A year before the nation votes, top Democratic contenders have extended their leads over President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race, with broad public concerns about the president’s leadership in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
While former Vice President Joe Biden now leads Trump by 17 percentage points, other Democratic contenders show the most improvement: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ advantage vs. Trump has gone from a non-significant 6 points in July to 12 in September to 17 now. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s has gone from 7 to 11 to 15 points.
Impeachment is not the only factor, since the trend dates to early September. Among Trump’s broader challenges, six in 10 Americans or more say he’s not honest and trustworthy, lacks the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively and doesn’t understand their problems. Slightly smaller majorities doubt his deal-making, delivery of “needed change” to Washington and leadership generally.
Further, as reported last week, half support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, 54% say his policies have made the United States less respected globally, 58% disapprove of his overall job performance and 66% say he’s acted unpresidentially since taking office. He’s the first president in modern polling never to have achieved majority approval, with the lowest average approval rating on record.
Yet Trump faced difficulties in 2016 and still prevailed in the Electoral College, if not in the popular vote. He remains strong in his base in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, with 70% support among conservatives vs. Biden, 76% among evangelical white Protestants and 79% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The Democrats have risks of their own. Their support is heavily concentrated in a handful of groups – for example, young adults, those with more education, racial and ethnic minorities, people living in urban areas and those in the states Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Biden is +30 points vs. Trump in those blue states, for example, while just +7 points – not a statistically significant difference – in the 2016 red states.
That said, 16% of leaned Republicans say they’d defect to Biden. Trump’s approval rating within his own party has dropped by 13 points since early July to a new low. And 30% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they’d like to see the party nominate someone else as its 2020 presidential candidate. (In a different question in 1995, two in 10 Democrats preferred not to renominate Bill Clinton.)
Trump’s presumed ace in the hole is the economy, and his fortunes may rest on its durability. As things stand, though, just a third of Americans, 34%, both say it’s improved since he took office and give him at great deal or good amount of credit for it.
Head to Heads
Elections are comparative and, given the Electoral College, strategic; even a poorly rated candidate can defeat a weak opponent, as Trump demonstrated in 2016. As such, his chances in 2020 depend not only on his ratings, but on the eventual Democratic nominee’s as well.
Leading Democrats currently have the upper hand. Among the party’s three frontrunners, Biden and Sanders lead Trump by an identical 56-39%, as does Warren, by 54-39%. South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris both hold 11-point leads.
Those results are among all adults, given that there’s plenty of time to register. Among currently registered voters, the outcomes are very similar – Biden ahead by an identical 17 points, Warren still by 15, Sanders by 14, Buttigieg still by 11 and Harris by 9. The results look different than at about this time in 2015. In an ABC/Post poll that September, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led Trump by 12 points in a matchup among all adults, 51-39%, but it was essentially a dead heat, 46-43%, among registered voters.
Trump’s support today is strikingly similar in all these matchups, 39% to 42%. His task is to build from there, either in support levels or higher turnout.
Results have improved for the Democrats, especially among registered voters. Warren ran evenly with Trump among registered voters in July, then moved to a slight +7 points in this group in September and on to +15 points now. Sanders went from +1 to +9 to +14 points among registered voters in this same period; Buttigieg, from a dead heat to +4 to +11. Biden was +10 among registered voters in July; he’s +17 now.
There are vast gender gaps in presidential preference, and they’ve widened. Focusing on the top three contenders, Biden and Warren are in virtual dead heats with Trump among men, but lead him by 30 and 29 points, respectively, among women. Sanders is a scant +8 points among men, while +26 among women.
The most notable change by gender is for Warren, whose margin against Trump among women has virtually doubled since July, from 55-40% then to 60-31% now.
Movement also has occurred among independents, who can be key swing voters in presidential elections. Sanders has improved vs. Trump by 17 points among independents since July and Warren by 14 points. (A challenge in this result is that independents, given their lack of partisan motivation, are less apt than party adherents to vote.)
Most of the change among independents has occurred among women – especially for Warren, who’s doubled her advantage over Trump among independent women from 18 points in July to 37 points now. That compares with 9-point gains among independent women for Biden and Sanders alike.
Notably among other groups, Trump’s not significantly ahead of the Democratic candidates among whites – a group he won by 20 points in 2016. About nine in 10 blacks and roughly two-thirds of Hispanics back the Democrats, similar for these groups in recent presidential elections.
Instructive among whites are preferences by gender and education. Trump is solid among non-college-educated white men (+37 points against Biden, for example). That’s countered by the Democrats among college-educated white women, +35 points for Biden.
It’s the combination of college-educated white women and nonwhites that forms the Democratic constituency; a risk for the party is that in 2016, per the network exit poll, Hillary Clinton won college-educated white women by just 10 points, and Trump did better among non-college white women and college-educated white men than he’s polling today.
Another question is whether these pairings would be unpalatable enough for some potential voters to skip the election entirely. Not many say they’d take a bye: Given a Trump-Biden, Trump-Sanders or Trump-Warren matchup, 10% to 14% say there’s at least some chance they might skip the election, with 6% to 9% saying there’s a good chance of it.
Independents, nonwhites and younger adults are most apt to say they’d skip the election given those matchups – three groups that are less likely to turn out in any case. Nonetheless, removing potential skippers from vote preference estimates doesn’t meaningfully change the standings of the Democratic candidates vs. Trump.
As noted, the economy’s the wildcard; incumbents tend to have better prospects in good economic times and to take the heat when the going gets tough.
Perhaps surprisingly, given historically low unemployment, the economy is not rated as highly as it could be: Fewer than half of Americans, 44%, say it’s improved since Trump has taken office. That’s twice as many as say it’s gotten worse, 22%. The rest, 31%, say it’s remained about the same.
A key reason is that partisanship strongly informs these responses, especially since Trump is part of the equation. Seventy-five percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the economy has improved under his presidency; just 15% of leaned Democrats agree.
Among those who say the economy has improved – disproportionately Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – 78% say Trump deserves a great deal or good amount of credit for it. Among all adults, this produces 34% who both say that they economy has improved and Trump gets credit. Across the spectrum, 19% both say the economy has gotten worse under Trump and he deserves blame for it.
The economy, then, is a net positive for Trump, albeit less of one than might be assumed. What’s clear is that it matters – Trump has overwhelming support from Americans who say the economy’s improved under his presidency, while his opponents hold vast leads among those who say it’s stayed the same or worsened.
Indeed, in a statistical analysis, views of the economy under Trump are one of the strongest independent predictors of vote preference, measured against partisanship, ideology and demographics. As such, attitudes about the economy in the next year may matter to the election at least as much as all the politicking ahead.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Oct. 27-30, 2019, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.7 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 29-23-38%, Democrats-Republicans-independents.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling and data collection by Abt Associates of Rockville, Md. See details on the survey’s methodology here.
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