Just How Disastrous Are the Latest Polls for Donald Trump?


The past few days have brought a series of alarming polls for President Donald Trump, including a new national poll from CNN that was released on Tuesday morning, which shows Joe Biden leading him by sixteen points: fifty-seven per cent to forty-one per cent. Another national poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, which was released on Sunday, showed Biden with a fourteen-point lead: fifty-three per cent to thirty-nine per cent. At the state level, a New York Times and Siena College survey of likely voters in Arizona, a state that the Democrats have only carried once since 1948, showed Trump trailing Biden by eight percentage points. This finding came a day after the same polling team released a pair of polls which indicated that Biden has comfortable leads in Florida and Pennsylvania, two key battleground states.

The interviews for most of these surveys were carried out after last Tuesday’s chaotic Presidential debate, in Cleveland, Ohio, but before Trump was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for the coronavirus. (Questioning for the CNN poll took place over the weekend, when Trump was in the hospital.) To get a better idea of what the latest polling portends for the election, and whether Trump’s illness is likely to change things much, I spoke on Monday with two veteran polling experts: Peter D. Hart, who founded the Democratic polling firm Hart Research, which helps to carry out NBC News and Wall Street Journal polls, and Whit Ayres, the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research, a well-connected Republican firm.

When I interviewed Hart for an earlier piece, he thought that the first debate would be a critical moment for both candidates, but particularly for Biden, whom voters would be sizing up as a potential President. Hart likened the situation to 1980, when the contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, who was an unpopular incumbent, was pretty close until Reagan’s performance in the first debate dispelled some voters’ doubts about him. On Election Day, Reagan carried forty-nine states and won the popular vote by almost ten points. During our conversation on Monday, Hart said that the Cleveland debate—which he called a “critical threshold”—could prove equally important for this year’s election.

“It’s really pretty simple,” Hart said. “For the voters, I think what they discovered about Trump is ‘enough already,’ and I think for Biden it was ‘good enough.’ ” Going into the debate, Hart explained, Trump’s strategy was obviously to “destroy Biden” by throwing a whole bunch of things at him simultaneously, and trying to “get into his grill,” but the plan didn’t work out. “Biden didn’t crack or seem short of answers,” Hart said. “And he spoke directly to the camera, which was a big plus for him. What happened out of all of this is, essentially, people said, ‘Biden’s safe, or good enough. If I thought I was taking a chance”—in voting for him—“I don’t think it’s as much of a question mark as I was concerned about.’ ”

The numbers from the new national polls support Hart’s analysis. In the CNN poll, fifty-eight per cent of respondents said they thought that Biden did a better job in the debate, and twenty-seven per cent said that Trump did. The findings of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll were similar: forty-nine per cent of respondents said they thought that Biden did a better job, compared to twenty-four per cent for Trump. And, for the first time in this poll since Trump took office, fifty per cent of respondents said that they had a “very negative” view of him. Hart also pointed to another question from the survey—the “feeling thermometer”—which involves asking people about their feelings toward the two candidates. In each of the previous NBC and Wall Street Journal surveys from this year, Biden recorded a negative score, meaning that there were more people with negative feelings about him than people with positive feelings. In the post-debate poll, however, that changed. Biden’s feeling thermometer registered positive by two percentage points: forty-three per cent of respondents said that they felt positively about him, versus forty-one per cent who said that they had negative feelings. “Now, you may say that finding isn’t all that impressive,” Hart said. “But when the President is underwater by twenty points, it is more than enough.”

Trump’s admission to the hospital knocked the debate from the headlines and upended his own campaign. I asked Hart if he thought that Trump, assuming he makes a rapid recovery, might conceivably be able to use his illness to his advantage. Hart said that this was possible but unlikely. “What would work for him best is what he can do least,” he said. “Which is to have a Damascene conversion on the coronavirus. One where voters say, ‘I don’t recognize that. He really has turned over a new leaf. Having gone through this, he recognizes the challenge and is turning all his attention and energy toward safety and getting rid of the virus.’ That’s what would be best, but that’s sort of like teaching an elephant to do gymnastics.”

Ayres, the Republican strategist and pollster, has advised numerous candidates, including Marco RubioLindsey Graham, and Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. In our conversation, I began by asking him about the NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll, which received a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was considerably more cautious than Hart in reaching conclusions. He pointed to possible issues with the survey’s sample, which, out of a hundred, contained nine more self-identified Democrats than Republicans, compared to a margin of five more Democrats in the group’s previous survey. “It does indicate that the debate may have helped Biden,” Ayres said of the poll. “But it’s too early to reach a definitive judgment on that.”

The new CNN poll, which was published after I spoke with Ayres, appears to confirm the message of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In any event, Ayres didn’t sound at all sanguine about Trump’s political predicament. In fact, he volunteered that the debate in Cleveland had been “disastrous.” When I asked him if there was data to back that up, he replied, “I don’t know I would say it was established by data. I would say it belongs in the realm of the self-evident.” Some Trump aides have sought to downplay recent polls, particularly the battleground-state polls, saying that they are undercounting some Trump voters. But, when I asked Ayres about these polls, he said that they were probably more reliable this year than in 2016, because most pollsters now adjust their samples to account for the balance between voters with a college education and those without one. In the Trump era, he said, making this adjustment “has become absolutely critical, particularly amongst women.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I brought up the Trump campaign’s argument that it can still overcome its deficit in the polls by turning out droves of new voters, particularly white voters without a college degree. “That’s correct,” Ayres said. “There are a lot of non-college voters, particularly in the Midwest, who didn’t vote” in previous elections. “The problem is,” he continued, “it’s incredibly difficult to get unregistered, nonparticipating voters registered and to the polls in any significant numbers, and that’s not how Trump won in 2016. Trump won by flipping voters that had voted before from Obama to Trump.” Even if Trump does succeed in raising turnout on November 3rd, Ayres added, his opponent is likely to do the same thing. “Democrats are at a fever pitch,” he said. “We may well have the highest turnout we have ever had in a Presidential election.”

Throughout our conversation, Ayres traced many of Trump’s problems to his handling of the coronavirus, which appears to have alienated older voters in particular. In 2016, Trump carried this crucial demographic by seven per cent, according to the network exit poll. The new surveys from the New York Times and Siena College poll show Biden leading among voters aged sixty-five and older by eleven points in Pennsylvania, by two points in Florida, and by one point in Arizona. “None of that is a real surprise, given that seniors are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus,” Ayres said. “It’s difficult to isolate any one factor and say it’s all due to that. [Trump’s] style may have something to do with it. But the most obvious explanation is that the group most vulnerable to the coronavirus went the most negative on his handling of it.”

Rather than focussing on the virus, the Trump campaign has sought to direct attention to other issues, such as “law and order” and the economy. I asked Ayres if he thought that it was too late for this strategy to start working. “It’s not too late, but you can’t simply argue that we’ve got to focus on the economy and not the pandemic, because the economy’s problems are caused by the pandemic,” he said. “So you’ve got to have a more sophisticated, interrelated message about how a particular candidate would be better able to get the economy going while we battle the coronavirus. It can’t just be one or the other.”

When I spoke to Ayres, the news had broken that Trump was about to return to the White House. I asked him what advice he would offer the President and his campaign managers. “The most critical need is for a well-thought-out, well-documented plan, complete with various markers of progress, for addressing the pandemic,” he said. “That lies at the heart of all our problems—the economy, our education system, our health care, our sports life, everything.” I asked Ayres if he had any confidence that the Trump campaign would follow this advice once the President gets out of the hospital. “I’d better not say anything about that,” he replied.


John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.




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