For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.
As pollsters are at pains to point out, polls are snapshots and not forecasts; Biden’s lead could dissipate, though this race has been unusually stable so far. Contrary to Trump’s protestations, Biden’s lead as it exists now is real—and given how hard it has been for anything to dent Trump’s carapace, it’s worth examining closely. Stranger still, the impetus appears to be race—something that has been both Trump’s Achilles’ heel and his secret weapon throughout his political career. For some reason, it’s affecting his political standing differently than it has before.
Voters might be feeling bleak and turn against an incumbent at this moment for any number of reasons—just look around. A pandemic has killed nearly 130,000 Americans, with no end in sight, and the economy is in the deepest recession in decades, with millions out of work, also without a clear end in sight.
But these are not the issues where Trump is hurting the most in recent polls. Roughly half of the country approves of the president’s handling of the economy, and the New York Times/Siena poll found that 56 percent of battleground-state voters do. These numbers are perplexing, given the state of the economy; presidents usually get more credit for a good economy than they deserve, but also take blame for a bad one, even if it is largely beyond their control.
Perhaps Trump is still cruising on memories of the strong economy over the first three years of his term, and that will collapse if the recession continues, as seems likely. Or perhaps the stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits are buying his ratings. In any case, at the moment, approval of the president’s handling of the economy outpaces both his overall approval rating and the portion of people who say they intend to vote for him. It’s a bad sign for Trump’s reelection that 10 to 15 percent of people who rate his economic performance well won’t vote for him, but the economy is apparently not a big drag on him right now.
What about the pandemic? One reason the economy is bad is that Trump believed he could decouple it from COVID-19, an error whose gravity is becoming ever clearer. Trump’s pandemic-response approval is about 41 percent nationwide, having slowly slid down from about 50 percent in late March. One can argue that voters are giving Trump a pass he doesn’t deserve, but the numbers are the numbers. His pandemic-response approval is about the same as his overall approval, and it’s ahead of where he runs in the New York Times/Siena, Harvard/Harris, and CNBC polls, so it’s apparently not what’s dragging him down either. Nor does the gradual slide on pandemic-response approval match up with changes in election polling.
Instead, the driving factor for Trump’s collapse appears to be race. Polls have consistently shown that Americans disapprove of his response to protests of police violence and believe that he has worsened race relations. In the New York Times/Siena poll, race relations (33 percent) and the protests (29 percent) are the only areas where issue approval lags behind his overall vote preference. In the Harvard/Harris poll, the same two areas earn Trump his worst marks of any issue, though they are still slightly higher than his expected vote.
Voters are right that Trump is worsening race relations and handling the protests poorly. In the past two days alone, the president has retweeted (and then deleted) a video of one of his supporters shouting “White power!” and another of two white supporters pointing guns at black protesters marching past their house.
This is hardly new, though. This outbreak of presidential race-baiting comes just in time for the one-year anniversary of the president’s most recent notable eruption of racism. As my colleagues and I have reported, exploiting racial tensions has been a way of life for Trump since the earliest days of his business career, and it was the unifying concept of his 2016 campaign. He has followed that path during his presidency, including his notorious response to a violent white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, in which he found “very fine people” on both sides.
When video of the police killing of George Floyd first emerged, Trump condemned it, but he quickly reverted to his standard rhetoric, seeing a chance to exploit and exacerbate divisions over race. It’s hard to believe that anyone is surprised: While not every offensive Trump comment has reached the same wide audience or been interpreted the same way, the president’s most widely covered remarks have touched on race. What is different this time is the way people are responding.
But why? Perhaps it’s just a matter of what issues are most important to voters right now. There’s always been a sizable contingent of reluctant or conflicted Trump supporters. In 2016 exit polls, only 35 percent of voters said Trump had the temperament to be president, but he won 46 percent of the popular vote. These voters are a familiar staple of news coverage too—the ones who preface their support with “I don’t always like the way he phrases it” or “I wish he would tone it down a little, but …” Until now, these voters may have been able to overlook Trump’s other flaws because he was getting done things they liked. But the pandemic has frozen progress on nearly all of Trump’s policy priorities, insofar as they were still alive anyway. Even if voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, it’s no longer much of a positive benefit. And the profusion of news coverage has made issues of race impossible to ignore.
Alternatively, perhaps voters are shifting not just their priorities but their views. As the political scientist Michael Tesler writes, there’s evidence of real shifts in public opinion on race over the past six weeks or so. While views on policing are moving in response to a wide range of incidents, it’s clear that the Floyd case—brutal, senseless, and captured in excruciating clarity on video—has captured white attention in a way other deaths at the hands of police have not. One reason for that may be the coronavirus. Ashley Jardina, a political scientist who studies racial attitudes among white people, told me that she suspects because people are stuck at home due to the pandemic, they’re consuming more news and changing their views on race.
“There has long been a constituency of white Americans who are fairly educated, many of them college educated, disproportionately women, who have been largely unaware of the extent to which people of color in the U.S. experience real discrimination,” she said. “The news has their attention.”
That’s the group where some of the biggest shifts in support have moved toward Biden. The Times reports:
Most stark may be Mr. Biden’s towering advantage among white women with college degrees, who support him over Mr. Trump by 39 percentage points. In 2016, exit polls found that group preferred Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Trump by just 7 percentage points. The poll also found that Mr. Biden has narrowed Mr. Trump’s advantage with less-educated white voters.
The hardest-core Trump supporters—especially non-college-educated white men—are unlikely to be swayed by the news. They are why Trump’s approval likely has a floor somewhere in the 30s, and why his share in national horse-race polls does too. But if reluctant Trump voters from 2016 are undergoing a change on their view of race relations, it could have seismic implications for his reelection.
There’s always the possibility that not everything is about Trump, as much as he tries to make it that way, and more is about Biden. Some Democrats despaired during the primary that any generic Democratic nominee polled better against Trump than any of the real candidates. But now that Biden has clinched the nomination, Democrats and undecided voters have coalesced around him. Having a specific alternative—and having it be steady-rolling Joe Biden—creates a contrast that is unflattering for Trump, especially in times of crisis.
Though curious, the specific causes for Trump’s polling drop may be less immediately relevant, especially if they are obscure. The more pressing—and, for Trump, worrying—problem is how to get the polls to move again. In a new YouGov poll, 94 percent of registered voters said they had already made up their mind about how they’ll vote in November. That gives the president little maneuvering room to regain them and get back in a winning position—especially since there’s not much chance that he’s going to change his own rhetoric or style.