Home US State of the presidential race: A deep dive on the polls

State of the presidential race: A deep dive on the polls

Trump remains mired with underwater approval ratings, particularly on his handling of the coronavirus. He retains a small-but-enthusiastic base eager to vote for his reelection, but the majority of Biden voters say they are backing the Democrat more to throw out Trump and elevate the former vice president to the Oval Office.

Despite Biden’s advantage, there are still some warning signs in the data — though, like most presidential candidates, he is earning initially high marks for his pick of a running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Here are five things to know about where the race stands going into the conventions:

Trump’s slight but insufficient inroads

Biden’s yawning lead in June and July has given way to a slightly smaller — but still commanding — advantage in August.

The RealClearPolitics average shows Biden ahead by 8 percentage points as of late Sunday — larger than any president’s winning margin of victory since Bill Clinton in 1996 — but down a tick from the 10-point lead he had earlier in the summer.

That slight tightening can also be seen in individual surveys. The biggest shift away from Biden came in a CNN/SSRS poll released on Sunday night. That poll showed the newly minted Biden/Harris ticket just 4 points ahead of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, 50 percent to 46 percent. In June, Biden led Trump by 14 points, 55 percent to 41 percent.

Other surveys show little to no tightening, however. An ABC News/Washington Post poll published early Monday shows Biden leading Trump by 12 points among registered voters, down from 15 points last month — and 10 points among likely voters, unchanged from last month.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday — conducted mostly before Biden tapped Harris to join the ticket — gave the former vice president a 9-point lead, 50 percent to 41 percent. That was down from an 11-point advantage in July.

A Fox News survey released late last week but conducted over the same time period as the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Biden leading Trump, 49 percent to 42 percent. That 7-point lead is down slightly from 8 points in July and 12 points in June.

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Earlier in the week, entirely before the Harris pick, a Monmouth University poll showed Biden ahead by 10 points, down from 13 points in late June. And a Pew Research Center survey gave Biden an 8-point lead, compared with his 10-point lead in June.

Not all polls show Trump inching a little closer to Biden: A CBS News/YouGov survey conducted after the Harris pick and released on Sunday morning shows Biden with a 10-point lead, 52 percent to 42 percent, equal to Biden’s lead last month. And a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll released last week showed Biden’s lead growing slightly, from 8 points in late June to 11 points this month.

Neither result is inconsistent with only a small amount of tightening in the race overall.

For Biden, but really against Trump

As he fell significantly behind Biden over the past few months, Trump and his campaign have increasingly touted the passion among the president’s supporters: the digital audience for the campaign’s internet video broadcasts, the flotillas of watercraft carrying “Trump” flags, and the relative gap in enthusiasm between Trump and Biden backers for their candidates.

And while Trump maintains an edge when voters are asked whether they support their candidate more strongly, Biden’s voters are just as enthusiastic — though their enthusiasm is more about booting Trump from office than electing the 77-year-old Biden.

That phenomenon can be seen across the latest surveys. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 74 percent of Trump voters said they were backing the incumbent more as a vote for Trump, while 20 percent of Trump voters said it was more about opposing Biden. By contrast, 58 percent of Biden supporters said it was more about opposing Trump, while only 36 percent said they were voting more for Biden.

The CNN/SSRS poll was similar: 67 percent of Trump supporters saw their vote as mostly for Trump, while 58 percent of Biden voters said they mostly wanted to oppose Trump.

The Fox News poll asked respondents what was motivating them more: enthusiasm for their candidate to win, or fear the other candidate will prevail. By an 18-point margin, Biden voters say they are more afraid that Trump will win (57 percent) than enthusiastic about Biden becoming president (39 percent). Trump voters, meanwhile, are more enthusiastic about the president winning a second term (51 percent) than Biden taking over (42 percent).

Don’t confuse Trump supporters’ fervor for him with an overall enthusiasm gap. The Fox News poll showed 62 percent of voters overall said they were “very interested” in the presidential election — but Biden supporters (71 percent) were more likely to describe themselves as “very interested” than Trump supporters (61 percent).

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Biden’s anti-Trump coalition has crossed into some demographic groups that have, in past elections, favored Republicans. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Biden leading Trump among voters 65 and older, 50 percent to 43 percent. According to the 2016 National Election Pool exit poll, Trump beat Clinton among seniors by 7 points.

Biden also has a roughly 2-to-1 lead among self-identified independent voters, another group that tilted toward Trump in 2016, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed.

High marks for Harris

The polls that were conducted after Biden selected Harris to join the ticket show voters are mostly happy and comfortable with the pick.

In the CBS News/YouGov poll, a combined six in 10 voters said they were enthusiastic or satisfied with Biden’s choice. And a majority, 54 percent, said they thought Harris would be qualified to take over as president if Biden could not complete his term in office.

Similarly, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found that, by a 25-point margin, adults 18 and older approved of Biden‘s picking Harris, 54 percent to 29 percent.

But it’s not unusual for Americans to give high marks to potential vice presidents in the immediate wake of their selections. Trend-lines from previous ABC News/Washington Post polls found majorities approved of a number of choices: then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in 2012, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dick Cheney in 2000, and Jack Kemp in 1996.

Sixty percent of Americans approved of then-Sen. John McCain’s choice of Palin in early September 2008, though later surveys showed most voters thought she lacked the experience to be president by November.

Where are the state polls?

The 2016 polling failure was as much about the imbalance between national polls — which were mostly accurate — and a conspicuous lack of rigorously conducted battleground-state polling.

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So far, 2020 looks like more of the same.

The pre-convention rush of polls has been almost exclusively at the national level. Most major news organizations have released (or will release) national poll results prior to the start of the Democratic convention on Monday, including the three major broadcast networks, two major newspapers, PBS, NPR and Fox News.

Meanwhile, there has been very little reliable, nonpartisan state polling released over the past week. A Marquette Law School poll in Wisconsin found Biden leading Trump by just 4 points among likely voters, 50 percent to 46 percent — a result that suggests the president is still running stronger than his national standing in at least one key Electoral College state.

The national polls serve an important purpose. They help reveal the mood and opinions of voters about the candidates and the issues. They reveal the demographic and attitudinal coalitions the candidates are building. But they may fail to detect movement in the states where both candidates are actively campaigning and working to persuade voters, like Wisconsin.

A closer battle for Congress

The presidency isn’t the only meaningful lever of power in Washington up for grabs this fall: Both parties regard the fight for the Senate to be almost a toss-up.

Two of the major national surveys offered insight into the battle to control Congress — and both found Democrats with an advantage, though a smaller lead than Biden currently enjoys at the top of the ticket.

The PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll showed Democrats with a 6-point edge on the generic congressional ballot, 49 percent to 43 percent — closer than Biden’s 11-point lead in the presidential race.

Similarly, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that, by a 5-point margin, more voters prefer a Congress controlled by Democrats (47 percent) than by Republicans (42 percent). That’s again a smaller edge than Biden’s 9-point lead over Trump.

That poll also suggested voters were uncomfortable with handing either party complete control of Washington after the election — but especially about turning over the keys to the GOP again. Half of voters said it would be a bad thing if Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate and the House after the election, far more than the 32 percent who said that would be a good thing. (Republicans are unlikely to regain the House majority, even if Trump comes back to win narrowly, and the party holds the Senate.)

Meanwhile, 44 percent of voters said it would be a bad thing for Democrats to hold the White House and both of chambers of Congress, while 36 percent said it would be a good thing to give Democrats control of a now-gridlocked Washington.

The smaller gap in the battle for Congress than in the presidential race might suggest some voters aren’t sold on giving Democrats complete control, even if they’ve soured on Trump as president.

But, like the presidency, the Senate will be decided on a state-by-state basis — with both parties viewing races in little-polled states like Maine, Iowa and Montana as key pieces of the puzzle.

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