5 hurdles that could trip Trump up as he tries to retake the White House

Former President Trump is the slight favorite to win November’s election with less than six months to go.

That’s less because of national polls — where Trump holds only a very small lead — and more because of his standing in the battleground states.

In the polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ), Trump is ahead of President Biden in every one of the seven states that are considered competitive: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The scale of Trump’s advantage varies considerably, from more than 5 points in Nevada to a measly 0.1 points in Wisconsin. But Biden won all the battleground states except North Carolina in 2020. It’s clearly significant the incumbent is now behind everywhere.

Biden’s woes are made heavier by voter discontent with the economy, fissures within his party over Israel and the Palestinians, and persistent concerns about his age.

In The Hill/DDHQ average, Biden has an approval rating of 40 percent, while 56 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance.

Trump’s edge is extraordinary given how his numerous controversies would have sunk anyone else’s political career.

Trump is the only president to be twice impeached. The second impeachment was for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

He is also the only president to stand accused in a criminal trial; Trump’s hush money trial is drawing to a close in New York. Trump has been indicted in three other cases, bringing the total number of charges against him to 88.

But Trump’s base is famously resilient. The New York trial has not had any significant impact on his poll ratings, and he vanquished his rivals for the GOP nomination with ease earlier this year.

The most serious of those rivals, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, announced Wednesday she will vote for Trump in November.

So, things are looking relatively rosy for Trump. But there are big things that could yet go wrong.

Here are five of them.

A criminal conviction

This is the most immediate danger, though the scale of the threat is not entirely clear.

A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll commanded attention with its finding that 1 in 5 Trump supporters might reconsider their backing for him if he were convicted of a felony.

But that number comprised just 4 percent who said they would withdraw their support. The rest of the would-be dissenters, 16 percent, said they would “reconsider” their pro-Trump position.

It’s easy to imagine most of Trump’s voters sticking with him in the end, given his insistence that the prosecutions he faces are politically motivated, the near certainty that he would appeal a conviction, and the general loyalty of his MAGA battalions.

That said, a conviction would be a blow in itself, handing Democrats an explosive charge for the campaign — “don’t elect a criminal.” It would also give pause to at least some voters in the center ground.

A sliver of the GOP remains uneasy with Trump, too. Haley has continued to draw around 20 percent of the vote in some recent primaries, despite having suspended her campaign in March.

On the other hand, an acquittal for Trump in New York would put wind in his sails and make it easier for him to besmirch the other cases against him. None of those other three cases is sure to be tried before the election.

In New York, there should be a verdict soon. Judge Juan Merchan expects closing arguments to begin on Tuesday.

A debate disaster

Trump had been pushing for debates against Biden, and he will get his wish.

An agreement on an unusually early date — June 27 in Atlanta — came together last week. A second debate is scheduled for Sept. 10. The first debate will be televised by CNN and the second by ABC.

Trump has abjured the usual approach regarding setting expectations. The former president called Biden “the worst debater I have ever faced” and said “he can’t put two sentences together.”

Those kind of boasts by Trump lower the bar that Biden will have to clear.

Trump ducked all debates during the GOP primary season, arguing he was so far ahead in polls that the clashes would be a waste of time. But that could leave him rusty come June.

The danger isn’t solely a gaffe at a debate, either.

Now that Trump has the GOP nomination within his grasp, there will be more scrutiny on what he is proposing to do in a second term.

In a recent Time magazine interview, he outlined an approach that was decried by critics as authoritarian.

In the interview, he left the door open to firing any U.S. Attorney who refused his orders to prosecute someone; pardoning the people convicted for Jan. 6-related offenses; allowing states with strict abortion laws to monitor women’s pregnancies; and carrying out mass deportations of unauthorized migrants.

An abortion election

The terrain on which the election is fought will be critical.

There are plenty of issues on which Biden and the Democrats have real vulnerabilities, including immigration and the economy. The divisions in the Democratic base over Israel’s assault on Gaza are a problem in themselves.

But the Democrats have one big card to play: abortion.

Social conservatives won a huge judicial victory in June 2022 when the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and its guarantee of a right to abortion. But the topic has been a major political headache for the GOP since.

The liberal side has won every statewide ballot measure on abortion in the past two years, including in red states like Kentucky and Kansas. The issue was widely blamed — including by Trump — for the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterm elections.

One year after Roe v. Wade was dismantled, an NBC News poll showed 61 percent of voters disapproved of the decision.

Abortion’s salience looks unlikely to fade. New measures are being enacted all the time. A six-week abortion ban in Florida went into effect at the start of this month.

Trump has tried to skirt the issue, saying in April that he was not in favor of a federal abortion ban.

But the subject clearly holds risks for him, especially with female voters in the suburbs, who have long been considered a vital demographic.

Being dragged down by other people or unexpected events

The big unknown of the 2024 contest is who Trump will choose as his running mate.

Even though the former president will vastly overshadow whoever he nominates, the choice still matters — and it could go wrong.

Just consider South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who was widely considered a serious contender until she inexplicably included an account of killing her dog in a new book and suffered through a miserable media tour to promote the tome.

Whoever Trump chooses will have to better stand up to scrutiny.

There are also some worries within his team about the effect of divisive candidates in other races in the key states. The most frequently cited example is Kari Lake, the highly controversial former news anchor who is likely to be the GOP nominee for Senate in Arizona.

There is, of course, also the possibility of some unexpected crisis upending the election. In 2019, no one expected Trump’s 2020 reelection bid to be dominated by a worldwide pandemic. Eight months ago, no one thought the Israeli-Palestinian issue would have the potential to be a real factor in this year’s election.

A crash into Biden’s ‘blue wall’

There is one silver lining for Biden in the polls — even if it is a rather thin one.

Setting aside the increasingly unlikely possibility of the president turning North Carolina blue, there are six battleground states.

Several polls have shown a meaningful difference between Trump’s standing in the three states in the South or Southwest — Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — and the three northern states that were once talked of as a Democratic blue wall — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In The Hill/DDHQ averages, Trump is up by between 3 points and 6 points in the first group, but by less than 2 points in the second group.

Of course, the polls will shift around between now and Election Day — and may simply be inaccurate.

But if Biden could move the “blue wall” states into his column, it would change the whole election at a stroke.

If Biden won those three states, Trump won the three southern battlegrounds, and everything else remained unchanged from 2020, the president would win reelection by a tiny, nerve-shredding margin — 270 votes to 268 votes in the electoral college.

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