by William A. Galston
While the country’s attention has been riveted on the COVID-19 pandemic, the general election contest is quietly taking shape, and the news for President Trump is mostly bad.
After moving modestly upward in March, approval of his handling of the pandemic has fallen back to where it was when the crisis began, as has his overall job approval. The president trails his challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, by more than five points in the national polls. A recent survey finds that the president has lost more ground in swing states than in either solid Republican or solid Democratic states. It is not surprising, then, that Biden now leads in five of the six key battlegrounds—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona—and is tied with the president in North Carolina. Moreover, states that should be in the incumbent’s column by comfortable margins—Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia—are surprisingly competitive.
As the 2016 election proves, all this can change. The question is whether President Trump is losing ground among core elements of his coalition in ways that he will find hard to reverse.
Some portions of this coalition—white evangelical Protestants and white men with less than a college education—are rock-solid. But there is evidence that other groups are beginning to waver. For example, President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton among voters 65 and older by 7 points, 52-45 percent, in 2016. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, by contrast, Biden led Trump by 9 points, 52-43. Because seniors vote at a higher rate than any other age cohort, the shift in this group alone could be enough to sink the president’s prospects in closely contested states.
As Trump pushes to reopen the economy, seniors, who overwhelmingly give priority to defeating the coronavirus over getting back to work, are registering their disapproval. As commentators have noted, the pandemic has driven a wedge between retirees and less educated middle-age workers, who cannot work remotely and depend on a regular paycheck. The president needs to retain the support of both these groups, but he is finding it hard to please one without antagonizing the other.
Trump’s troubles do not end here. Continuing a trend first evident in the 2018 midterm elections, he is losing ground among white working-class women, who supported him by a 27-point margin in 2016. Because opinion among college-educated voters has hardened against the president since he took office, he needs strong majority support among the entire white working class to prevail. Working-class men will not be enough; he must get the votes of their spouses and daughters as well.
Although it is impossible to know for sure why white working-class women are deserting President Trump, some hypotheses are consistent with the evidence. Women attach a higher priority to health issues than do men and may be disappointed that the president does not seem to care as much about these issues as they would like. Women are more likely than men to believe that the economy is reopening too quickly and that the president’s public statements during the crisis have been inconsistent and even harmful.
These negative trends can change, of course. We are still six months away from the general election, an eternity in political time. Trump is betting his presidency on the consequences of reopening America’s economy and society. If it goes well—if people can return to work and socialize in public places without triggering an upsurge in COVID-19 infections—his wavering supporters may well return to the fold. If it goes badly, they probably will not be the only members of his 2016 coalition to jump ship.
William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a Senior Fellow.