those surveyed claimed to be Republican. Yet, in 2016, 33% of actual voters were self-identified members of the GOP,” Berryhill explained. “In fact, in every presidential race going back to and including the year 2000, the percentage of Republican voters never dipped below 32%. So why would anyone believe that the GOP would only count for 25% of the vote 2020? Further, 47% of those sampled for the Fox News poll and 45% of those who participated in the Economist/YouGov poll identified as Democrats. But, in every race dating back to 2000, Democrats never made up more than 39% of the vote.”

But there have been conspicuous Republicans splitting with Trump, headlined by the Lincoln Project (George Conway, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver), MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, former President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, William Kristol and Cindy McCain. Former speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan haven’t committed to voting for Trump, nor has former chief of staff John Kelly and former senator and director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Kelly told the New York Times that he wished “we had some additional choices.” Coats “has been concerned about the negative effect on the intelligence community by the turmoil of turnover at DNI,” said Kevin Kellems, a longtime adviser to Coats, adding that his former boss “ultimately remains a loyal Republican but he believes the American people will decide on Nov. 3.”

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former Defense secretary James Mattis along with Gen. Kelly have issued scathing reviews of the Trump presidency. Mattis wrote in The Atlantic earlier this month, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” 

Anectdotally, many Republicans in the Indiana Lugar/Daniels wing of the party are sharply critical of Trump.

Correlating approval, reelection

CNN analyst Harry Enten did a polling era (since 1940) study on presidential approval in the 13 elections when a sitting president was seeking a second term. “The average president has seen his approval rating shift by just 3 points from now until the election,” Enten writes. “That would only get Trump into the mid-40s at best. Trump’s approval rating was similar during the 2018 midterms, when his party lost control of the House.”

“Trump, though, isn’t finished quite yet,” Enten continued. “It is possible for a president’s ratings to shift around. Harry Truman saw about a 20-point increase in his net approval rating in the final five months of the 1948 campaign. On the other end, Lyndon Johnson’s net approval rating declined by around 15 points in the final months of the 1964 election. Still, we’re only talking about two presidents out of 13 whose net approval rating moved by more than 10 points in the final five months of the campaign. Trump needs his net approval rating to climb by more than 10 points to reach a positive net approval rating. Remember, though, that Trump’s approval rating has been steadier than any president before him. The inability for Trump to move his own numbers is probably why he goes after Biden so much. Biden’s less defined than Trump, and dragging Biden down may be the only chance Trump has to win.”

HPI Columnist Mark Souder, former Republican congressman, observes, “The biggest variable may be what happens with COVID. Not testing positive unless it actually correlates with fatalities, which for week after week it does not and people are figuring that out. But if there is a strong second wave that has fatalities associated beyond nursing homes, and thus hits the economy hard, Trump loses.  

“If the economy begins to recover, and fatalities continue to go down, the media will have blown so much credibility that it could lead to Trump pulling it out in spite of tweeting himself in the foot every other day,” Souder continued. “That said, every tweet is a potential nuclear bomb on a new subject. We saw Dukakis-Bush twice swing over 15 points in late August-September. This one seems to have more hard red states and hard blue states, but the middle ones are still within the grasp of both. So while things currently look more grim for President Trump, it is way too early.  Biden may not be Clinton, but the Dems have moved far to the left which reduces their margin for error. And, as you know, the Democrats are always capable of blowing elections.”

Trump’s biggest problem may be that he still sees himself pitted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as evidenced by his rambling two-hour speech in Tulsa Saturday night. He cleaned up on the anti-Hillary vote in 2016, but she won’t be on the ballot in November. A case in point is the full-page ad in today’s IndyStar which proclaims “Hillary and Obama want Trump defeated” while “Trump has a secret plan.”

The campaign had promoted his return to the MAGA circuit as a virtual fall kickoff. COVID may have kept the crowd size to an embarrassing 6,200 in a 19,000-seat arena in a virus hotspot, but 7 million watched cable TV coverage.

He doesn’t seem to have much aimed at Joe Biden other than his “Sleepy Joe” moniker (the same he used successfully against Joe Donnelly two years ago) and the Democrat’s age and suggestions of senility. Biden is hunkered down in his Delaware basement, seemingly intent on letting Trump self-destruct. But as we saw in 2016, Trump has the Teflon thing down better than The Gipper, he has a Svengali hold on his base, and these are surreal times for the American experience. Stay tuned.

HPI Horse Race Status: Likely Biden.