Don’t believe the polls: Trump’s populist presidency may carry him to victory in 2020

Current polling shows President Trump seriously trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race — but current polls are not an accurate gauge for predicting the November election outcome.


After all, if all the polling data up to the day of the 2016 election was correct, Hillary Clinton would be president. Polling is an art as well as a science. Evaluating raw polling data depends on the perceptions — or misperceptions — of those doing the polling.

President Trump’s enduring strength emanates from his being a populist president. Populist candidates and leaders, like Trump, reach out to the common citizens who believe that their interests and concerns have not been addressed by the established government, economic, and social institutions. Trump pledged to be the voice of the forgotten man and woman.

Trump’s populist messages and actions in office have been directed towards his loyal and supportive base — the “forgotten,” the non-college educated and working class (especially in small towns and rural areas), Evangelical Christians and social and cultural conservatives, as well as conservative Republicans. 

And it’s working.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, taken a few weeks ago, found that Trump’s overall approval rating stood at 46 percent. His standing among moderates was a modest 36 percent; however, his standing among Republicans was 89 percent. General poll numbers do not tell the full story of Trump’s base support.  

Much of Trump’s populist focus is motivated by what he believes to be issue areas neglected by the cultural and political establishment: family, faith, freedom and flag – patriotism and putting American concerns first.

President Trump’s character flaws and offensive behavior were well known prior to the 2016 election. Voters were not dissuaded. In recent months, there have been serious and devastating failures of leadership in the pandemic and on the racial injustice front — but shifting public attitudes and politics makes the November election seem like an eternity away. 

My reading of the Electoral College still puts Trump in a highly competitive, if not yet winning, position. The Electoral College tilts Republican. Deeply conservative states in the South, Southwest, plains states, and upper Midwest will vote Republican regardless of who the Republican presidential candidate is. The west coast and the northeastern states will vote Democratic.

That leaves a group of battleground states including Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to determine the election outcome. Also, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, and North Carolina are currently competitive. But by election day, the conservative majority composition of these states and an improving economy should bring these competitive states back to the Republican fold.

Trump has important advantages as a campaigner. He, like many populist leaders, is a master at creating negative narratives and definitions regarding opponents. He effectively uses social and broadcast media and campaign rallies to promote these narratives. Trump has defined Biden as “sleepy Joe” and as someone who has lost a step. Trump has also defined Biden as too close to China and corrupt — along with his son, Hunter. Trump pictures Democrats as advocating socialism and disparaging family, faith, and patriotism. He boasts that prior to the pandemic, America was having the “best economy ever” and claims he will reproduce that success in his second term. His combative tweets, conspiracy theories, and misrepresentation gain viability and put opponents on the defensive as they attempt to explain them away.

Biden is a candidate with substantial flaws. He has just emerged from a self-quarantine that showed him to be inarticulate, out of touch, and unable to communicate effectively via technology or social media. The Tara Reade and Hunter Biden situations — regardless of their veracity — will continue to hurt him. Biden did not do well in the Democratic presidential candidate debates. He was often unfocused and unclear. Trump is a more forceful and combative debater and will certainly outperform Biden. Surveys and interviews indicate that young progressive voters and protesters want to change the system, not vote for an establishment candidate like Biden. Many of them, uninspired by Biden, likely will not even vote.

Basically, the Democratic Party has not built a winning coalition. They desperately need greater electoral support from non-college educated working and middle-class voters. Democrats have become a post-economic liberal political party. They have reconstituted as a party of social and cultural liberalism with a focus on issues like abortion rights, global warming, and environment.

On the economic front, Democrats support globalization to uplift the impoverished in developing lands, favor the digital and gig economy, and advocate STEM and technology education in community college for displaced industrial sector workers.

They also offer safety net programs to compensate those who can only find employment in the low wage, low benefit economy. This agenda was created by highly educated elites who excelled in a meritocracy environment. It is not reflective of the working class and middle-class culture and objectives that stress the dignity of livable wage jobs. Further, it is not a formula that will attract their votes. Meritocracy Democratic liberals have simply lost touch with the working and middle class.

Democrats, barring a charismatic and transformative candidate like Barack Obama — which Biden is not — need a robust economic plan based on a rebirth of the manufacturing base. The tragedy of an America dependent on foreign suppliers — even for its own medical equipment, protective masks and garments — is reason enough to rebuild our manufacturing capacity. Racial justice will also require greater opportunity for livable wage employment for minority citizens.

Biden has pledged to select a woman as his vice-presidential running mate. Preference has been expressed for an African American woman. Biden will certainly benefit from such a selection; however, studies have shown that most voters cast their ballots primarily for the presidential candidate.

Biden and the Democrats need more than hope that Trump fatigue and the ongoing chaos and turmoil of his presidency will turn off enough voters to give them the presidential office. That will not be enough. The Democrats need to broaden their base of supportive voters. They will also need to fend off Republicans who actively practice voter suppression, costing Democrats votes in minority and less affluent communities.

It is an eternity until November. By then, today’s bleak outlook for Trump could very well be a bleak outlook for Biden.

Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven. He has studied the American presidency for five decades.

Tags 2020 election Barack Obama Donald Trump Donald Trump 2020 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Right-wing populism

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