If we learned anything from the 2016 election, it was humility and caution. Elections are about human behavior and the future; by definition, there is a great deal of uncertainty. But it is very clear that the last few weeks have not been good for President Trump, who was already facing a very difficult reelection race.
The national polls look difficult for Trump. In 41 national polls that tested a general-election matchup since the first of January, Trump has been ahead in one, conducted by Emerson College in mid-February. He has been tied in two, one by Emerson again in January, the other by Fox News taken April 4-7. The Fox numbers got my attention because not only is it a very good survey, but the three previous polls this year had Joe Biden up by high single-digits. But that early April poll appears to have been an outlier.
But a flurry of state polls are now drawing attention. A trio of Fox News polls released Wednesday and Thursday showed Biden ahead in Michigan by 8 points, in Pennsylvania by 4 points, and in Florida by 3 points. The 8-point Michigan lead tracks with the results of three other polls from recent months. MRG showed Biden up by 3 points, while Monmouth University and PPP both had him up by 2.
Two other Pennsylvania polls were released on Thursday as well. Susquehanna and PPP both showed Biden up by 7 points. Earlier this week, a Quinnipiac University poll in Florida put Biden up by 4 points. And in Wisconsin, recent polls by Marquette University Law School and PPP each had Biden ahead by 3 points. Simply put, Trump is now pretty consistently running behind in the very states that put him in the White House.
The national nightly Navigator tracking conducted jointly by Democratic-aligned groups Global Strategy Group and GBAO show that Trump’s approval ratings both overall and in handling the coronavirus crisis have dropped rather significantly over the last two weeks. Approval of his handling of the economy has dropped by considerably lesser margins, but nevertheless his numbers on the economy were a tentpole holding up his approval overall—any drop there is a very ominous sign. With 26 million Americans now looking for work, more than during the Great Depression, it's hard to see how even the six consecutive months of historically low unemployment rates from September through February can hold up his ratings on the economy.
“Historically, during times of major crisis, the American public has collectively rooted for the nation and rallied behind their president,” writes veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart in an analysis memo to friends and colleagues. As one example, Hart cited the taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979 initially boosting President Carter’s approval ratings. But in this case and others he pointed to, a “period of patience and convalescence has been followed by judgment and recrimination.” Hart contrasts voters’ judgments of the president with the very different judgments they are making on how their various governors are performing.
Pointing to findings in the recent Pew Research poll and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that Hart collaborated on, he says that “the results of these two surveys suggest that, in this evolving pandemic, Americans are going to be a lot less forgiving of this president than his predecessors in the recrimination phase, which inevitably will come when patience for mitigation wears thin, when a vaccine has not become available, and when the economic recovery is longer and harsher than people anticipated.” Hart, who hung out his own shingle as a pollster 49 years ago and is the resident wise man of the profession, concludes: “Sadly, Donald Trump is a ‘me president’ in a time when America needs a ‘we president.’”
Coming from a slightly different angle, award-winning political documentarian and University of Texas professor Paul Stekler suggests that the coronavirus crisis could be a “tipping point” for Trump in the same way that Hurricane Katrina was in 2005 for President George W. Bush.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the bottom is going to fall out of Trump’s approval ratings. Partisan attitudes toward him are just too strong. But Trump may well have poisoned the well among undecided voters. Among those who neither love nor loathe him, to say that they are underwhelmed with his handling of one of the most serious crises ever faced by a president is the understatement of the year. Instead of going to all of those rallies, he should have watched some video of focus groups with swing voters. They are very different people than those who crowded the fairgrounds and convention centers when rallies were still possible.
This race isn’t over, but it is hard to reconcile Trump’s statements and behavior at his daily news conferences with what those Americans outside of his core base are looking for in a president right now. Maybe Joe Biden should just run out the clock in his home in Wilmington; he is doing better now that he would be if he were on the hustings.