One Year From Election, Trump Trails Biden but Leads Warren in Battlegrounds

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Despite low national approval ratings and the specter of impeachment, President Trump remains highly competitive in the battleground states likeliest to decide his re-election, according to a set of new surveys from The New York Times Upshot and Siena College.

Across the six closest states that went Republican in 2016, he trails Joe Biden by an average of two points among registered voters but stays within the margin of error.

Mr. Trump leads Elizabeth Warren by two points among registered voters, the same margin as his win over Hillary Clinton in these states three years ago.

The poll showed Bernie Sanders deadlocked with the president among registered voters, but trailing among likely voters.

The results suggest that Ms. Warren, who has emerged as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, might face a number of obstacles in her pursuit of the presidency. The poll supports concerns among some Democrats that her ideology and gender — including the fraught question of “likability” — could hobble her candidacy among a crucial sliver of the electorate. And not only does she underperform her rivals, but the poll also suggests that the race could be close enough for the difference to be decisive.

In national polls, Mr. Trump’s political standing has appeared to be in grave jeopardy. His approval ratings have long been in the low 40s, and he trails Mr. Biden by almost nine points in a national polling average. But as the 2016 race showed, the story in the battleground states can be quite different. Mr. Trump won the election by sweeping Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — even while losing the national vote by two points.

Democrats would probably need to win three of the six states to win the White House, assuming other states voted as they did in 2016 — an outcome that is not at all assured.

The Times/Siena results and other data suggest that the president’s advantage in the Electoral College relative to the nation as a whole remains intact or has even grown since 2016, raising the possibility that the Republicans could — for the third time in the past six elections — win the presidency while losing the popular vote.

There is a full year before Election Day, and a lot can change. Ms. Warren is an energetic campaigner. She could moderate her image or energize young and nonwhite voters, including the millions who might not yet even be included in a poll of today’s registered voters. Mr. Biden could lose the relatively conservative voters who currently back him; the president could be dealt irreparable political damage during the impeachment process.

But on average over the last three cycles, head-to-head polls a year ahead of the election have been as close to the final result as those taken the day before. The stability of the president’s approval rating is a reason to think this pattern might hold again for a fourth cycle, at least for the three leading and already well-known Democrats tested in these polls.

While Mr. Biden ranks as the strongest Democrat in the swing states polled, the findings are not necessarily great news for him, either. His appeal to Democrats hinges on the view that he’s a safe bet against the president, yet his lead against Mr. Trump is not nearly so comfortable that he could be considered a sure thing.

The Times/Siena polls depict an exceptionally energized and polarized electorate that remains divided along the lines of the 2016 presidential election. More than 90 percent of registered voters say they’re “almost certain” or “very likely to vote,” exceeding the 87 percent who said the same thing in Times/Siena polls conducted in the final weeks of the 2016 election.

Three years later, more than 90 percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters from 2016 approve of his performance, while more than 90 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s voters disapprove.

The major demographic cleavages of the 2016 election also remain intact. Mr. Trump struggles badly among college-educated white voters and nonwhite voters, though there are signs his standing among the latter group has improved modestly since the last presidential election. He counters with a wide lead among white voters who did not graduate from a four-year college.

In contrast to recent national surveys, the Times/Siena polls find that the president’s lead among white, working-class voters nearly matches his decisive advantage from 2016. This group represents nearly half of registered voters in these states, and a majority in the Northern battlegrounds that decided the last election.

The poll offers little evidence that any Democrat, including Mr. Biden, has made substantial progress toward winning back the white working-class voters who defected to the president in 2016, at least so far. All the leading Democratic candidates trail in the precincts or counties that voted for Barack Obama and then flipped to Mr. Trump.

As a result, Democrats appear to have made little progress in reclaiming their traditional advantage in the Northern battleground states, despite their sweep there in the 2018 midterms. Respondents in these states said they voted for Democratic congressional candidates by an average of six points, all but identical to their actual winning margins.

Nearly two-thirds of the Trump voters who said they voted for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 say that they’ll back the president against all three named opponents.

Nonetheless, Mr. Biden holds the edge among both registered voters and likely voters, and even among those who cast a ballot in 2016. He has a lead of 55 percent to 22 percent among voters who say they supported minor-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, and among those who say they voted but left the 2016 presidential race blank. It comes on top of a slight shift — just two points in Mr. Biden’s favor — among those who say they voted for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump.

Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, lose a sliver of Mrs. Clinton’s vote and make fewer inroads among Mr. Trump’s supporters.

The wide spread between the three candidates might be a surprise. But even in today’s polarized era, 21 percent of registered voters don’t simply line up for Mr. Trump or his Democratic opponents in the three head-to-head matchups. This includes 6 percent of the electorate that currently supports Mr. Biden against Mr. Trump but not Ms. Warren against Mr. Trump. There is also 3 percent of the electorate currently willing to support Ms. Warren but not Mr. Biden. And then there are the voters who are undecided in either matchup.

In states likely to be closely fought, even a modest swing among these voters could resolve the election in either side’s favor. In this poll, they swing the election in favor of Mr. Biden but leave Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders short.

Ms. Warren’s challenge is not just name recognition. She also underperformed her rivals against Mr. Trump in separate head-to-head polling of Iowa, where she and other candidates have been campaigning in earnest ahead of the Democratic caucus.

Ms. Warren trailed Mr. Trump by six points in Iowa, the widest gap among leading Democrats, even though she led the Democratic caucus in our poll. Pete Buttigieg, who is generally not as well known as Ms. Warren, trailed Mr. Trump by four points in Iowa, which was the only state where we included him in head-to-head polling against the president. Mr. Biden trailed by one point and Mr. Sanders by three.

An analysis of the 205 respondents from the six core battleground states who support Mr. Biden but not Ms. Warren suggests that she might struggle to win many of them over.

Over all, 26 percent of these voters say they have a favorable view of Ms. Warren, compared with 47 percent who have an unfavorable view.

They say, by a margin of 74 percent to 24 percent, that they would prefer a more moderate Democrat nominee to a more liberal one. By a nearly identical margin, they would prefer a Democrat who promises to find common ground with Republicans over one who promises to fight for a bold progressive agenda.

Of voters who support Mr. Biden but not Ms. Warren, 52 percent agree with the statement that Ms. Warren is too far to the left for them to feel comfortable supporting her for president, while 26 percent disagree.

The Biden voters who say Ms. Warren is too far to the left are relatively well educated and disproportionately reside in precincts that flipped from Mitt Romney in 2012 to Mrs. Clinton four years later. They oppose single-payer health care or free college, and they support the Republicans’ 2017 tax law. They are not natural Democratic voters: 41 percent consider themselves conservative; 20 percent say they’re Republican; 33 percent supported Mr. Trump or Mr. Johnson in 2016.

Dawn Marshall, an independent from Tampa, Fla., said that with the exception of Mr. Biden, the Democrats running for president are too left-leaning for her.

“They want to be socialists, and this is not a socialistic country,” she said. “This is a working country where people go out, do the best that they can do, find jobs. I am so sick and tired of having to support other folks. We can’t be equal.”

Ms. Marshall, a telecom engineer who is black and Native American, would not seem to be representative of her demographic group. Yet nonwhite Biden supporters are likelier than white Biden voters to say they would choose Mr. Trump over Ms. Warren.

At the same time, 41 percent of the voters who support Mr. Biden but not Ms. Warren say they agree with the statement that most of the women who run for president “just aren’t that likable,” likely bolstering concerns among some Democrats that sexism could be a burden on her candidacy.

These Biden supporters are disproportionately male and working class. This group holds a variety of conservative views on cultural issues: 55 percent agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities; 79 percent agree that political correctness has gone too far; 54 percent would reduce legal immigration.

Some women also fall into this group. Elysha Savarese, 26, works in victims advocacy in Florida. She voted for Mr. Trump and said she would not do so again.

But she wouldn’t vote for Ms. Warren, either.

“There’s just something about her that I just don’t like,” she said. “I just don’t feel like she’s a genuine candidate. I find her body language to be very off-putting. She’s very cold. She’s basically a Hillary Clinton clone.”

As for female presidential candidates in general, she said, “They’re super unlikable.”

The poll does show a natural area of potential growth for Ms. Warren: the 32 percent of Biden-but-not-Warren voters who do not agree that most female presidential candidates are unlikable or that Ms. Warren is too far to the left.

These voters like Mr. Biden — he has a 92 percent favorable rating among them — but 52 percent say they don’t know enough about Ms. Warren to have an opinion. Fifty-nine percent are nonwhite. Mr. Sanders has a wide lead against the president among these voters.

If these respondents had backed Ms. Warren in the Times/Siena survey, the poll results would have shown her and Mr. Trump deadlocked in an election highly reminiscent of 2016.

Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting.

The Times/Siena poll of 3,766 registered voters was conducted from Oct. 13 to Oct. 26. The margin of sampling error for an individual state poll is plus or minus 4.4, except for Michigan at plus or minus 5.1 points. Together, the battleground sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.

The Times/Siena poll of 1,435 registered voters in Iowa was conducted from Oct. 25 to Oct. 30 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

In 2018, the Times/Siena polls had an average error of 2.5 points in 10 polls in these states over the final three weeks of the campaign. If they had been joined together as one large poll, as is the case here, the final result would have been within 1 point.