Countdown to victory — but whose?
There is no question that Donald Trump has an enthusiastic base of supporters willing to risk the cold, the rain and even the coronavirus to cheer their president. But that base, in the low 40s, is falling just short — even in key swing states — to give the president enough votes to win reelection. Starting about a year ago, he needed to have cultivated a new group of swing voters but instead doubled down on his base, so his only lifelines now are so-called “shy Trump voters” and a massive Election Day turnout of his fans.
If you are Joe Biden, you are trying to get as many mail-in votes as you can, run tens of millions of dollars in ads, and run out the clock before there is a vaccine and big jobs numbers that are likely coming our way after Thursday’s big jump in Gross Domestic Product. This unconventional strategy has been working to keep the election a referendum on Trump — a referendum that Trump cannot win, with the virus raging and the deep-set perception he is just too divisive. Of course, it’s all with a little help from the media, as two-thirds of Americans see the media as hard on Donald Trump and two-thirds see the media as going easy on Joe Biden.
Trump was right to fear mail-in voting, as it appears that Democrats have a well-tuned effort to get their votes in early, and the polls show that the mail vote overwhelmingly favors Biden. It wasn’t about fraud; it was about making it easier for those already part of the political system to cast their votes no matter how busy. There is a reason — political interest — that Democrats are trying to push back every deadline for the receipt of mail votes and Republicans are insisting upon the letter of the law. Trump told his voters not to trust the mail — and so he needs some great weather and a finely tuned organization to get his voters to the polls, to make up for that massive tactical error.
Our Florida poll has Trump down 3 points, but the internals of the poll look somewhat more favorable to him than the top-line result. The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has a 53 percent approval rating and Trump’s approval there is 49 percent, 3 points ahead of his national average. He is getting 43 percent of the Latino vote and has a lead of 9 points over Biden on the economy. His biggest problem is a 10-point deficit on the virus but, surprisingly, that deficit is more among younger than older voters. Obviously, the night is over if he does not win Florida — but I would give a better-than-even chance he pulls this one off.
In North Carolina, where he is down by 1, Trump is winning the white vote by 60 to 38 but getting only 6 percent of the Black vote there. He is polling ahead 1 point of Republican Sen. Tom Tillis and has 48 percent job approval. North Carolina had a big cultural disconnect with Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Biden is better received there than she was, with a 50 percent favorable rating compared to 46 percent for the president. Trump does have strong support on the economy there and receives 45 percent approval on the virus, compared to his national average of 41 percent. Trump would need to expand his Black vote to at least 12 percent to put him barely over the top in this hotly contested state. For all the talk of his receiving a larger share of the Black vote, we are not seeing it in North Carolina.
If Trump can get through the roadblocks in Florida and North Carolina, then Pennsylvania — where he is down 5 — becomes the next significant hurdle. There, he has been helped by the dust-up over energy and fracking and is pulling in nearly 70 percent of the rural vote. Interestingly, national public opinion on fracking has swung from opposing it to narrowly favoring it, as it has become more associated with jobs. But Trump’s problem there is not the rural areas — where he receives strong support — but the suburbs, which he is losing by 9 points; Pennsylvania is more of a suburbanized state these days, despite a strong rural flavor in the western and central parts of the state. Here, he is getting only 2 percent of the Black vote in our poll. It’s unclear if events in Philadelphia will help or hurt the president, as Trump is way behind on bringing people together — and people are looking more for racial reconciliation than just law and order, which appears as too divisive.
The Hunter Biden story has been heard by about two-thirds of the electorate but, in our national poll, 51 percent consider it to be Russian disinformation — and, in the state-by-state polls, Biden voters even consider it a positive story. Information is so polarized coming down to the end that one wonders why Team Trump held this story for so long; perhaps they thought it would be an October surprise that would set Biden on his heels but, given the short window till the election, it has been successfully blocked so far by the Biden campaign and a media resistant to asking the tough questions it presents. In each of these states, the tech companies are called out for unfair censorship by the voters — but it is not an issue that moves votes.
The Biden campaign, following a debate that produced no movement against them and maybe was even a win, is breathing a little easier this week that perhaps they will get a break and narrowly pick up these critical swing states and avoid the controversy of a contested election coming down to how and when ballots are counted in Pennsylvania. If I were them, I would avoid the forays into Republican states like Texas and keep the pressure on the Trump campaign in these lifeline states.
Trump, on the other hand, continues to have almost unprecedented success with his rallies and is the head of a large-scale populist movement in American politics. However, he is trying to repeat too much of what brought him victory when he was a verbal bomb-throwing outsider crashing the Washington party. Now that he occupies the White House, voters want a president facing a pandemic and racial unrest who would have reached out and brought people together across the partisan divide, even in the face of fierce and relentless opposition.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.