Trump's poll numbers take a dive after an ugly debate and positive covid-19 test 📊 October 4, 2020

Voters lack sympathy for the president, and his diagnosis may even be changing a few minds about November

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Dear reader,

This week was shocking in many ways — though I wonder whether we should have seen some of it coming. The news that the president, many in his inner circle, and a growing number of Senators have contracted the coronavirus align with a ton of anecdotal evidence about Republican leadership ignoring guidelines for how to behave during a pandemic. They hugged and exchanged congratulations in close proximity both outside and indoors after Trump’s announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court last Saturday in what has turned out to be a super-spreader event.

But the first half of this week was not so surreal. The inevitable leaking of Trump’s tax returns to the New York Times on Sunday and his expectedly-boorish debate performance (both of which seem to have occurred more than a decade ago in 2020 time) set him up for a negative week in media coverage.

All of this is happening with under a month left until election day and hundreds of thousands of people voting early or absentee each day.

That gives us a lot of ground to cover in one newsletter. Let’s try to tie everything together via the lens of public opinion polling — most of which has been frankly quite devastating for the president. If he does recover from the coronavirus and lose the election next month, this last week may go down in history as the one that sealed his fate.


Trump's poll numbers take a dive after an ugly debate and positive covid-19 test

Voters lack sympathy for the president, and his diagnosis may even be changing a few minds about November

A number of polls were released this weekend, and all of them contained bad news for the president in one way or another. Let’s start with the most germane questions about his covid-19 diagnosis.

A poll from ABC News and Ipsos conducted throughout Friday and Saturday had the starkest findings for Trump. It found that 72% of voters thought that Trump did not take the "risk of contracting the virus seriously enough" or take "the appropriate precautions when it came to his personal health." That includes 43% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats — a notably substantial rebuke of the president from his own party.

A broader consequence of Trump’s diagnosis is that voters have gotten slightly more worried about contracting covid-19. That’s especially true for Republicans — which speaks more than a little to how partisans will follow their opinion leaders until a really shocking event shakes their motivated reasoning. According to the ABC/Ipsos poll, 81% of Americans are either very or somewhat concerned about getting the virus, up from 72% two weeks ago. The share of Republicans who are concerned rose 18 points from 52% to 70%, and among independents, the share rose from 69% to 82%.

Yet there is only mixed evidence that Trump’s covid diagnosis has hurt him all that much in pre-election polling. A separate poll from Ipsos and Reuters conducted between Friday and Saturday showed Biden with a 10-point margin nationally, up from a nine percentage point margin in their poll taken throughout Wednesday and Thursday. We also have some anecdotal data and off-the-record reports from private pollsters that things have shifted modestly in Biden’s direction over the last few days. But we need more data to be sure.

This bad news dovetails with substantial electoral fallout from the debate in the week. As I detailed in a subscribers-only post, most of the scientific polling conducted immediately after the debate found markedly negative reactions to the president’s brash debate style, which included a hitherto-unforeseen pace of interruptions and degree of disrespect for decorum. Accordingly, a poll from Yahoo and YouGov released Sunday found the president’s support slipping 4 points, which is in the margin of error for their survey but matches the trends in other polls. Yahoo reports that

Among registered voters who watched the raucous clash, 46% said Biden won; only 28% said the same of Trump. The president’s hectoring performance — a clear majority of debate watchers (59%) rated it as “poor,” compared to only 32% for Biden — was followed by a collapse in his support among likely independent voters. Before the debate, these independents narrowly preferred Trump (44%) over Biden (43%). After the debate, they preferred Biden (44%) over Trump (29%) — meaning the president effectively lost 15 points among independents overnight.

Similarly, on Sunday, an 800-person post-debate poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal (but fielded before news broke that Trump had covid) gave Biden his best margin of the campaign so far. They find that Biden is now ahead of Trump by 14 percentage points, 53% to 39% among registered voters — up from an 8-point lead in their pre-debate poll. (NB: That 14% is approaching outlier territory, but the trend is pointing in a similar direction to other polling.)

The NBC/WSJ poll also registered an increase in Joe Biden’s favorability ratings, which might help to explain how he has managed to stay above 50% in good polling averages over the election season:

Another issue that might have hurt Trump over the last week is his nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. According to NBC/WaPo, 50% of registered voters say they would prefer if the Senate waited to fill the seat left vacant by Ruth Bader Ginsburg until there's a winner in the presidential election. In comparison, 38% want the Senate to hold hearings and a vote before the election.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to two polls from YouGov and CBS News: one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. They find Biden and Trump tied in the Buckeye State and Biden up 7 among Keystone-state voters. Those are remarkably similar to the various polling averages and models in both states and indicative of some pretty significant shifts toward Biden there over the last few weeks. Regarding Pennsylvania, which is the likeliest tipping-point state, no high-quality poll (be it live phone or online) has found Biden with a lead smaller than 4 points over the last week. A poll from the New York Times on Saturday also clocked in at +7 for Biden.

Overall, as my analysis of the presidential race goes, I ended this week roughly where I began. The president cannot catch a break in the news cycle, which has been titled against him for weeks on end. That is, of course, a huge barrier to making any progress against both his 8 percentage point national deficit and a slightly smaller hole in the key states.

With only 30 days left, and this last week being what it was, it looks increasingly unlikely that Trump can do what it takes to win the election. Each of my toy election model, the Economist forecast, the FiveThirtyEight model and New York Times polling averages have slid against him over the last few days. Of course, that’s not to say that he can’t win, but his chances of doing so are getting grimmer by the day.

Posts for subscribers

What I'm Reading and Working On

No book recommendations this week as I haven’t been able to read enough of anything new due to a mountain of other obligations.

I wrote three articles for The Economist last week: One on how debates rarely change election outcomes; another on betting markets reacting negatively to Trump’s performance; and a final piece on the state of the race and Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis (which is gated for Economist newsletter subscribers).

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