For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.
As pollsters are at pains to point out, polls are snapshots and not forecasts; Biden’s lead could dissipate, though this race has been unusually stable so far. Contrary to Trump’s protestations, Biden’s lead as it exists now is real—and given how hard it has been for anything to dent Trump’s carapace, it’s worth examining closely. Stranger still, the impetus appears to be race—something that has been both Trump’s Achilles’ heel and his secret weapon throughout his political career. For some reason, it’s affecting his political standing differently than it has before.