Bashful base: Pollsters say Trump closer to Dems than early 2020 surveys suggest

Political pros see his true support higher with some of president's backers ‘afraid’ to admit it

A family awaits President Donald Trump’s arrival for a campaign rally in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A family awaits President Donald Trump’s arrival for a campaign rally in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:30am

Professional pollsters say President Donald Trump and senior White House officials are rightly confident heading into his reelection bid because early 2020 surveys are likely flawed.

“We are going to keep on fighting, and we are going to keep on winning, winning, winning,” Trump told supporters this week during a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. “We’re going to win like never before. … I’ll tell you what: We’re going to win the state of New Mexico.”

That would mean flipping a state he lost in 2016 to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But just about every national poll and many key statewide surveys give the leading Democratic presidential candidates healthy leads over the president in hypothetical general election matchups, surveys Trump and his team dismiss almost daily.

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A recent Quinnipiac University survey painted the summer’s bleakest reelection picture for Trump, giving former Vice President Joe Biden a 16-point national lead, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders up by 14  points in a one-on-one race. The same poll also showed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren leading him by 12 points and California Sen. Kamala Harris with an 11-point advantage.

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“Polls are often wrong,” Trump told reporters with a dismissive smirk Monday in the Oval Office. That came six days after he fired off a tweet calling surveys conducted by media outlets the “most powerful weapons” he believes they collectively use against him. The post included this confidence-oozing warning to his eventual Democratic foe: “Internal polling looks great, the best ever!”

Professional pollsters and political strategists say that despite all the president’s bravado and his thousands of false statements, his public confidence about a second term is very much rooted in reality.

“I think the president’s support is undervalued,” said Neil Newhouse, the leading pollster for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. “If you separate things in a poll and ask someone if they disapprove overall with his job performance, there are a healthy number of voters who will then say despite that, ‘I strongly agree with many of his policies.’

“That, to me, shows there are more gettable votes out for the president than most people believe right now,” added Newhouse, now a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “A month out last time, polls had him trailing Hillary Clinton by 11 points. But he won.”

Polls tightened in the days leading up to that election and were largely in line with the national vote, which Clinton won by a little over 2 points, even though she lost the Electoral College count to Trump, 304-227. 

Professional pollsters say they often use the RealClearPolitics average of multiple polls as a barometer. The organization’s popular calculations give Biden an 12-point lead over Trump; Sanders a 7-point lead; Warren a 5-point advantage; and Harris a 4-point lead.

But is Trump really that far behind — especially considering his sky-high popularity among Republican voters? Almost certainly not, say pollsters and strategists who contend their colleagues and the media are already making some of the mistakes that caused them to miss Trump’s 2016 win. And one of those is looking at polls as hard-and-fast gospel, as opposed to a snapshot of a given moment.

“Frankly, I think head-to-head polls can be misleading at this point for judging the relative strength of the Democratic field,” said Patrick Murray, polling director at Monmouth University. “First, the Democratic candidates are not equally well-known to voters. And secondly, voter opinion will shift once there is actually a general election campaign — we don’t know how any of these candidates will do in that scenario. Any measurement now is in a vacuum.”

But Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg contends all 2020 data he has reviewed shows voters’ mood and opposition to the president’s immigration policies “is pushing toward the blue-wave margin.”

In a research note published Wednesday, he unveiled polling data that shows “a level of political engagement the country has never seen before.”

That is particularly true of Democratic voters, he found.

Democratic voters are “consolidated to support the Democratic nominee, whether it is [Biden or Warren],” Greenberg writes. “They are defeating Trump by 9 and 7 points, respectively, with the president stuck at 41 percent (approval).”

He added that data suggests the leading Democratic candidates are outperforming the party’s 2018 midterms gains, which he concludes would be “a shattering result” for the president if the trend holds.

Bashful base

Beware the difference between human telephone surveys and automated “robo calls,” pollsters say. Voters are already showing some of the same unwillingness to express support for Trump when asked by another human being.

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The difference can be as much as four percentage points, professionals say. That would all but wipe out Warren and Harris’ national leads over the president, cut Sanders’ in half and bring Biden’s to a margin that a political “streetfighter,” as former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon calls his former boss, would have a chance to whittle over four or five months in a handful of battleground states.

Pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group, whose clients include 42 members of Congress, said once a poll hits the streets “the BS starts flying back and forth because people are trying to use it to predict the future rather than track the race.”

One counterintuitive advantage for Trump going into the general election is a “static” disapproval rating, which has hovered around 55 percent since he took office, Goeas said. “What he will have to do — and he has proven adept at — is [worsen] the negatives of his opponent, whoever that is,” he said.

Pollsters advise studying polls to gauge which candidates are generating “intensity,” as one put it, among voters, as well as questions about whether the president deserves a second term.

They also say the state of the economy and voters’ thoughts on whether it might be slowing down are better indicators of how the 2020 race is shaping up than a question about whether a voter would go for Biden or another Democrat over Trump in a race in its early stages.

For Trump, these answers build a blurry picture — but no death knells.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley called the president “imminently beatable” but added he also sees early polls painting a skewed picture.

“I think there is evidence that makes it fair to assume there are a lot of people out there who are still afraid of saying to a pollster that they support this president,” Manley said. “And Trump’s own comments indicate — though he would never admit this if you asked him directly — that he knows his people don’t always poll in his favor.”