From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today: This fall’s presidential race is likely to be decided by a handful of battleground states won by President Trump in 2016. Nate Cohn on what a major new poll from The New York Times found about how voters in those states view the president and his Democratic rival.
It’s Thursday, June 25.
Nate, the last time we talked about polling in the presidential race, it was still the Democratic primary. It was back in November. And the polling that you all did showed that no matter which Democrat Donald Trump would face, he was doing OK.
Yeah. The polls showed that Donald Trump was pretty competitive. He was in a close race against all of his major Democratic rivals. He wasn’t always ahead. He was losing to Joe Biden, for instance. But he was in a pretty good and highly competitive spot, even at a moment where he was facing imminent prospect of impeachment in the House of Representatives. And so after all of that, for him still to be so close, it sure seemed like he was in a pretty decent position, all considered.
So what was your thinking going into this next big poll that you all just finished?
Well, I did not think that Donald Trump would be doing quite as well as he had done in October. And there have been a lot of polls over the last couple of months indicating that Joe Biden has had a gradually building lead, both nationwide and in the battleground states. But given that we had such good results for the president in the past, I thought there was a pretty distinct possibility that we would show a race that was, you know, even if not extremely close, still competitive.
And what happened once this polling got underway?
Well, we get the results back every morning from the last night of interviews. And from the start, it was pretty clear that this was a very different set of polling data.
The first morning’s numbers were really bad for Trump. And you know, it’s something you try not to pay any attention to. It’s just one day of interviews, and the numbers change a lot. But you know, the next morning, and the next morning after that, it was bad again. And in the end, we polled for 14 days. And for all 14, the numbers were bad for the president. And they never got better.
And just how bad?
Really bad. We did seven different polls. We have a national survey that showed Joe Biden leading by 14 points, 50 to 36 percent.
We have six battleground state polls. These are the six states that Donald Trump won in 2016, but that were most closely fought last time — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. And here again, Joe Biden had a considerable lead. He was up 9 percentage points across those six states, including a lead of at least six points in every one of them.
Wow. So that is legitimately, seriously bad polling data for the incumbent President, Donald Trump?
Yeah. I mean, if you look back historically, it is really hard to find an example of an incumbent president sitting in such a bad position heading into re-election. It’s worse than Jimmy Carter in 1980 at this stage, or even in the final polls, for instance.
There’s just not much for the president to hang his hat on here.
So let’s talk about what the battleground state polls show, specifically about why voters seem to be souring on President Trump. What’s the story that the data from these battleground state polls tell you about why that is?
The polls tell a really simple story. They say that voters across the battleground states have concluded that the president has failed to meet the most important crises of our political moment. They think he’s failed on the coronavirus. They think he’s failed on race relations. And they think he’s failed in the protests, and so on. And as a result, there has been a rebellion among white voters in the battleground states, the very voters that four years ago were responsible for the president’s persistent strength in these states.
So before we get to the revolt of these white voters, which seems very important, let’s talk about these issues that voters do not think the president has properly managed and maybe go through a few of them, one by one.
I think it’s worth just breaking them down into two groups. One is the coronavirus. Voters disapprove of the way he’s handled it by a wide margin. 56 percent of voters in the battleground states say they disapprove, includes a significant number of people who voted for him in 2016. And it’s not just that they take issue with the president’s effectiveness. There’s an underlying disagreement between the president and the electorate about priorities.
What do you mean?
So we asked voters whether they thought the federal government’s priority should be to limit the spread of the coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy. Or if they think the federal government’s priority should be to restart the economy, even if it increases the risk to public health. And voters in the battleground states said, by a 20-plus point margin, that they thought the priority ought to be to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And incredibly, that even includes the people who have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus over the last few months.
I want to pause on this. Because this seems really fascinating. By 20 percent, voters favor conquering the virus over reopening the American economy. Because that is the complete opposite of the message from the president.
It’s the complete opposite. And it really goes against so much of what we usually assume about American politics, right? It’s the economy, stupid. But here we have a rare issue where voters very explicitly are prioritizing something else. I can’t think of another comparison for it except war.
You know? In World War II, it’s not like if you had asked voters, what should be the priority, you know, helping the economy or beating the Japanese, that they would be like, oh, it’s the economy, stupid.
Right. You’re saying with lives on the line, voters are telling us in this poll that the economy takes something of a backseat.
What seems interesting is that the president is banking on an economic recovery, or goodwill over his management of the economy prior to the pandemic, to win re-election. But it sounds like from what you’re saying, that wouldn’t necessarily give him a boost, because voters are not prioritizing the economy the way they usually do.
Yeah. I mean, he’s right to think that’s his advantage. I mean, astonishingly, given the overall economic numbers, voters in the battleground states say they approve of the president’s handling of the economy, by a 15-point margin. That’s a —
— what, 30 points different than his overall approval rating? And the reason for that disconnect is just fundamental and simple. The coronavirus is more important. And they may appreciate what he’s done on the economy. But in this case, emphasizing the economy isn’t what they’re looking for.
So what about the second big issue that you said voters disapprove of the president’s management of, which is race and the protests over race and policing?
Right. Just a whole spectrum of different issues relating to race and criminal justice and the protests, the president’s ratings are even worse on those issues than they are on the coronavirus. And here again, the president has this fundamental disconnect with the electorate, where his priorities aren’t the same as theirs. I mean, we asked whether they would rather have a candidate who says that we need to be tough on protests that go too far, or whether they would rather have a candidate who says we need to focus on the cause of protests, even when they go too far. And voters said, by a 40-point margin, that they would rather have the candidate who focuses on the cause of the protests, even when they’re going too far. And it’s also including a significant number of people who backed the president.
So the gulf between how the president is talking about these protests and how voters across the battleground states are thinking about these protests is enormous.
Yeah. And I wouldn’t have guessed that, personally.
So Nate, how does this disapproval of how the president’s handling these major crises, how does that explain this concept you touched on earlier of white voters revolting against the President?
Well, a pretty significant number of white voters in the battleground states do not side with the president, either his handling of the coronavirus or on these racial issues. And these are now the issues that are most important in the minds of voters in the battleground states. And so while maybe in 2016, a lot of these voters were focused on who would do the best on trade or immigration, now what’s on their mind is who is the best job handling protests and coronavirus. They’re not so sure they want to vote for the President anymore. In our poll, nearly 15 percent of the people who say they voted for President Trump in 2016 aren’t willing to say they support him against Joe Biden. And 7 percent of those voters say there’s almost no chance they’ll vote for him again.
So 7 percent of his base plans on flipping, and 15 percent is very open to flipping, because of the way he has handled all of these complex questions over the past few months or year?
Yeah. And I should note they may not necessarily flip. They could vote third party. They could stay home. They have other options here. But a meaningful number of them at the moment say they would back Joe Biden for president.
So at the moment, the president’s coalition, this core base of support among white voters that got him to victory in 2016, just is not there for him anymore. It has suffered serious defections, mainly at its periphery, you know, not the people wearing MAGA hats. But the sort of people who voted for Obama in 2012, backed Donald Trump in 2016 because they liked what he had to say about illegal immigration and trade, are not putting up with him right now.
And who is this voter, this white voter who is now turning on the president four years later?
It’s a pretty broad group of white voters. It includes college-educated white voters. It includes white voters without a college degree. It includes young voters. Young white voters now back Joe Biden by 20 points.
It includes older white voters. At the moment, the president is losing among seniors, who were the bedrock of his support in 2016.
Wow. You know, Nate, I’m curious if there’s a prototypical swing state region that you think of as being illustrative of everything that you’re describing here, this alienation, this disapproval of the way the president is handling everything since we last polled these battleground states.
Well, I could indulge you on that question. I could tell you about how in the Green Bay region of Wisconsin or in Northeast Pennsylvania or something that Joe Biden is now ahead, and Donald Trump won there big in 2016. But you know, frankly, it’s true everywhere. There are no exceptions here. There’s no place where the president’s holding up fairly well and I can be like, that’s the place where it’s particularly bad. There’s no region that epitomizes this more than any other. I could choose anywhere and tell you that the president appears to be losing ground among white voters. It’s true in the battleground states. It’s true nationally. It’s true everywhere.
We’ll be right back.
OK. Nate, let’s talk about what these polls, both the national poll, but especially the six battleground state polls, have told us about Joe Biden and why he seems to be leading so handsomely over Donald Trump.
You know, my honest answer is that I think our answers on Joe Biden are kind of boring.
You know, the voters, they like Joe Biden. He’s got a 50 percent favorability rating. It’s fine. They don’t seem to have a very strong opinion of him either way. They do think he would do a better job than Trump on almost every issue, except the economy and China. But there’s not a groundswelling of support for him. And there’s not particularly deep opposition to him either. Instead, 55 percent of voters say there is at least some chance they would vote for him. So that to me indicates that a pretty broad swath of the electorate is at least considering the guy at this stage.
Hm. And what you’re describing is an alternative, rather than a charismatic figure that voters are looking to with great ardor.
I think that’s right. A lot of the divides that you might think about in American politics today, like between young and old, and so on. They don’t really even exist on Joe Biden. Everyone just kind of has a modestly favorable view of him. And there are many circumstances in which maybe that’s not the exact candidate you’d want to run for president. But it may be exactly the right candidate at a time when a clear majority of the electorate has resolved that it does not want to reelect the current president.
Nate, you’re painting a scenario in which Joe Biden seems to be thriving as a reflection of President Trump’s weakness. And that’s a familiar concept in presidential campaigns. But I went through the battleground state poll that you sent me about 24 hours ago. And I was really struck by the number of issues on which respondents to the poll said they thought that Joe Biden would do a better job than President Trump. It was immigration. It was protests. It was the pandemic. And so how do we know whether that is a reflection of President Trump, or a true sense that people believe Joe Biden is inherently the best person to do those things?
You know, it’s a great question. Unfortunately, the way that we’ve asked this question to voters, I don’t think we can disentangle whether they think Joe Biden would be good versus believing that Donald Trump is bad. We’re just asking voters whether they think Joe Biden would do a better job than Donald Trump. And so I don’t think we can pull out the varying effects of Joe Biden and Donald Trump on that. I do think, though, that one thing that stands out to me is how much the results of those questions matches up with Trump’s approval rating on those issues, which at least to me implies that it’s more about the president than it is about Joe Biden.
Hm. In other words, disapproval of the president is kind of mirrored in the data of approval or the belief that Joe Biden would do something better?
This data clearly suggests there’s not a tremendous amount of passion around Joe Biden. And yet, he’s developed this very significant lead over President Trump. And so I wonder whether that means that the electability case for Joe Biden, which was debated endlessly throughout the primary, has kind of proven to be exactly what Joe Biden and the people around him said it would be now that there’s a two person race, Biden versus Trump.
Well, I don’t think we can run the counterfactual and see whether Elizabeth Warren would be leading today if she had been the Democratic nominee or Bernie Sanders. What I think we can say is that the case for Joe Biden’s electability is playing out here. The case for Joe Biden’s electability was always that a sufficient number of voters do not want to re-elect the president, so choose someone who maximizes the appeal of the Democratic candidate with the broadest number of voters. I don’t know whether that means that a different candidate would be doing better or worse than Joe Biden. But what we do know is that Joe Biden is up nine points across battleground states that voted for Trump last time. He’s up 14 points nationwide. And he would have a distinct chance of winning by the widest margin of any candidate in my lifetime.
Well, Nate, that leads me to a very important and delicate question that involves you and me. Because four years ago, we were having a conversation about polling. And Donald Trump was down in those polls. I was the host of a different show called “The Run Up.” You were the first guest on the first episode. And the title of that episode was, “Could Hillary Clinton Win in a Landslide?” So I think you know where this question is now headed.
How could I not?
So what is different about this lead, if anything, that makes you and should make us trust it?
Well, I think we should all approach this with a lot of humility. I mean, polling is tough the day before the election. It’s really tough five months before the election. The national environment has changed a lot in the last five months. It can change a lot in the next five months. That said, I think that this lead is different from Hillary Clinton’s lead. It doesn’t mean that Donald Trump can’t win. But it is different. It’s different in two ways. One, it’s a wider lead. Joe Biden is up by more. If the polls were just as wrong as they were in 2016, and the election were held tomorrow, Joe Biden would still win. I mean, the polls could be more wrong. There’s no law of polling that says that 2016 is the worst case scenario or something. But this is a bigger advantage than Hillary Clinton had down the final stretch. It’s a more persistent advantage. And it’s wider than even her peaks. The second difference is a methodological one, which is that we are much more focused on the battleground states this time than we were in 2016. In 2016, we had really good national polling. And we did not have very much good polling in the battleground states. We have resolved to flip that around, to try and deal with the things that went wrong four years ago. None of that ensures that our results will be perfect if the election were held tomorrow. But it is a reason why it is less likely that these polls would be fundamentally wrong in the same way that so many state polls were fundamentally wrong four years ago.
A key caveat, however, seems to be that the lead that Joe Biden has developed over these past few months has occurred when he has been largely invisible. Right? I mean, this has been a very unusual campaign in the sense that the President is as visible as he’s ever been, every day — at the White House, on Twitter and now campaign rallies. Whereas Joe Biden has been largely quarantined and kind of offstage. Inevitably, that will change. And I wonder how much that could begin to alter some of the dynamics of these polls.
I think that it absolutely could begin to help narrow the race. And this was the pattern in 2016, by the way. There were these moments of the race when the talk was always about Donald Trump. And he would get in these fights. The news would be all about how Donald Trump said this ridiculous stuff. All these Republicans would be criticizing him. And then Hillary Clinton would have this lead. And then two weeks later, something would happen, when it was her emails, or the “deplorables” line, or random health scares, and so on. And Hillary Clinton’s lead would fall right back down to a more competitive race. And I think it is certainly possible that if voters focus as much on Joe Biden at any point in this election cycle as they focused on Hillary Clinton, that would probably lead to a tighter race than the one we have now.
Perhaps put more simply, what you’re saying is that campaigning in absentia, essentially, is working for Joe Biden. And it’s working pretty well.
Absolutely. I mean, the fundamentals of the race right now are that Donald Trump is really unpopular. Donald Trump is the defining feature of the race. That adds up to a big win for Joe Biden right now. If that formulation changes, and Joe Biden is just as important in the minds of voters as Donald Trump, maybe Joe Biden’s lead would shrink a lot. Maybe it would shrink a little. I don’t know. But what I can say is that this particular dynamic is working out really well for Joe Biden.
Nate, thank you very much. And I want to warn you that we are going to be doing this a lot for the next five months, but not too much.
Thank you for having me. And I am looking forward to it.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
- archived recording (joyette holmes)
Good afternoon. Today the Sun County grand jury did return an indictment against Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William Bryant.
On Wednesday, four months after a 25-year-old black man, Ahmaud Arbery, was chased down and killed while jogging in South Georgia, three white men were indicted on charges ranging from malice murder to false imprisonment.
- archived recording (joyette holmes)
This is another positive step, another great step for finding justice for Ahmaud, for finding justice for this family and the community beyond.
Local police were slow to arrest and charge the three men, prompting the first in a series of public protests in the past few months over the extrajudicial killing of black Americans. And the U.S. recorded nearly 37,000 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began. With infections rising so quickly, the City of Houston said it was running out of intensive care beds. The governor of Texas urged residents to stay inside. And Washington and North Carolina said they would require that masks be worn in public.
- archived recording (ned lamont)
We’re going to have a quarantine on visitors from those states that have a positivity rate north of 10 percent over a seven day moving average. So it could change a little bit over time. Hopefully, those states that are so grave — Florida, Texas, Arizona — will come back with a lower infection rate.
In the Northeast, where infection rates have declined, the governors of three neighboring states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — said they would require a two-week quarantine for travelers coming from states where cases are surging.
- archived recording (ned lamont)
What that means in terms of quarantine will be enforced differently in different states. What we want to do here in the state of Connecticut is one, if you come up from those states and you haven’t tested, and you haven’t had a negative test, you’re coming up here, you’ve got to quarantine for 14 days.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.