On the surface, recent polling in battleground states paints a dire picture for President Trump’s re-election prospects. Polls taken in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin find Former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump by anywhere from three to eight points. And, in every state but Wisconsin (which was taken in late March and is the oldest of these polls), more voters disapprove than they approve of Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
But, there is some good news tucked into these numbers for the president. Trump’s vote share in head to head match-ups with Biden is anywhere from three to eight points lower than his job approval rating. In other words, Trump has room to grow his showing against Biden by winning over voters who already think he’s doing a decent job as president. That’s more feasible than trying convince someone to vote for you if they don’t like you in the first place.
For example, in the mid-April Fox News poll of Florida, Trump’s job approval rating is a pretty healthy 51 percent. But, up against Biden, Trump is getting just 43 percent of the vote — a full eight points lower than his job approval rating. In digging through the cross-tabs, you can see that Trump’s job approval ratings among his core voters — white non-college men, rural voters and white Evangelicals — are five to nine points higher than the share of the vote he gets from these voters when matched up against Biden. For example, among white non-college men, Trump’s job approval is a whopping +42 percent. But, against Biden, that margin is down to 35 points. In other words, Trump isn’t converting the goodwill he has among these voters into the voting booth.
Even so, it’s not like these voters are going to Biden, either. Even as the margin between Trump’s job approval and vote share drops, Biden’s vote share doesn’t increase. Instead, what you notice is that Biden is simply capturing the votes of those who already disapprove of Trump. For example, 29 percent of white, non-college men disapprove of Trump — and Biden gets 27 percent among these voters; Trump’s disapproval rating among rural voters is 42 percent. That’s also the share of the vote Biden gets among this demographic group when matched against Trump.
At the same time, it's also true that Trump's job approval with more Democratic-leaning voters - like African-Americans - are much higher than the share of the vote he's getting now or will likely get in November. For example, 24 percent of black Florida voters approve of the job Trump is doing as president, yet he gets just 10 percent of the black vote when matched up against Biden.
There is also some more good news in these polls for Biden. The former vice president’s favorable ratings are in positive territory in every one of these polls but for one (Marquette’s late March poll from Wisconsin). Trump’s favorable ratings are underwater in every state, and, but for the Fox Florida poll, so are his job approval ratings. The more popular Biden is, the harder it will be for Trump to make this election a “choice” between two unpopular figures, as he did with Clinton in 2016.
This is why many GOPers, including those within the Trump campaign, want to start getting attack ads on the air as quickly as possible to drive up Biden’s unpopularity with voters.
In national polling, however, Biden’s favorable ratings look a little less impressive. The folks at fivethirtyeight.com found Biden’s average favorable/unfavorable rating at 45 percent to 46 percent (-1). That’s significantly lower than where then-Sen. Barack Obama was in the month after he became the presumptive nominee (+20), but 14 points higher than where Hillary Clinton was at the end of the 2016 primary(-15). The good news for Biden is that he starts the race as already well-known (91 percent can rate him), meaning it’s going to be harder to try and shape opinions of him than it was for candidates who had higher favorable ratings but were also not as well known (like Michael Dukakis or John Kerry). That doesn’t mean that Biden is immune to attacks. But, it also requires a level of discipline on Trump’s part to keep the spotlight on Biden instead of himself. The president has rarely if ever, shown that level of discipline.
More important, Trump had the luxury in 2016 of running as the outsider. This year, of course, it is his administration that is in charge. And, as we’ve seen in two recent interviews, one with Fox’s Bret Baier and the other with ABC News’ David Muir, Trump isn’t keen on having his administration’s handling of the pandemic be the focal point of the 2020 campaign. When asked by Muir on Tuesday if he’d be comfortable with the election as a referendum on his handling of the crisis, Trump replied, “Well I am and I’m not.” His response to a similar question from Baier met with a similar reply: “No, but it’s gonna be a factor.” In both interviews, the president was also nostalgic for the world that existed pre-COVID. A world where the economy was “the greatest” thanks to his leadership. Even now, as you can see in these polls, Trump’s job approval rating on the economy remains pretty solid. But, with the economy unlikely to recover anytime soon, it will be hard for those positive numbers to hold. As such, we should all be prepared for the Trump campaign to try and make the race a referendum on Biden’s fitness to be president rather than on Trump’s handling of this crisis.