When a president or party is going through a really tough time, it’s easy for a political columnist to come across like a broken record, a constant stream of bad news that draws suspicions of bias. It is an occupational hazard, one that I experienced from Democrats when President Clinton was going through his darkest period in 1994 and when President Obama suffered through his 2010 and 2014 midterm election years. It was Republicans who felt the sting when President George H.W. Bush had problems in 1991 and 1992 and when his son did in 2006.
So in the interest of fairness, let me state: The three major polls released in the past week do reveal some good news for President Trump—but it requires a very close examination to reveal it.
The good news from the July 12-15 Fox News poll was that Trump’s job approval was 45 percent (54 percent disapproved), up 1 point from the mid-June survey, and 3 and 4 points higher, respectively, than the approval averages at RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.
Indeed, Fox’s poll gave Trump his highest approval in any live-telephone interview survey (the gold standard) since early June. The ABC News/Washington Post survey, conducted over the same time period, reported a job approval of 39 percent (57 percent disapproval), while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 42 percent approving (56 percent disapproving). It is worth reiterating that for presidents, job approval is the best predictor of whether an incumbent will be reelected.
Given that an economic rebound would almost have to precede any possible Trump rebound, there were traces of good news for him in the NBC/WSJ poll, which showed 54 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving of the job he is doing handling the economy. His numbers on that question were less impressive, but still right-side-up, in the ABC/Post poll, with 50 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. The Fox poll had it a draw at 47 percent for each.
Fox also had Joe Biden’s lead over Trump the lowest of the three surveys at 8 points—49 to 41 percent. NBC/WSJ showed Biden ahead by 11 points, 51 to 40 percent; while the ABC/Post poll gave Biden a 15-point lead among all registered voters, narrowing to 10 points among most-likely voters, 54 to 44 percent.
(Before you reach the conclusion that the Fox News survey went soft on Trump, keep reading; some of the most brutal findings of the three came in the Fox poll, and only a committed Trump backer could see Chris Wallace’s Fox News Sunday interview as anything short of a disaster for the incumbent.)
The questionnaires and results for all three surveys above are worth the read. Given that Trump does best on questions related to the economy, having benefited from strong economic conditions for three years, it had to hurt that the two candidates were basically tied in the Fox News poll on which would do a better job on the economy, with 44 percent saying Biden and 43 percent Trump. On dealing with the coronavirus, Biden has a 17-point edge, 51 to 34 percent. On handling race relations, Biden’s lead is 21 points, 52 to 31 percent.
The real tough stuff came when Fox pollsters asked respondents to say whether each candidate has the intelligence, compassion, mental soundness, and judgment to serve effectively as president. On intelligence, 51 percent said Biden has the intelligence to serve effectively and 36 percent said he did not; for Trump it was 42 percent yes, 52 percent no. Fifty-six percent said Biden possesses the necessary compassion, to 30 percent who said he did not; Trump’s marks were 36 percent yes, 57 percent no.
On mental soundness, an interesting question given the Trump campaign’s suggestions that Biden is suffering from dementia, 47 percent said Biden had the mental soundness to be effective and 39 percent thought he did not; for the president, 43 percent thought he did and 51 percent said he did not. Finally, on having the judgment to serve effectively as president, 52 percent said Biden did, to 36 percent who said he did not; for Trump, 40 percent agreed and 53 percent did not.
Trump had been running behind but competitively; his polarizing personality, style, and approach to politics created a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic, however, dropped his numbers to near-toxic levels. It’s possible that Trump can rebound, but the more data that comes out and the more interviews he does, the grade of the incline he faces gets steeper and steeper. Meanwhile, the time before the first vote-by-mail ballots are cast in early September is getting shorter and shorter.