The race for the White House centers on President Trump, political pundit Charlie Cook told the NAHB leadership during a virtual presentation at the NAHB Leadership Council meeting.
"An incumbent president is a referendum election," said Cook. "Do we want to renew his contract for four years? Yes or no. Usually the challenger has nothing to do with it."
Noting that Trump "is the most unconventional president we've ever had," Cook said that "Donald Trump is like the sun. He sucks all the oxygen out of the room." Cook, who worked in NAHB's political shop in the early 1980s and is now editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, said that more than three-quarters of Americans strongly approve or disapprove of Trump and "there is just not a lot of ambivalence in between."
As a result, Trump's approval rating has remained remarkably stable compared to recent predecessors. "His approval rating has never gone higher than 48-49% and never dropped below 35-6- or 7%," said Cook. "We've had five post-war presidents whose approval has gone lower than Trump's and higher." While speculation runs high on who presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden will choose as his running mate, Cook emphatically stated that running mates do not decide elections. "Americans vote for presidents; they don't vote for vice presidents. You have to go back 60 years when John F. Kennedy picked Johnson. That was the last time a running mate had any material effect on an election."
Where the Race Stands Now
At the end of May and beginning of June, national polling showed that Biden had widened his lead from 3-to-5 points to 8-to-10 points, Cook noted.
"A Democrat probably has to win the national vote by 3-to-4 percentage points to win the Electoral College because they run up the vote in the blue states," Cook said. "A 3-to-5-point race is a competitive race. President Trump needs things to get back to where they were, or he won't be in striking range in the Electoral College."
Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina are the six states that are likely to determine the outcome of the election, Cook said. "They are all really, really close. But now President Trump is four points or more behind in all of those states except for North Carolina. If national polling closes up, those states will as well."
The House appears unlikely to flip to Republicans while Cook said he believes "at best there is a 50-50 chance for Republicans to hold onto the Senate and maybe a little bit less." He added there is a 40% chance of Democrats winning the trifecta — the White House, Senate and House.
Republicans currently hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and Cook said the Democrats are expected to lose a Senate seat in Alabama (Sen. Doug Jones). So they would need to win a minimum of four to five Senate seats to achieve outright control.
Senate Republicans who are facing tough races include Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Recently, the battleground has expanded as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is mounting a formidable challenge to Sen. Steve Daines, and a new poll shows Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst trailing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Moreover, the two Senate Republican incumbents in Georgia also face tough races.
As for mail-in voting, Cook said that political science research shows that neither party has an advantage in vote by mail, and there is virtually no history of vote fraud by mail.
"I think President Trump's stated opposition to vote by mail is making Republicans less enthusiastic to vote by mail," he said. "I think this could be self-defeating."
Listen to Cook's guest appearance on the Housing Development's podcast, hosted by NAHB CEO Jerry Howard and Chief Lobbyist Jim Tobin.