To Anticipate 2020, Look to Polls of the Battlegrounds

President Donald Trump attends a campaign kick-off rally at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., June 18, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

National surveys and approval ratings don’t tell the full story when trying to determine whether Trump will defeat the eventual Democratic nominee.

Democrats are in a frenzy over the latest survey of the upcoming general election, released Monday morning by the New York Times’s Upshot blog and Siena College. According to the numbers, President Trump seems to have a decent chance at reelection, despite the media narrative that his presidency is imploding amid a ramped-up Democratic effort to impeach him.

The last several months have featured a variety of news stories that have almost surely been damaging to Trump’s reelection effort. Democrats hoping to make him a one-term president have been banking on the fact that his job-approval numbers have remained poor throughout his time in office, and there’s some reason for that hope. Since his inauguration in January 2017, the percentage of Americans who approve of Trump has never once exceeded the percentage of Americans who disapprove of him in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. The current RCP average has him 11.3 points underwater, with about 55 percent of Americans saying they disapprove of his job performance compared to 43 percent who say they approve.

But as the NYT/Siena poll reminds us, approval ratings don’t tell the full story when it comes to electing, or reelecting, a president — the Electoral College must be considered. The poll examines Trump’s standing in six battleground states that he won in his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, comparing him against the three frontrunners for the Democratic nomination this time around: former vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Between October 13 and October 26, the Times and Siena surveyed nearly 4,000 registered voters in those six states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and found that Trump remains competitive in head-to-head matchups against Biden, Warren, and Sanders in each of them.

Biden has the best numbers when facing the president, tying or leading him in all six states except for North Carolina, where Trump is ahead by two points. Even so, Biden’s lead over Trump doesn’t exceed five points in any of the six states. Sanders, meanwhile, splits the states with Trump, leading him by a one- or two-point margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but trailing him by a couple of points in the other three states. Warren — who some observers believe is steadily climbing ahead of Biden to claim the mantle of undisputed front-runner in the race — fares the worst against Trump in the survey. She leads the president in just one state, Arizona, and even there only by two points. She’s tied with him in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She lags behind him by six points in Michigan, four points in Florida, and three points in North Carolina.

“Not only does she underperform her rivals, but the poll also suggests that the race could be close enough for the difference to be decisive,” Nate Cohn, a domestic correspondent for The Upshot, says of Warren in his summary of the poll’s results.

So Trump has cause for more optimism than you’d think, and among likely voters, he performs even better: He tops Sanders in four of the battleground states and Warren in five. That isn’t to say that he will cruise to victory in 2020 no matter who the nominee is. His consistently unfortunate approval ratings are certainly cause for GOP concern, and while the political ramifications of the impeachment inquiry are difficult to predict, they likely won’t be the boon to his reelection effort that some of his surrogates seem to believe.

Still, it’s useful to consider where President Barack Obama was at this point in his first term: His approval rating in the RCP average hit a low of 42.5 percent in early October 2011. His net-approval rating held steady throughout that fall at around negative nine. But when his 2012 reelection campaign rolled around and he faced GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the general election, those numbers didn’t much matter, because in the individual states that determined the contest, he still enjoyed broad support. In a head-to-head matchup where battleground-state contests have particular power in determining the overall winner, national popularity doesn’t matter nearly as much as the attention paid to it would suggest.

Considering national polls, then, and concluding that any Democratic nominee would be able to beat Trump handily is not the right way to think about 2020. Based on this latest polling, Trump’s support in battleground states seems to have held steady, and at this stage of the race, that’s an indication that the contest will be close regardless of his national popularity.

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