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What the Polls Can't Tell Us

All of us are desperate to get our lives back to some sense of normalcy. We want to know if we can send the kids back to school this fall, hang out at our favorite restaurant, and hug our parents. Those of us in the politics business are wondering if we'll be able to meet voters at doorsteps, rallies or the local bar. Most important, we want to know how this crisis has impacted perceptions of this president and his chances of re-election.

Polling has provided mixed messages. Voters have soured on Trump's handling of COVID-19 over the last few weeks — the FiveThirtyEight tracker, shows it going from 49/47 (+2) on April 5, to 43/53 (-10) today. At the same time, Trump's overall job approval has barely budged. Moreover, even as the unemployment numbers climb, voters continue to give him good marks on his handling of the economy.

Here's what the most recent Kaiser Foundation Tracking poll found when it comes to swing voters and independent voters perceptions of the president:

While most Republicans approve and most Democrats disapprove of President Trump's performance across the board, independents are conflicted. Most disapprove of his overall performance (54%) and on coronavirus (52%) and health care (51%), but most approve on his performance on the economy (59%). The crucial group of "swing voters," who are not yet certain about their presidential vote in November, are also negative in their assessments of President Trump's presidency. Six in 10 swing voters (59%) disapprove of the president's overall job performance, and similar shares disapprove of his handling of coronavirus (61%) and health care (58%). Swing voters remain positive in their assessments of his handling of the economy (59% approve).

The Fox News poll that came out on Thursday made a similar assessment: "The latest Fox News Poll finds voters trust Biden to do a better job than Trump on health care by 17 points, coronavirus by 9, and relations with China by 6. Trump is trusted more on the economy by a slim 3-point margin."

So, which of these things— the way he has dealt with individual issues like health care, COVID or the economy or the way he has conducted himself as president — will be the most important for swing voters in November?

The challenge in answering that question is that we really have no idea which one of these things is going to be dominating our attention this fall. Will we be dealing with a 'second wave' of COVID infections, overstressed hospitals and climbing death rates? If so, it's hard to see how Trump's handling of the crisis and health care won't be at the top of the priority list for voters. But, what if we have actually been through the worst of it? If that's the case, it's easy to see that efforts to revive the economy will be the topic that is getting the most attention.

One of the challenges of this era of social distancing is that we can't talk to voters — or watch them in a focus group. As such, we are forced to read a lot into these data points. We like to think that voters are rational and make only choices that suit their best interests. But, the reality is that voting is a lot more emotional than many of us want us to admit. It isn't as simple as "are you more worried about getting sick" or "are you more worried about losing your job."  We need to understand the cross-pressures they are facing more than we need their answer on any one question on a poll.

In 2016, the most cited 'cross-pressured' voter was the one who said he/she disliked both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. According to the exit polls, those voters made up a whopping 18 percent of the electorate and broke to Trump by 17-points. In 2016, there were lots of voters who told pollsters they didn't like Donald Trump. And, they really hated the way he conducted himself. But, they also liked the idea of shaking up the status quo. Sure, Hillary Clinton was more prepared to be president. But, Trump was more likely to bring real change to Washington.  But, just because they were a critical group of voters in 2016, doesn't mean that this is the group of voters that will decide the election this time around. The only way we will get to figure out who these voters are, is to listen to them grapple with the choice in front of them.

However, the one thing we do know is that President Trump is going to be behaving in the same way regardless of which scenario unfolds this fall. We also know that he is an undisciplined campaigner. Just ask all those Republicans who desperately wanted Trump to talk about nothing but the good economy in 2018. It's why I think perceptions of Trump AS president are more important than their opinions on how he's handling certain issues. Can Trump do the job versus do you WANT him in that job for another four years?