It’s six months until the US election. Do pollsters know where their candidates are?

“You know what I hate?” Donald Trump asked in Freeland, Michigan, on Wednesday night. “When these guys get on television, they say – pundits, you know, the great pundits that never did a thing in their whole lives – ‘You know, we have two very unpopular candidates. We have Biden or we have Trump. These are very unpopular.’”

Watched by a crowd of adoring fans in Make America Great Again (Maga) regalia, against the backdrop of a plane marked “Trump” in giant gold letters, the former US president protested a little too much: “I’m not unpopular!”

Related: Trump threatens to prosecute Bidens if he’s re-elected unless he gets immunity

Opinion polls disagree, showing Trump with a low approval rating thanks to voter concerns over his stance on abortion, his four criminal cases and the threat he poses to constitutional democracy. Fortunately for the Republican presidential nominee, Biden has job performance troubles of his own centred on inflation, immigration and his handling of the war in Gaza.

Call it the resistible force against the movable object. Six months out from one of the most consequential elections in American history, only a fool would bet with confidence on the outcome of the first presidential rematch in nearly 70 years.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “It’s almost impossible to imagine Biden winning when you start stacking up the case against him. The economy appears to be in decline with high inflation. You’ve got signs of the Democratic coalition fraying, including the extraordinary protests and arrests of youth on college campuses, the backlash among Arab Americans with regards to Gaza.

“You put that together and it’s like, how could Biden win? And then you turn to Trump and it’s, how could a candidate who’s openly running on defying the will of voters win? It’s just an incomprehensible set of choices.”

Typically, an election involves two new candidates or an incumbent versus a challenger, creating plenty of scope for fresh discoveries. But Biden, 81, and 77-year-old Trump are already the two oldest men ever to occupy the White House, the subjects of countless books, newspaper articles and TV documentaries. Most voters have already made up their minds about them, or think they have.

However, a static election is playing out in an unstable landscape: British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s aphorism “Events, dear boy, events” on steroids. There are the aftershocks of a global pandemic that killed more than a million Americans. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the supreme court decision to end the constitutional right to abortion still reverberate. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have provided an acid test of Biden’s foreign policy expertise.

Frank Luntz, a political consultant and pollster, said: “There’s not going to be an October surprise; every week is an October surprise. We have to get used to the predictability of the unpredictability and so it’s very dangerous to prognosticate in this environment because things are changing so quickly.”

In the average of national polls, Trump leads Biden by about 1.5 percentage points, a decline for Biden of about six points from the day of the 2020 election, and Trump holds the edge in the swing states that will decide the all-important electoral college. Worryingly for the president, surveys indicate that a significant minority of Black, Latino and Asian American voters are slipping away from him.

Luntz said: “Strategically, Trump is being helped by the three groups that have moved towards him in the last three years: young African Americans in Georgia and North Carolina; Latino voters in Arizona and Nevada; union voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Biden is weaker, but Trump has the capability to sabotage his own campaign and he won’t even know that he’s doing it. That’s not something Joe Biden will do. That’s why it’s so dangerous to say that Trump has the advantage because, in a single day, he can ruin it for himself.”

Polls suggest the economy remains the No 1 issue for voters. The perennial question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” could win the day. While the US escaped a widely predicted recession and is growing faster than economists expected, inflation and the cost of essentials such as bread, eggs and petrol are weighing on voters.

Biden pushed through massive economic stimulus and infrastructure spending packages to boost industrial output but has received little credit from voters so far. Polls suggest that voters believe they were better off during Trump’s presidency even though data says otherwise.

Donna Brazile, a former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “The United States is the only leading western country to come out of Covid with an economy that is not going to recession, where jobs are being created and consumer confidence is slightly rising.

“But unfortunately because of the supply chain issues that are still apparent and many other factors, including greedflation, many voters are very tired of the rising costs of everyday staples, whether that’s buying lumber or buying food on the table. It’s unpredictable. You go to the grocery store now, you don’t know if you need $100 or $10.”

Lodged deep in the national psyche, inflation could prove costly for Biden. Pamela Pugh, president of the Michigan state board of education and a candidate for the US Congress, has detected signs of African American voters shifting to Trump. “I am a Democrat but I do definitely have concern with what I do here on the ground – and there is disconnect,” the 53-year-old said during an interview in Saginaw.

“We cannot force people to feel what they don’t feel and to say what they don’t feel. They’re not carrying the daily Democratic talking points. They’re speaking what they’re actually feeling.

“Do I think that Trump would do any better for us? No. But are people looking for leadership that is going to not fight timidly, that is not going to fight scared but is going to listen to them and fight for them? That is what people are looking for.”

Biden’s handling of immigration has also been criticised by both Republicans and Democrats as crossings at the US-Mexico border hit record highs. Luntz added: “Joe Biden has failed badly at that and it’s so obvious and you can’t get away from it. We see people coming across the border. We hear about the crimes that are committed. It’s been a shit show and arguably Trump had success with immigration; Joe Biden has not.”

Biden has led the response of western governments to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, persuading allies to punish Russia and support Kyiv. He has provided military aid to Israel in its conflict with Hamas in Gaza while pushing for more humanitarian assistance, but has faced sharp criticism from some Democrats for not pushing harder for a ceasefire or matching his tougher rhetoric on Israel with action.

Intensifying student protests over the war in Gaza also could hurt his re-election bid as Republicans and rightwing media seek to portray the mostly peaceful demonstrations as violent and antisemitic, hoping to drive division among Democrats and promotes a sense of national chaos. Meanwhile, third-party candidates Robert Kennedy Jr, Cornel West and Jill Stein could shave off further crucial votes.

Trump, more radical and extreme than in 2016 or 2020, has cast his third consecutive bid for the White House in part as retribution against perceived political enemies. He describes supporters jailed for the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol as “hostages” and campaigns using increasingly dystopian rhetoric, refusing to rule out possible violence around the 2024 election.

He faces 88 charges in four criminal cases over efforts to subvert the 2020 election as well as unlawfully keeping classified national security documents and falsifying business records. His first trial began in New York last month, forcing him to shuttle between courtroom appearances and campaign rallies.

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, said: “He is far more extreme and dangerous than he was in 2020. His performance on the stump is significantly degraded and disturbing and he’s going to be on trial for many months, which is going to further erode his strongman image and his standing with the public.

“He doesn’t have any way to make positive news. Donald Trump’s central way that he’s making positive news is by staying out of jail. I don’t think that’s going to be very effective for the six months.”

In New York, Trump has railed against the judge, violated a gag order and called the criminal charges a Democratic conspiracy designed to keep him from winning, with some of his legal challenges reaching the supreme court. The justice department denies any political interference.

If elected to another four-year term, Trump has vowed revenge on his political enemies and said he would not be a dictator except “on day one”, later calling that “a joke”. He also wants the power to replace federal civil service workers with loyalists.

He earned opprobrium from western leaders for saying the US would not defend Nato members that failed to spend enough on defence and that he would encourage Russia to attack them. He also pressed congressional Republicans to stall military aid for Ukraine before reversing course.

Trump has made immigration his top domestic campaign issue, declaring he would carry out mass deportations, create holding camps, utilise the national guard and possibly federal troops, end birthright citizenship and expand a travel ban on people from certain countries. He has referred to migrants as “animals” and has not ruled out building detention camps on US soil.

At this week’s rally in Michigan, Karen Mantyla, 65, was wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m still a Trump girl – I make no apologies”. She insisted: “He’s not a dictator, he’s just doing what’s right. There’s people here that need help and they’re letting all these illegals in and giving them everything and our poor people are suffering. They’re being killed by terrorists coming through. It’s ridiculous.”

Trump claims credit for the supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade and said abortion should remain a state issue. While he has criticised some Republican-led state actions such as Florida’s six-week abortion ban and Arizona’s revived civil war-era ban, he said he would allow Republican-led states to track women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate their state bans.

Democrats are hammering Trump over the issue and warning of the threat of a national ban. But Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, warned: “Some Democrats are putting too many of their eggs in the abortion basket. It’s a lot more encouraging psychologically than focusing on weaknesses in areas like the economy and immigration, so I can understand why it’s happening, and I hope they turn out to be right but I’m not confident that it will.

Trump has yet to announce a vice-presidential running mate, but several possibilities have been floated. Mike Pence, who ran alongside Trump in 2016 and 2020 but was targeted by Trump and his supporters amid the January 6 attack, refused to endorse him in November’s contest. But the former president’s base of support remains stubbornly loyal.

Bob Horny, 70, a retired builder, said: “He’s a leader. I look at all the things going on in the world that probably wouldn’t be happening right now if Trump was president – for example, Ukraine, Israel. $2 gas we have. Everything is unbelievable right now. People don’t like Trump’s personality but we’re not voting for the pope. We’re voting for a leader.”

Some Democrats remain optimistic, noting the party’s overperformance in the midterms and other recent elections, as well as Biden’s huge fundraising advantage. Rosenberg said: “It’s a close, competitive election but I would much rather be us than them.

“Over time, as voters check in and start paying more attention, the basic contrast between Biden being a successful president leading the country through challenging times and a guy who’s a real threat to many of the things we all hold dear will work in our favour and we’ll win. But we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go in this election. A lot is going to happen and a lot is going to change.”

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