The Memo: Trump’s strengths complicate election picture

Former Vice President Joe Biden has the clear upper hand in the battle for the White House, but there are troubling issues just beneath the surface for the Democratic nominee.

President Trump has shown resilient strength on his handling of the economy — traditionally the most important issue for many voters. A number of polls have also indicated that Trump’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Biden’s.

The three presidential debates are looming. The first clash, scheduled for Tuesday, will be Biden’s biggest test to date. There are also questions about Biden’s standing with Latino voters, who are crucial in many of the key battleground states.

The hope among Democrats is that there are just too many things weighing Trump down for him to win a second term. 

The death toll from COVID-19 in the United States surpassed 200,000 on Tuesday. The economy has bounced from its low point, but the national unemployment rate remains much higher than normal, at 8.4 percent in August.

The president’s personality puts off more Americans than it enthuses, at least according to the polls. Trump is also judged harshly by voters on issues, notably race relations, where his propensity to inflame the situation can backfire. 

More protests are looming on that score after the decision Wednesday that only one police officer involved in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Kentucky, would be charged in relation to the case. That officer does not face any charge in the killing of Taylor but rather for endangering her neighbors.

But for all the cards stacked against Trump, some Democrats worry that others in their party are growing complacent.

“When I hear people talk as if it’s done and Trump will lose, I just think, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” one Democratic strategist said plaintively.

New polls from The Washington Post and ABC News on Wednesday morning sharpened Democratic nervousness. Trump had small leads in the two states polled, Florida and Arizona. 

Trump led by 4 points among likely voters in Florida and by a single point in Arizona. Both results were within the margin of error and the Post noted that “the findings in the two surveys are better for the president than other polls conducted in the two states recently by other organizations.”

But it was not just the headline numbers that gave hope for Trump loyalists.

Voters in both states gave Trump relatively high marks for his handling of the economy. In Arizona, registered voters backing his record on that issue numbered 57 percent, against 42 percent disapproving. In Florida, 54 percent approved of his economic record and 43 percent disapproved.

Both findings were significantly better than Trump’s overall job approval numbers in either state. 

If there are “shy” Trump voters, unwilling to declare their allegiance in interviews with pollsters, it seems plausible they may be found among the ranks of those who believe their financial well-being would fare better under four more years of the president.

The findings from the Post-ABC News poll regarding the economy were consistent with other surveys. A Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters nationwide, also released Wednesday, showed Trump winning narrow approval on the economy, 49 percent to 48 percent, even as his overall job approval rating was well underwater, with just 43 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving.

The Quinnipiac poll had Biden with a lead of 10 points over Trump, a result that would be a near-landslide if it were replicated in November. The largest popular-vote margin so far this century came in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain by about 7 percentage points.

Still, voter enthusiasm appears to be another metric that is a bright spot for Trump. In the Post-ABC polls of Arizona and Florida, the share of his supporters who declared themselves to be “very enthusiastic” outstripped the number that said the same of Biden. The gap was 22 points in Arizona, though a much more modest 7 points in Florida.

Some Democrats insist that it is important not to make too much of the disparity.  

“What we have learned is that enthusiasm can be hard to measure or depend on,” said Democratic strategist Paul Maslin, who argued that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his campaign believed voter enthusiasm would deliver them to victory against then-President Obama. “But what they didn’t account for is that, in the five or six states that really mattered, Obama had an extraordinary organization. People there might only have been an 8 out of 10 in terms of enthusiasm but they all voted.”

Trump’s polarizing nature and the extraordinary circumstances of the moment should guarantee a huge television audience for Tuesday’s debate. Trump will be seeking to unsettle Biden and the president’s campaign will jump on any missteps by the Democrat. But if Biden simply emerges unscathed, the overall state of the race clearly favors him.

Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist, said he thought the debates could be less important than in some years because so many voters have already made up their minds. Gorman argued that the fight to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday, could be at least as important if the election is decided by enthusiasm among each party’s base supporters.

“There are very few people out there who are persuadable on either side,” Gorman said. “That is why I think this Supreme Court fight is so important. The left is already galvanized by Trump but the right has really been reminded why those elections are so important.”

With six weeks to go, it is plainly advantage Biden. But Trump is not to be counted out yet.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Arizona Barack Obama Coronavirus Donald Trump Florida Joe Biden John McCain Michigan Mitt Romney Pennsylvania Ruth Bader Ginsburg Wisconsin
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