Voters might be feeling bleak and turn against an incumbent at this moment for any number of reasons—just look around. A pandemic has killed nearly 130,000 Americans, with no end in sight, and the economy is in the deepest recession in decades, with millions out of work, also without a clear end in sight.
But these are not the issues where Trump is hurting the most in recent polls. Roughly half of the country approves of the president’s handling of the economy, and the New York Times/Siena poll found that 56 percent of battleground-state voters do. These numbers are perplexing, given the state of the economy; presidents usually get more credit for a good economy than they deserve, but also take blame for a bad one, even if it is largely beyond their control.
Perhaps Trump is still cruising on memories of the strong economy over the first three years of his term, and that will collapse if the recession continues, as seems likely. Or perhaps the stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits are buying his ratings. In any case, at the moment, approval of the president’s handling of the economy outpaces both his overall approval rating and the portion of people who say they intend to vote for him. It’s a bad sign for Trump’s reelection that 10 to 15 percent of people who rate his economic performance well won’t vote for him, but the economy is apparently not a big drag on him right now.
What about the pandemic? One reason the economy is bad is that Trump believed he could decouple it from COVID-19, an error whose gravity is becoming ever clearer. Trump’s pandemic-response approval is about 41 percent nationwide, having slowly slid down from about 50 percent in late March. One can argue that voters are giving Trump a pass he doesn’t deserve, but the numbers are the numbers. His pandemic-response approval is about the same as his overall approval, and it’s ahead of where he runs in the New York Times/Siena, Harvard/Harris, and CNBC polls, so it’s apparently not what’s dragging him down either. Nor does the gradual slide on pandemic-response approval match up with changes in election polling.
Instead, the driving factor for Trump’s collapse appears to be race. Polls have consistently shown that Americans disapprove of his response to protests of police violence and believe that he has worsened race relations. In the New York Times/Siena poll, race relations (33 percent) and the protests (29 percent) are the only areas where issue approval lags behind his overall vote preference. In the Harvard/Harris poll, the same two areas earn Trump his worst marks of any issue, though they are still slightly higher than his expected vote.
Voters are right that Trump is worsening race relations and handling the protests poorly. In the past two days alone, the president has retweeted (and then deleted) a video of one of his supporters shouting “White power!” and another of two white supporters pointing guns at black protesters marching past their house.
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