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Why the Polls Are Alarming for Donald Trump

OtherWhy the Polls Are Alarming for Donald Trump

In the past couple of weeks, as protests over the killing of George Floyd have convulsed the country, a number of polls have showed Donald Trump trailing badly behind Joe Biden in the race for the Presidency. A CNN survey released on Monday put Biden’s lead at fourteen percentage points—a finding that Trump dismissed, on Twitter, saying it was “as FAKE as their Reporting.” After what happened in 2016, it is imperative to interpret poll results cautiously. But the President’s bluster couldn’t hide the fact that Republicans are increasingly concerned—and for good reason—about the way things are heading. Here are some bad signs for Trump that struck me after I spent some time burrowing into the invaluable polling databases that are maintained by RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.

In the past two months, Trump hasn’t led in a single national poll. The FiveThirtyEight general-election database contains the results of hundreds of surveys, and the last one showing Trump in front of Biden nationally was conducted by Change Research on April 2nd and 3rd—a moment at which Bernie Sanders was still contesting the Democratic primary. Back in 2016, Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in the vast majority of national surveys, too. But, during the two-month period from April 9th to June 9th of that year, he led in five of them, including a poll in May from ABC News/Washington Post that got quite a bit of attention. Since early April of this year, every single national poll, including some that tend to lean Republican, has shown Biden ahead.

Biden’s lead appears to be growing. Two months ago, the R.C.P. poll average showed the former Vice-President leading Trump by 6.3 percentage points nationally. Since Monday, Biden has been ahead by eight percentage points. During the past week and a half, four surveys have shown Biden with double-digit leads, and three of them—from Monmouth University, ABC News/Washington Post, and CNN—have been wholly or partly conducted by telephone, which is generally considered a more reliable method than online surveys. Two other recent telephone surveys—from NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Marist College/NPR/PBS—showed Biden ahead by seven points.

Trump is struggling to maintain the support of older voters. In 2016, Trump carried voters sixty-five and older by seven percentage points, according to exit polls. This advantage enabled him to overcome Clinton’s whopping fourteen-percentage-point victory among voters aged forty-four and under. Given Trump’s deep unpopularity with young voters at the moment, it is critical for him to maintain the backing of older Americans. An Economist/YouGov survey showed Biden trailing Trump by just three points among voters aged sixty-five and older, and the Monmouth poll showed Biden ahead by four points with seniors. It would appear that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t impressed some of the people who are potentially among the most vulnerable to the disease.

There is evidence of more independents turning against Trump. According to the network exit poll in 2016, the President scored a narrow victory over Clinton among self-identified independents. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll suggests that Biden holds a two-point lead in this demographic, and there is other evidence to indicate that Trump’s reaction to the coronavirus and the protests against police brutality has hurt his standing with non-aligned voters. In the Marist/NPR/PBS survey, forty-three per cent of independents said that they strongly disapproved of Trump’s job performance, up from thirty-three per cent in March. Nearly three quarters of independents said that Trump’s reaction to the protests had increased tensions.

More people think that the country is going in the wrong direction than at any point in Trump’s Presidency. Mass pessimism is not new. During recent decades, Americans have consistently told pollsters they think the country is “on the wrong track” rather than “on the right track.” Since the start of March, though, when the pandemic got going in earnest, their assessment has become even darker. On February 28th, according to the R.C.P. poll average, 40.2 per cent of Americans thought the country was on the right track, and 54.5 per cent thought it was on the wrong track. On Tuesday, the numbers were 27.1 per cent for the right track, and 66.9 per cent for the wrong track. That last figure is the highest we’ve seen since Trump took office, and it has spiked in the past two weeks.

Polls from key states are also pointing to trouble for Trump. The R.C.P. database lists thirteen states as battlegrounds: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. According to R.C.P.’s poll averages, Trump is leading in just three of these states—Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas—and only in Iowa is his advantage more than three percentage points. In Arizona, Florida, and Ohio, all of which Trump carried in 2016, Biden is slightly ahead. And in Michigan, which was another linchpin of Trump’s 2016 victory in the Electoral College, a new poll released on Monday showed Biden doubling his lead, to twelve points, compared with a survey that the same pollster, EPIC-MRA, took in January.

Finally, compared with this point in 2016, Biden is much less unpopular than Clinton was. In retrospect, Trump’s victory over Clinton was largely based on the success that he and other Republicans had in attacking early on and raising negative sentiment about her. On June 10, 2016, Clinton’s favorability rating in the R.C.P. poll average was just 38.3 per cent, and her unfavorability rating was 55.7 per cent. Thus far, at least, Biden has proved harder for Trump and the Republicans to tar. His favorability rating is 44.3 per cent, and his unfavorability rating is 45.7 per cent. Putting these figures together, there is a big difference between Biden’s net figure of negative 1.4 per cent and Clinton’s minus 17.4 per cent. Biden is also considerably more popular than Trump, who has a 41.3 per cent favorability rating and a 54.5 per cent unfavorability rating. That’s a net rating of minus 13.2 points.

It’s important to emphasize that none of these findings imply that Trump is sure to lose in November. Much can change in five months, or even in shorter periods. On June 25, 2016, the R.C.P. national poll average showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by 6.6 percentage points. As late as the first half of October, polls showed Clinton with a lead of six to eight points, a margin that would have assured her a comfortable victory in the Electoral College as well as the popular vote. On Election Day, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, and Trump carried the Electoral College, 304 to 227.

In trying to pull off a repeat of that outcome, Trump’s campaign managers will take comfort from the fact that Biden’s polling lead in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—two of the Rust Belt states that ensured Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016—is small: 3.3 percentage points and 3.4 percentage points, respectively, according to the R.C.P. averages. They can also point to data suggesting that, despite the recession brought on by the coronavirus, a plurality of Americans still look favorably on Trump when it comes to economics. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, forty-eight per cent of respondents said they trust Trump over Biden to cut the unemployment rate and get people back to work, compared with thirty-five per cent who said they trusted Biden over Trump.

Findings like these explain why, according to Axios, Trump’s campaign aides have “settled on a theme of the ‘Great American Comeback.’ ” If the economy recovers rapidly in the coming months, and the reopenings don’t spark a big second wave of infections—two major unknowns, to be sure—the political environment could conceivably look very different after Labor Day. Fastening onto this scenario will give Republicans hope that they can still turn things around by November 3rd. At this moment, though, Trump’s reëlection campaign is faltering.

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