Depending on which reputable survey you look at, President Donald Trump’s approval rating is somewhere between 41 and 38 percent — numbers that are underwhelming at best. But a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College illustrates how Trump has a clear path to winning a second term even as he remains unpopular nationally.
The NYT/Siena polling — which is framed as a look at the state of the 2020 race exactly one year before Election Day — indicates the Electoral College advantage that landed Trump in the White House (despite him receiving nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton) is still very much in play. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren in six battleground states that Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina — Trump is still extremely competitive.
Trump is broadly unpopular in each of those states, with his approval rating ranging from 2 percentage points underwater in Florida to 11 percentage points underwater in Wisconsin. But the story is different when Trump matches up against the top Democratic contenders. Here’s the state-by-state breakdown, via Nate Cohn, who wrote the Times piece about the polling:
Beyond showing Biden better positioned to defeat Trump in battleground states than Sanders or Warren, the poll illustrates the “nightmare” scenario for Democrats outlined by David Wasserman in a July piece for MSNBC — one in which Trump loses the Electoral College by as many as 5 million votes, but still prevails in the Electoral College. To put it succinctly, no matter how much the Democratic nominee runs up the score in states like California and New York, it won’t matter if they can’t win in a handful of the aforementioned states that Trump won in 2016. And as of now, only Biden is positioned to do that — and even in that case his edge over Trump is within the margin of error.
What explains Trump’s enduring appeal in battleground states? According to the NYT/Siena poll — his overwhelming popularity with white voters who don’t have college degrees, which is just as strong now as it was three years ago.
Cohn writes that “[i]n contrast to recent national surveys, the Times/Siena polls find that the president’s lead among white, working-class voters nearly matches his decisive advantage from 2016 … The poll offers little evidence that any Democrat, including Mr. Biden, has made substantial progress toward winning back the white working-class voters who defected to the president in 2016, at least so far.”
Democrats, of course, dominated the 2018 midterms and took control of the House of Representatives by winning 40 seats nationwide. But Cohn’s piece indicates that those results aren’t necessarily predictive of what will happen in the presidential race next year, since “[n]early two-thirds of the Trump voters who said they voted for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 say that they’ll back the president against all three named opponents.”
The astounding advantage the Electoral College gives to Republicans, in one chart
There are some caveats. The Times’ polling, which was based on a survey of 3,766 registered voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, and 1,435 registered voters in Iowa between October 13 and October 30, does not account for new voters. A piece detailing the methodology notes that the Michigan results, in particular, should be treated “with an added degree of caution,” since pollsters had trouble with the sample there. And it’s somewhat of an outlier when compared with other recent polls in states like Florida and Wisconsin that have showed Biden in particular with larger leads over Trump.
Still, the survey shows why fluctuations in Trump’s national approval rating — which currently indicates he’s the second least-popular president at this point in his term in modern times, ahead only of Jimmy Carter — should be taken with a grain of salt. What ultimately matters is the Electoral College. And in that contest, Trump remains in a strong position to win — even if he loses the popular vote by an even wider margin than in 2016.
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