Showing Strength With White Voters, Biden Builds Lead in Battleground States

  • In Politics
  • 2020-06-26 12:23:20Z
  • By The New York Times
Election 2020 Joe Biden
Election 2020 Joe Biden  

President Donald Trump has lost significant ground in the six battleground states that clinched his Electoral College victory in 2016, according to New York Times/Siena College surveys, with Joe Biden opening double-digit leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Trump's once-commanding advantage among white voters has nearly vanished, a development that would all but preclude the president's reelection if it persists. Biden now has a 21-point lead among white college graduates, and the president is losing among white voters in the three Northern battleground states - not by much, but he won them by nearly 10 points in 2016.

Four years ago, Trump's strength in the disproportionately white working-class battleground states allowed him to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. The surveys indicate that the president continues to fare better in these relatively white battleground states than he does nationwide.

A separate Times/Siena survey released on Wednesday found Biden leading by 14 points nationwide, 50% to 36%.

Biden would win the presidency with at least 333 electoral votes, far more than the 270 needed, if he won all six of the states surveyed and held those won by Hillary Clinton four years ago. Most combinations of any three of the six states - which include Florida, Arizona and North Carolina - would suffice.

With a little more than four months to go until the election, there is still time for the president's political standing to recover, just as it did on so many occasions four years ago. He maintains a substantial advantage on the economy, which could become an even more central issue in what has already been a volatile election cycle. And many of the undecided voters in these states lean Republican, and may end up returning to their party's nominee.

But for now, the findings confirm that the president's political standing has deteriorated sharply since October, when Times/Siena polls found Biden ahead by just 2 percentage points across the same six states (the gap is now 9 points). Since then, the nation has faced a series of crises that would pose a grave political challenge to any president seeking reelection. The polls suggest that battleground-state voters believe the president has struggled to meet the moment.

Overall, 42% of voters in the battleground states approve of how Trump is handling his job as president, while 54% disapprove.

These six​ states - with their mix of major cities, old industrial hubs, growing suburbs, and even farmland - together deliver a grim judgment of Trump on recent issues that have shaken American life. His handling of the pandemic and the protests after the death of George Floyd help explain his erosion across both old and new battlegrounds.

Allan Larson, 83, a recently retired mechanical engineer in Apache Junction, Arizona, began to regret his vote for the president shortly after he took office - he said Trump tried to do away with too many things President Barack Obama had done, and kept firing good people - but his handling of the pandemic solidified his views.

"He's not doing anything about this here virus," said Larson, who plans to vote for Biden. "Just the way he's running things, I don't think he's doing the job he should do."

On these issues, voter disapproval reflects more than just general dissatisfaction with the state of the country. It seems to reflect deeper disagreement with the president's prioritization of the economy over stopping the spread of coronavirus, and with his focus on law and order and criminal justice.

A majority of voters, 63%, say they would rather back a presidential candidate who focuses on the cause of protests, even when the protests go too far, while just 31% say they would prefer to support a candidate who says we need to be tough on demonstrations that go too far.

Despite double-digit unemployment, 55% of voters in these six states say the federal government's priority should be to limit the spread of the coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy, while just 35% say the federal government's priority should be to restart the economy. Even the newly unemployed, who would seem to have the most to gain from a reopened economy, say stopping the coronavirus should be the government's priority.

A high-profile clash with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan encapsulates the president's challenge. Trump sided with protesters who opposed her stay-at-home orders, but voters in the state oppose the protests against social distancing restrictions by 57% to 37%.

As of now, 59% of voters in Michigan disapprove of Trump's handling of the coronavirus, the highest level of disapproval in any battleground state polled. And nearly 40% of registered voters there, including 11% of Republicans, say he has treated their state worse than others in response to the pandemic.

Trump's ratings are healthier on the kinds of issues that might have dominated the election season under more ordinary circumstances. His 56% approval rating on the economy, versus 40% who disapprove, is nearly the opposite of his overall job approval rating. Voters say by a double-digit margin that he would do a better job on the issue than Biden, and they also prefer Trump to handle relations with China.

There is still time for memories to fade or for the national debate to return to more favorable turf for the president.

Joe Cook, a 35-year-old bakery manager in Orlando, Florida, voted for Trump in 2016 and disapproves of how he has handled the coronavirus outbreak. He said Trump shouldn't have let the economy be shut down during the pandemic, and should have cracked down on rioters.

Nevertheless, he will stick with Trump because he has run on lower taxes and less regulation. "The less government in my life, the better," Cook said.

For now, though, the president's coalition has suffered serious defections, eroding the familiar demographic divides of recent elections.

Trump retains the support of 86% of respondents who said they voted for him in 2016, down from 92% in October.

Biden, by contrast, has emerged from a contested primary with a unified Democratic coalition. He wins 93% of the voters who backed Clinton four years ago, as well as 92% of self-identified Democrats. Biden also enjoys a significant advantage among those who voted for neither Trump nor Clinton in 2016. He has a 35-point lead among battleground voters who said they backed a minor-party candidate or wrote in another.

Together, these shifts give Biden a 6-point lead among voters who participated in the 2016 election, according to voter-file records. The same voters said they backed Trump over Clinton in 2016 by 2.5 percentage points, slightly better for Trump than the actual result of the six states, offering a level of validity to the survey's findings. Biden also has a 17-point lead among registered voters who did not vote in the 2016 race.

Trump's once-decisive edge among white voters has eroded, despite national attention to the kind of racial issues that many analysts believed propelled his strength among white voters in the first place. If attitudes about race were vital to Trump's appeal with white voters, then a foundation of his strength has been badly shaken.

National polls suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement has become significantly more popular since the 2016 election. The Times/Siena polls find that white voters in the battleground states support the recent protests and agree with the movement's major complaints about the criminal justice system, including that the death of Floyd is part of a broader pattern of excessive police violence, and that the criminal justice system is biased against African Americans. They disapprove of how the president is handling both the recent protests and race relations more generally.

Biden's gains among white voters have been largest among the young and college-educated white voters likeliest to back the protesters' views on racial issues.

Overall in the six states, Biden holds a 55-34 lead among white voters with at least a four-year college degree, an 11-point gain from October. White voters under age 35 now back Biden by a margin of 50% to 31%, up from an all-but-tied race in October.

White voters with more conservative attitudes on racial issues appear to have soured on Trump in recent months, and yet they have not embraced Biden.

White voters without a degree, the linchpin of the president's winning coalition, back Trump by a 16-point margin in the battlegrounds, down from a 24-point margin in October and a 26-point one in the final polls of the last election. Despite that slide, Biden's support among white voters without a degree has increased by only 1 percentage point since October.

One such voter Biden has gained is Samantha Spencer, 29, from Beloit, Wisconsin. "There's just been so many different things that I've been like viscerally disgusted by," she said. "I'm a Christian and I know a lot of people who are also Christians are still sticking with him, but for my faith I can't justify supporting this garbage anymore."

Biden leads among voters 65 and over, reversing a decade-long Republican advantage. But he has made relatively limited gains among voters over age 50 since October, including no gains at all among white voters over age 50 without a college degree.

Their relatively conservative attitudes on race and the protests could be part of the reason for the president's resilience: White voters in the battleground states who are 50 and over oppose the recent demonstrations, and say too many have turned to violent rioting. They are split on whether discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, and say that riots are a bigger problem than police treatment of African Americans by a 10-percentage-point margin.

Perhaps more surprising, Biden has also made few to no gains among nonwhite voters, despite the national attention on criminal justice and racism over the last month.

Overall in the battlegrounds, Biden leads among Black voters by 83% to 7%, up only slightly from October. Hispanic voters back Biden by 62-26, also essentially unchanged. Neither lead exceeds Clinton's margin in the final polls from 2016.

Biden's wide lead is a reflection of the president's weakness rather than of his own strength. Overall, 55% of Biden's supporters say their vote is more a vote against Trump than a vote for Biden, while 80% of Trump's supporters say they're mainly voting for the president. And Biden's gains have come without any improvement in his favorability ratings, even as Trump's have plummeted.

But Biden's standing is nonetheless healthy by most measures. Overall, 50% of battleground voters say they have a favorable view of him, compared with 47% who have an unfavorable view.

It's possible that Biden will struggle to match his wide lead in the polls at the ballot box. The battleground voters who don't back either Biden or Trump tend to tilt Republican, whether by party registration or by affiliation, and 34% say they voted for Trump in 2016, compared with 20% who backed Clinton.

Some of these voters may return to the president by the end of the race, yet at the moment, 56% of these voters disapprove of his performance, while just 29% approve.

The results suggest that Biden still has an open path to a sweeping victory. Overall, 55% of registered voters in the battleground states said there was at least "some chance" they would support Biden in the election, including 12% of Republicans, 11% of voters who backed Trump in 2016, and 44% of the Republican-tilting undecided voters.

As for Trump, 55% of registered voters in the battlegrounds said there was "not really any chance" they would vote for him this November.


The Times/Siena poll of 3,870 registered voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina was conducted from June 8 to 18. The margin of sampling error for an individual state poll ranges from plus-or-minus 4.1 to 4.6 percentage points. The margin of sampling error on the full battleground sample is plus-or-minus 1.8 percentage points.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company


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