Today’s polling data can’t tell us exactly what to expect on Election Day in 2020. Events are moving too quickly and on too many fronts—impeachment, the economy, and foreign policy, with potential blockbuster court cases looming on hot-button issues relating to health care, immigration, and perhaps even abortion—for us to have a clear sense of where the electorate will be a year from now.
But we do already know some of the electoral math that will be decisive in next year’s outcome: 85-plus percent of Republicans appear solid for Trump and 90-plus percent of Democrats appear willing to support the Democratic nominee, whoever that is. Which means that if either major-party nominee can carry independent voters by anything close to double digits, that candidate will win the popular vote and also win the Electoral College.
By digging into recent polling in three areas, we can begin to get a sense of what direction the electorate is heading—including those crucial independents. First, what are the trends in public support for impeachment? Second, what does the public think about the U.S. economy, which is often touted as one the president’s areas of strength? And third, what can we learn from looking at the president’s overall approval and disapproval ratings?
Polling on Impeachment
Let’s start with impeachment. Public opinion is moving and distinctly unsettled. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted in mid-September, 37 percent of the respondents supported Trump’s impeachment and removal while 57 percent were opposed. The splits were 95-4 percent opposed among Republicans and 73-21 percent in favor among Democrats, while independents were opposed 58-34 percent.
However, a month later Quinnipiac went back into the field. In a poll conducted in mid-October, 48 percent of the respondents supported the impeachment and removal of the president while 46 percent opposed it. The change came entirely from Democrats and independents: Republicans remained opposed by 91-6 percent, but Democrats were 86-9 percent in favor, and independents were supportive by 49-41 percent. This poll found that approval for the House impeachment inquiry was even higher: 55 percent among all respondents.
Other pollsters have found similar movement. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted June 28-July 1, 37 percent of the respondents supported beginning impeachment proceedings that could result in Trump’s removal from office, while 59 percent opposed them. But by the end of October, those numbers had changed: 49 percent were in favor of impeachment and removal, 47 percent were opposed.
(As an aside, while this survey has nearly the same topline number as Quinnipiac’s, the underlying data is intriguingly different: The WaPo/ABC poll showed more support for impeachment from Republicans, with 18 percent in favor of impeachment, while independents were slightly against it, by 49-47.)
There was another interesting number in the late-October WaPo/ABC poll: Asked about Rudy Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, 60 percent of voters said it was inappropriate, including 61 percent of independents and 32 percent of Republicans.
Other polls investigating public opinion about impeachment have been slightly less terrible for Trump. In an AP-NORC poll taken toward the end of October, only 38 percent of the respondents said Trump did something illegal regarding Ukraine, while another 29 percent said what he did was unethical but not illegal—and 30 percent said Trump did nothing wrong. It is a sign of Trump’s weakness that this result—“only” two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how he treated Ukraine—was, relatively speaking, a good number for him. The AP-NORC poll also found that by 61 to 38 percent, Americans say Donald Trump has no or not much respect “for this country’s democratic institutions and traditions.”
Two other recent polls, both released on November 3—one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, the other from Fox News—place the percentage of the electorate that wants Trump impeached and removed at 49 percent. In the NBC/WSJ poll, support for impeachment and removal had risen by 6 percent since early October.
Finally, polling in mid-October by the New York Times and Siena College found that majorities in each of six battleground states—Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Florida—still opposed removing Trump from office, while majorities or at least pluralities in each of those states supported the House impeachment inquiry.
All this polling points to the conclusion that there has been a sharp shift in public opinion about impeachment—toward approval of impeaching and removing the president. But public opinion hasn’t solidified; it still has the fluidity of mercury squirting from a broken thermometer. Out of the respondents who opposed impeachment in the recent Fox survey, 34 percent told the pollsters that there was a chance new evidence might change their mind. Public opinion—and hence the politics surrounding impeachment—could still move even more sharply against President Trump.
Polling on the Economy
Next, let’s assess public opinion regarding the economy. The public’s linked concerns about the economy and trade have stabilized this fall, as the heightened recession fears from the summer have abated. Talk of a trade war has become quieter and job numbers have stayed strong, helping Trump’s ratings on the economy. Yet recent New York Times/SurveyMonkey polling data reveals a hardening “along partisan lines” that could mean the president will reap less political benefit from a strong economy than might have been expected.
The SurveyMonkey poll—which was conducted in mid-October and used a large sample that was then weighted to match U.S. demographics—found that 38 percent of the public felt Trump’s policies had improved the economy, 37 percent felt his policies had made the economy worse, and 23 percent felt his policies had had no real effect. The partisan split was not subtle: 82 percent of Republicans felt Trump’s policies had improved the economy vs. only 6 percent who felt they had made things worse, while 65 percent of Democrats felt Trump’s policies made the economy worse, while only 7 percent felt Trump had improved the economy. Among independents, 40 percent felt Trump had worsened the economy and 22 percent felt his policies had improved it.
On the question of whether Americans felt they were better off financially today (36 percent) or a year ago (only 20 percent), the SurveyMonkey results were more favorable to the president. But here again independents broke only narrowly in favor of feeling financially better this year (27 percent) than a year ago (24 percent).
This data tracks with earlier polling about Trump’s economic policies, like a previous NYT/SurveyMonkey poll from June that found that 68 percent of respondents (weighted demographically) believed that Trump’s trade policies will raise prices for consumers. That figure was 69 percent among independents, 83 percent among Democrats, and 56 percent even among Republicans. All this leaves Trump vulnerable to the charge of imposing a hidden tax on the middle class in general and farmers in particular.
Today, public opinion about the economy gives both sides good news to point to. In the months ahead, events—including trade controversies and news about economic indicators—and how they are perceived will dictate whether Trump or the Democrats will have more wind in their political sails.
Trump’s Approval Rating
Let’s turn next to Trump’s overall approval ratings. The president is paying a price for three straight months (August, September, and October) of turmoil and chaos over race, the betrayal of the Kurds, and the apparent shakedown of Ukraine. Gallup reports that, in Trump’s eleventh quarter in office, his approval rating declined to 40.7 percent, down from 42.7 percent the previous quarter. As of this writing, the latest Gallup figures (from October 14-31) show Trump at 41 percent job approval to 57 percent job disapproval.
The FiveThirtyEight adjusted rankings of Trump’s job approval data showed the president reaching 41.3 percent approval vs. 54.7 percent disapproval in the week after the successful al-Baghdadi mission, only slightly changed from 40.7 percent approval to 54.6 percent disapproval just before the raid.
The most recent Fox News poll pegged Trump’s job approval at 42 percent approving and 57 percent disapproving. Comparing this Fox polling data to the 2016 exit polls, The Hill reported that “among white voters, he is down 8 points; among suburban voters, down 13; and among even his strong rural base he is down 9.”
In the most recent NBC/WSJ poll, just 38 percent of independents approved of the job President Trump was doing. When you distill all the polling data, Trump is clearly losing strength—especially among independents.
Stuck in a Cul-de-Sac
To reiterate something I wrote in an earlier piece for The Bulwark: Trump’s job approval rating—whether it is around 38-40 percent or 43-45 percent—is less important than if his disapproval rating rises to 55 percent or higher. If Trump’s disapproval rating locks in at 55 percent or above over the course of the next year, his prospects for re-election diminish precipitously. The lesson lurking in this polling data is pretty clear: In terms of public prestige, Trump is at the weakest point of his presidency.
Does all this mean Trump cannot win re-election? No. If the Democrats overplay their hand on impeachment and Medicare for All, and if the American economy improves, and if world tensions subside, Trump could use his enormous fundraising advantage to make the eventual Democratic nominee the issue. The underlying message in the polling data is that whichever party’s faults become the focus among swing voters, especially independents, by next Halloween, that party will lose next November’s elections.
From a public-opinion point of view, Trump has made several crucial mistakes. First, his cultivation of his base at all costs—to the exclusion of any outreach to swing voters—in an attempt to deter Republican defections over impeachment means that he has done nothing to build support for his re-election among the four key groups that delivered his margin of victory in 2016:
- white women in the suburbs;
- people with some college but not a four-year degree, who comprised a third of the electorate (according to exit polls Obama carried this group by 2 percent in 2012 while Trump carried it by 9 percent in 2016); and
- minority men (the 35 percent of middle-aged Latino men and the 13 percent of black men who voted for Trump vs. the under 25 percent of Latino women and only 4 percent of black women who voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls).
Trump’s vaunted base got him close in 2016, but it was his gains, and Clinton’s slippage, among those four key groups that gave him his inside straight in the Electoral College. Yet today Trump appears weaker with each of those swing groups than he was on Election Day 2016.
Second, the GOP defeats this week in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race and in the Virginia legislature (which completed the transformation of Virginia from a purple state to a light blue one), not to mention the local races in the suburbs of Philadelphia, could lead to a new calculation among congressional Republicans, particularly in the Senate.
It is true that opposing Trump has resulted in primary threats or defeats for congressional Republicans (e.g., Senators Flake and Corker and Representative Sanford). But after the 2018 midterms and this week’s results in Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, it is increasingly apparent that Trump’s cloak no longer protects Republicans in any general election where suburban voters drive the outcome. That is true in blue states, it is it is true in purple states and swing House districts, and it is increasingly true even in red states.
So the lesson congressional Republicans learned from 2010-2016—namely that if they could just avoid hard-right primaries, first from Tea Party candidates and then from Trump supporters, they could hold on in a general election—has reached a cul-de-sac (to use an appropriately suburban metaphor). Congressional Republicans who choose to oppose Trump will still risk defeat in a primary. But the polling data increasingly suggests that if they embrace Trump, that will prove fatal in a general election. Extracting themselves from that trap will be all but impossible outside ruby-red districts and states.
Given the relatively tight grip of partisanship, events are likely to have an outsized impact on the outcome of the 2020 national elections. If events stay quiet, and if Democratic disarray takes hold and becomes the focus of a billion-dollar negative-ad avalanche, Trump and the Republicans could get back in the game—especially if a third-party candidate were to flank the Democrats on the left (on foreign policy), à la Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jill Stein in 2016.
If, however, swirling, chaotic headlines work against the president on healthcare, foreign policy, and the economy, not to mention the fallout from impeachment, Trump and the GOP will find themselves behind the proverbial eight ball.
Donald Trump seems to want to make Rick Wilson into a modern-day Nostradamus. As Wilson has repeatedly observed, Trump cannot win re-election, but the Democrats could still lose in 2020. Both parties’ bases are likely to be motivated to turn out next November. So the outcome of the election will probably be determined by the true independents—those who are not woke enough to feel at home on the left but also not inclined to don red MAGA hats.