Could the 2020 election be a race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
That’s the question political junkies everywhere were asking this week after Biden flat out told a group of reporters that he was going to run in four years. It seems that he was mostly joking when he made this definitive declaration, but he left the possibility wide open during an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, saying that he doesn’t currently see a scenario where he runs in 2020 but that he doesn’t want to rule anything out.
So what might a theoretical race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden look like? Would Biden be able to defeat the 45th president? Where do their favorable ratings stand today?
Before getting into the numbers, it’s important to note that a politician’s favorable rating is always significantly higher when they are not running for election. That is to be expected, as they aren’t under constant scrutiny and are not in the spotlight every single day. Just take a look at Hillary Clinton: in November 2012, her favorable rating was 56.9 percent. By November 2016, after a brutal campaign cycle, it was 40 percent, according to The Huffington Post’s polls tracker. This was a rather extreme case, and Clinton’s unfavorable rating skyrocketed immediately following the news that she had used a private e-mail server during her time as secretary of state, but it goes to show that polling well right now in no way guarantees that someone will still be doing well in a few years.
But as a Trump vs. Biden matchup is being discussed, it’s worth noting that as a starting point to this potential race, Biden’s favorable rating is relatively high and Trump’s is extraordinarily low. According to The Huffington Post’s polls tracker, 51.5 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Joe Biden. Even throughout the summer and fall of 2015, when there remained speculation that Biden could enter the 2016 race and therefore become a threat to Republicans, a plurality of Americans still had a favorable opinion of him.
In fact, many 2016 election polls matched Joe Biden against Donald Trump, and Biden trounced Trump every single time. In an October 2015 poll from CNN/ORC, 53 percent of those polled said they would vote for Biden over Trump. And in Real Clear Politics‘ average of all the 2016 polls that placed Biden and Trump head-to-head, Biden beat Trump by an average of 12.6 percentage points, although of course Biden would almost certainly not have maintained such a large lead had he actually entered the race.
So we know that Joe Biden’s favorable rating is relatively high at this time and that it has remained high even as there was a realistic possibility of him being the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has a historically low unfavorable rating for a president-elect. Traditionally, Americans tend to get behind their new president after an election, and that person’s favorable rating goes up quite a bit. After Bill Clinton was elected, his favorable rating was 66 percent. When George W. Bush was elected, his favorable rating was 60 percent, even after a bitterly divided election with a controversial conclusion. And after Barack Obama was elected, his favorable rating was 79 percent.
Donald Trump’s favorable rating is currently 37 percent.
This is especially noteworthy because a president’s favorable rating is almost always at its peak during this period of time after Election Day but before Inauguration Day. For example, while Barack Obama’s favorable rating was 79 percent in January 2009, it is now about 55 percent, and he has never come close to 70 percent at any point in the past eight years, not even after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
An exception to that rule is that George W. Bush’s favorable rating shot way up after September 11th, with Americans rallying around their president after a horrifying terrorist attack and at the start of a war. President Bush’s favorable rating in July 2001 was 58 percent, but in November 2001, it was 89 percent, according to Polling Report. This, however, is obviously an extreme circumstance.
The Pew Research Poll referenced above has Trump at a 37 percent favorable rating, but some other polls show him doing a bit better than that. The best has been one from Bloomberg which has Trump’s favorability at a 50 percent. However, Real Clear Politics‘ average of all of these polls gives Trump a favorable rating of 40.7 percent and an unfavorable rating of 54.1 percent.
Regardless of who his 2020 opponent is, then, Trump will need to work hard to turn things around and boost his favorable rating by at least 10 points for him to not head into election as the underdog once again.