The coronavirus pandemic, a severe economic downturn and the widespread demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody would pose a serious political challenge to any US president seeking re-election. They are certainly posing one to President Donald Trump.
His approval rating has fallen to negative 12.7 percentage points among registered or likely voters, down from negative 6.7 points on April 15th, according to FiveThirtyEight estimates. And now a wave of new polls shows Joe Biden with a significant national lead, placing him in a stronger position to oust an incumbent president than any challenger since Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992.
He leads the president by about 10 percentage points in an average of recent live-interview telephone surveys of registered voters. It's a four-point improvement over the six-point lead he held in a similar series of polls in late March and early April. Since then, Bernie Sanders has left the Democratic race, the severity of the coronavirus pandemic has became fully evident, and the president's standing has gradually eroded.
The erosion has been fairly broad, spanning virtually all demographic groups. But in a longer-term context, the president’s weakness is most stark in one respect: his deficit among women. Women were supposed to carry the first female major-party nominee to victory four years ago, as many assumed that Trump’s treatment of women, including allegations of sexual assault, would prove to be his undoing. But women might be his undoing this time.
Trump trails Biden by 25 points among them, far worse than his 14-point deficit four years ago. He still leads among men by 6 points in the most recent polls, about the same margin as he led by in the final polls of registered voters in 2016.
Working-class white voters
Over the shorter term, the decline in the president's standing has been particularly pronounced among white voters without a college degree, helping to explain why the Trump campaign has felt compelled to air advertisements in Ohio and Iowa, two mostly white working-class battleground states where Trump won by nearly 10 points four years ago.
In the most recent polls, white voters without a college degree back the president by 21 points, down from 31 points in March and April and down from the 29-point lead Trump held in the final polls of registered voters in 2016. Trump didn’t just lose support to the undecided column; Biden ticked up to an average of 37 per cent among white voters without a degree.
The figure would be enough to assure Biden the presidency, given his considerable strength among white college graduates. In the most recent polls, white college graduates back Biden by a 20-point margin, up 4 points since the spring. It’s also an eight-point improvement for the Democratic nominee since 2016, and a 26-point improvement since 2012.
Biden has also made some progress toward redressing his weakness among younger voters. Voters ages 18 to 34 now back Biden by a 22-point margin, up 6 points from the spring and now somewhat ahead of Hillary Clinton’s lead in the final polls of 2016. Young voters will probably never be a strength for Biden – a septuagenarian who promised a return to normal, rather than fundamental change during the Democratic primary – but for now his margin is not so small as to constitute a grave threat to his prospects.
Remarkably, Biden still leads by 7 points among voters 65 and over in the most recent surveys, despite the kind of racial unrest that led many of these voters to support Republican candidates at various points in their lifetimes. It should be noted that Biden’s lead among older voters is somewhat narrower than it was a few months ago, either reflecting the statistical noise of small sample sizes or reflecting the toll of recent events. Yet it is still a commanding strength for Biden compared with Hillary Clinton’s 5-point deficit among this group four years ago.
Perhaps more surprising in light of recent events is that Biden has not made substantial gains with non-white voters. He leads among them by 46 points in the most recent polls, up a mere percentage point from the polls conducted in March and April. It’s still behind the 50-point margin held by Clinton in the final weeks of the 2016 race.
Most pollsters do not break out non-white voters in much depth because of the small sample size, making it hard to explore the precise sources of Biden’s relative weakness. But for now, it seems reasonable to assume that his struggles are most acute among young non-white voters and non-white men, given the overall national figures.
Of course, five months remain until the presidential election. There is plenty of time for the race to swing in Trump’s favour, just as it did in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign. Indeed, the 2016 race was characterized by a predictable, mean-reverting oscillation between nearly double-digit leads for Clinton – as in August and October – and a tighter race in which Trump trailed in national polls but remained highly competitive – as in July, September and November.
Biden’s lead in the polls today is not vastly different from the leads Clinton claimed at her peaks after the Access Hollywood tape was revealed or when Trump became embroiled in a feud with a Muslim Gold Star military family.
There are reasons to doubt that the polling this year will again take on the character of a slow-motion, sine-wave roller-coaster ride. Many of the swings towards Trump were driven at least in part by news and negative coverage about Clinton’s emails or her health. Joe Biden’s stay-at-home campaign tends to keep the spotlight focused on Trump. The Trump campaign has not resolved on a central attack on Biden. Perhaps as a result, Trump’s high points in national polls have never been as high as they were in 2016.
Even so, this could be a low point for Trump. There is certainly cause to doubt whether the protests today, or even the president’s early response to the pandemic, will loom as large for voters in November as they do today. No one can predict what the national political environment will look like in five months; surely, no one would have predicted what has unfolded over the last five. The president’s supporters can still hope that the economy will rapidly recover over the summer and autumn, before a hypothesised second wave of coronavirus hits over the late autumn or winter.
If the race does revert toward the president, as it did on so many occasions four years ago, he could quickly find himself back within striking distance of squeaking out a narrow win. His relative advantage in the electoral college compared with the nation as a whole, or possibly among likely voters compared with registered voters, means that he doesn’t need to gain anywhere near 10 points to get back within striking distance of re-election. In the final national polls of registered voters in 2016, Trump trailed by about an average of 5 points. It was close enough.
But for now, the president trails by too much for these factors to play a decisive role. If the election were held today, the electoral college would pose no serious obstacle to Biden, thanks to his strength compared with Clinton among white voters and particularly those without a college degree. He would win even if the polls were exactly as wrong as they were four years ago. – New York Times