With the country on the precipice of a major health and economic crisis, we are clearly headed into uncharted waters. At the same time, when it comes to politics and an election that's just eight months away, we can only work with the information we have today and adjust accordingly.
For example, even as Americans grow more aware of the coronavirus and its potential impacts, perceptions of the president have remained static. The three most recent national polls, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Gallup, and Marist/NPR/PBS peg Trump's job approval between 43 and 46 percent — the same narrow range of where his job approval has been sitting for his entire presidency.
As circumstances change, these numbers can move. A number of online polls released since those polls came out — including the Washington Post/Ipsos (3/18-19), Reuters/Ipsos (3/16-17) and YouGov/Economist (3/15-17) show Trump's approval ratings on handling the coronavirus range from 45 percent to 53 percent.
But, for now, voters' perceptions of the seriousness of this crisis and Trump's handling of it, are driven as much by partisanship as anything else. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (March 11-13), voter confidence about Trump's ability to deal with coronavirus issue is 48 percent confident to 50 percent not confident, which basically mirrors his overall approval ratings of 46 percent approve to 51 percent disapprove. In fact, according to an analysis by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research (the co-pollsters of the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey), the voters who say they are most worried about the coronavirus and its impact look a lot like the kinds of voters who support Democrats: African-Americans, suburban voters, and college-educated females. Meanwhile, the voters least concerned about the virus, look a lot like Trump voters: white non-college voters, rural voters and those who define themselves as conservative.
We also have a Democratic primary campaign that is both temporarily on hold but also essentially over. With almost 60 percent of all delegates allocated, Joe Biden has built an insurmountable lead for the nomination. Barring a complete collapse of his campaign between now and June, Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee.
With a clearer picture of what the November playing field will look like, we have released our latest Electoral College ratings.
First, the headline: Biden starts with a slight lead in the Electoral College math. Right now, 232 electoral votes sit in Lean/Likely or Solid Democrat. On the GOP side, 204 electoral votes are in the Lean/Likely/Solid Republican column. There are six states (and one congressional district) in Toss-Up: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska's 2nd district. Those add up to 102 Electoral votes.
To get to 270, Biden can't lose any of the states currently in Lean/Likely/Solid Democrat and has to win 39 percent of the electoral college votes in Toss Up. Trump needs to hold those in the Lean/Likely/Solid Republican columns, plus he needs to win more than two-thirds (66 percent) in the toss-up column.
A lot has happened in the three years that Trump has been president. One thing that hasn't changed is the coalition of voters that support him and that he continues to cater to, and the coalition of voters who dislike him and who Trump often actively disparages. Trump's support among white, non-college voters, older voters and those who live in rural parts of the country remain robust, while white, college-educated voters (especially women), younger voters and voters of color continue to hold negative, or deeply negative views of the job he's doing in office.
The most recent Marist/PBS/NPR poll (3/13-14) found Trump's overall job approval at 43 percent. Among white, non-college voters, almost two-thirds (57 percent), approve of the job he's doing, but just under 40 percent (37 percent) of white voters with a degree think he's doing a good job. Among suburban voters, just 39 percent give the president a positive rating, while 48 percent of those who live in small towns, and 59 percent of those in rural areas approve of the job he's doing in office. Just 31 percent of non-white voters approve of the job the president is doing.
As such, what you will notice about this map that the more diverse the state, and the higher the percentage of white, college voters, the more likely it will be in a Democratic-leaning column. For example, Colorado not only has a significant Latino population, but there are almost as many white college voters in the state (40 percent) as white, non-college voters (41 percent).
The higher the percentage of white, non-college voters, the more likely that the state sits more safely in a GOP-leaning column. For example, Texas and Georgia, once considered long-shots for Democratic gains, are now in Lean Republican. These states not only have significant (and growing) non-white populations, but, as we saw in 2018, the dense suburbs in and around metro centers in these states have also become more Democratic.
Meanwhile, a one-time anchor of the Toss Up column, Ohio, which has a large population of white, non-college voters, now sits in the Likely Republican category. However, it's also important to remember that while Trump carried Ohio by 8-points, he took just 51 percent of the vote. In other words, this was a case, not of Trump over-performing, but Clinton underperforming. A recent poll of Ohio by Marist/NBC News (3/10-13) has some worrisome signs in it for Trump. The president's job approval rating is just 46 percent. And, in a head-to-head match-up with Biden, Trump loses 45 percent to 49 percent. Of course, since the race between Biden and Trump has yet to engage, this poll is essentially a measure of Trump's base support more than anything else. However, what should worry the Trump campaign is the fact that Biden is making inroads with white, non-college voters, specifically women voters. While Trump continues to do well with white, non-college men (winning them 63 percent to 34 percent), Biden is carrying white, non-college women by two points (47 percent to 45 percent). These women are going to be a key group of voters to watch, not just in Ohio, but in other key Midwestern battleground states. Biden is also winning independent voters by 11-points (52 percent to 41 percent). Trump can't win the Midwest while losing white, non-college women and independent voters.
Trump's path to the White House is anchored in Florida. Under our current ratings, there is only one scenario out of twelve possible for Trump to get 270 electoral votes without winning the Sunshine state.
Steve Schale, one of the premier Democratic strategists in Florida, argues that the I-4 corridor — Orlando and Tampa — will determine the outcome of the election. Back in 2012, Schale writes, Pres. Obama lost the Orlando and Tampa media markets "by a combined 56,575 votes — and four years later, Secretary Clinton lost the same two media markets by 247,118 – a total shift of 190,000 votes." Furthermore, notes Schale, "what is remarkable is how Trump ran up the score in these markets, given that Secretary Clinton won the urban Orlando counties (Seminole, Orange and Osceola) by almost 70,000 more votes than Obama. In 14 counties within the I-4 markets, Trump set the modern era turnout record."
From a 30,000 feet view, it's easy to see Florida's diversity as its most distinguishing feature. But, it's also a state with a lot of small towns and fast-growing exurbs that are populated by white, conservative voters. Lots of the people moving into Florida fit the profile of a Trump voter more than a Democratic one. For example, The Villages, a retirement community located northwest of Orlando, grew 3 percent from 2017 to 2018, the sixth-fastest rate of growth in the country. These are Trump voters. And, they vote.
If Trump holds Florida, the next most important states for him are in the industrial Midwest and that infamous trifecta: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump can afford to lose two of these states and still win the Electoral College (assuming he wins all the other states in Toss Up). But, he can't lose all three.
Of the three, Wisconsin looks the friendliest to Trump. Not only has polling consistently shown his job approval ratings higher here than the other two states, but demographically, this state is also the best suited to Trump. The electorate is overwhelmingly white (90 percent), and it has the highest percentage of white, non-college voters (almost 60 percent) of the three.
Demographically, Minnesota looks a lot like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. And, it was very close in 2016. Clinton won the state by less than 2 percent.
But, a fantastic analysis of the 2016 election results by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin (which I have linked to throughout this column), finds that Minnesota had a higher percentage of white college voters (36 percent) than the other three. These voters supported Clinton by 21 points. And, while Clinton lost white non-college voters here by a hefty amount (21 points), it was better than her showing in Pennsylvania where she lost among those voters by 30 points. This isn't to say that we should expect the state to perform the same here in 2020 as it did in 2016. Instead, it's important to note that states with a higher population of white, college-educated voters will be more amenable to a Biden candidacy. The higher the non-college white population, the stronger the chance that Trump carries that state.
North Carolina is a new-comer to our Toss-Up category. Trump carried the state by 3 points — an improvement from previous GOP showings here. Romney won here by 2 points in 2012, while in 2008, McCain lost the state by less than one point. According to the Teixeira and Halpin analysis, Trump won white, non-college voters in this state by a whopping 51 points — the largest margin among white, non-college voters of any other state in the Toss Up category. And, while the state has been growing and suburbanizing, it is still far behind Virginia in the percentage of white college voters (28 percent to Virginia's 33 percent).
To win here, Biden needs both a stronger showing in the suburbs than Clinton did, while also getting strong African-American turnout and making a moderate improvement over Clinton's anemic 23 percent showing with non-college white voters.
The Omaha-based 2nd district of Nebraska is also a new entrant to the Toss Up category. Nebraska, like Maine, awards its electoral votes by statewide as well as by congressional-district performance. Nebraska has five Electoral Votes. Trump will win four of them (the two statewide votes plus those of the ruby red 1st and 3rd CDs). But, this suburban CD has been extremely competitive at the presidential and congressional levels for the last 12 years. In 2008, Obama's 1.2 percent win made him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the CD since 1964. Four years later, Romney carried it rather easily with 53 percent. But, in 2016, Trump just edged out Clinton here 47 percent to 45 percent. However, in 2018, Democrats were unable to win here, even as they were racking up wins in other suburban CDs across the country. My colleague, David Wasserman, argues that a "big reason why he [GOP Rep. Don Bacon] survived 2018's "blue wave" is that Democrats narrowly nominated single-payer healthcare activist Kara Eastman over business-friendly former Rep. Brad Ashford." This is the kind of place that would be off the table for Democrats in the case of a Sanders candidacy. But, Biden, who has been endorsed by many of the 2018 freshmen from suburban CD's, has a shot here.
We are living in a unique time where things are both incredibly stable — like the president's overall job approval and fast-moving — the scope of the economic and health damage of this virus has yet to be fully understood. This is a time when it's best to watch how Americans are processing all of this, rather than in assuming we know who or won't benefit electorally.