Think Tank Sees Keeping Economy Tied to COVID-19 Key to Defeating Trump in November

August 28, 2020 by Dan McCue
The White House (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Though former Vice President Joe Biden continues to ride high in polls after two weeks of political conventions, the key to defeating President Donald Trump in November will be in the focus on how a booming U.S. economy was ravaged by the coronavirus, a leading D.C. think tank says.

That analysis comes from Third Way in the second of an ongoing series of reports on the suburbs and the 2020 elections.

Its latest findings are based on a battleground state suburb survey conducted in collaboration with David Binder Research.

The survey found that overall Biden leads Trump, 46-30% in the suburbs. In those communities, Biden has a 26 percentage point lead over Trump with women, a 51 percentage point margin with people of color, and an 11 percentage points with voters over 65.

Trump leads with non-college educated Whites in the suburbs by only two points.

But the survey asks an important question: Would Biden’s centerist majority hold if the economy recovers prior to November.

To answer that question, the survey focused on voters’ sentiments around the economy in the battleground suburbs that will decide the election at the top of the ticket on down and explored how Biden and Democrats can counter Trump’s economic pitch.

This inquiry required that voters be asked  to assume signs of a recovery before Election Day.

The survey found:

·       Trump’s most favorable terrain is on the economy alone—but only when it is decoupled from COVID-19. Even then, his overall approval rating is just 39%. It falls to 34% when the economy is coupled with the virus;

·       Trump could be aided by voters’ low expectations for the economy, as any gain may be seen as progress. The share of voters who say the economy is “good” or “excellent” is 30%, and this share increases only three points to 33% when asked about their expectations for the economy by Election Day;

·       The debate over a recovery will be waged on the unemployment rate and what voters see in their community (including COVID-19). Fifty-seven percent say unemployment is a top indicator of the economy when given a long list of possible metrics. But 54% also say they will look to what’s going on in their community over government statistics.

·       Voters trust Biden over Trump on most individual economic priorities, but Trump is stronger on a handful of topics. Biden leads on priorities that focus on supporting workers and the middle class, but his advantage narrows or reverses on longtime Trump focuses like standing up to China, rebuilding manufacturing, and creating jobs;

·       The top way to counter Trump on a recovery: he has shown he can’t handle the virus. Among Biden voters, 80% “strongly agree” with a message that the economy would be better today if Trump had taken the virus seriously from the start, and with persuadable voters, 52% “strongly agree.” However, with messages that focus on only the economy (and don’t tie it to the virus), strongly agree numbers drop 20 points.

Trump’s best shot back into the race is convincing suburban voters we are in, or he can lead us to, an economic recovery. But Biden and Democrats’ best counter is that the economy can’t get on the right track until we address COVID-19—and Trump has shown he can’t handle the virus. Whoever sets the terms of the recovery debate will be best positioned to win it.

The State of the Race

Biden has a sizable lead with battleground suburban voters, and if he wins over persuadable voters, he could secure a decisive majority in the suburbs.

·       Fourteen percent of suburban voters fall into a persuadable category for the Democratic Party. Persuadable is defined here as those who are undecided, lean toward Biden, or just recently came to support Biden.

·       A plurality of these voters identify as Democrats (41%), nearly two in three are moderates (61%), and they are more likely to be millennials/Gen Zers (29%) and male (51%) than solid Biden voters.

The Landscape: The Economic Recovery Debate

The survey explored voters’ sentiments about the economy now and expectations for the near future, as well as how they’re evaluating the economy’s trajectory, and which candidate they trust more on economic priorities.

Trump continues to be a divergence on his handling of the two issues that will decide this election: COVID-19 and the economy.

On the virus, Trump’s approval dips to 34%. But on the economy, his approval is stronger at 48%. It is clear that a recovery debate focused on the economy alone—decoupled from COVID-19—would be more beneficial for Trump.

Trump’s approval rating is 34% with women in the suburbs, 22% with voters of color, and 35% with college-educated Whites. On COVID-19, his approval drops to 29% with women, 16% with voters of color, and 31% with college-educated Whites.

By comparison, when the focus of the questions was the economy alone, Trump’s ratings went up to 42% with women, 25% with voters of color, and 48% with college-educated Whites

Suburban voters have a poor view of the economy today, and their expectations for the near future through Election Day are not much better.

Thirty percent rate the economy as “excellent” or “good” right now, and come November, 33% expect it to be “excellent” or “good.” Voters’ low expectations could benefit Trump, as anecdotal or early signs of an economic recovery could be perceived as progress.

Voters with the lowest expectations for a recovery may be most impressed by marginal economic progress. The share of persuadable voters expecting the economy to become “excellent” or “good” between now and November actually shrinks by one point.

This share increases two points among seniors and three points with college graduates. By contrast, those under 35 who say the economy will become “excellent” or “good” increases by nine points.

An open-ended question on how voters evaluate the economy brought to the surface the importance of COVID-19. On personal reflection, voters indicated that they prioritize the state of the virus over measures related to making ends meet.

This prioritization of COVID-19 is most pronounced with voters of color (18 points) and persuadable voters (11 points), and it remains but narrows with White voters (two points) and independents (one point). 

Biden has the edge over Trump on most economic priorities, but Trump plays to his strengths.

The battleground suburban voters in thesample were asked about a series of economic priorities and whether Biden or Trump would do a better job on each of them. Biden leads on nine of 11 priorities, with his largest margins on those related to supporting workers and the middle class. But his advantage disappears or reverses on longtime Trump focuses like standing up to China, rebuilding manufacturing, and creating jobs. Biden may have an edge on many priorities in an economic debate, but Trump is clear on where his advantage lies—and he consistently drives the debate to those places.

Persuadable voters are even more inclined than all voters to believe that Biden will do a better job than Trump on most economic priorities.

Their preference for Biden is most pronounced on supporting the middle class (63–12%) and creating opportunities for all working people, whether White, Black, or brown (62–14%). And he leads with persuadable suburban voters on who would help our economy recover by a 46–24% margin. But persuadable voters prefer Trump on China, while pluralities are unsure of who would be better for jobs and manufacturing.

Third Way researchers said a central lesson of their survey is Democrat’s best chances of beating Trump is to stress that the economy won’t get back on track until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

Simply put, countering Trump on an economic recovery with a message on the economy alone would be letting him off the hook, Third Way said.

The survey also found that the most persuasive arguments against Trump will be those who call him out for failing to contain COVID-19 and for acting “recklessly” in the midst of the ongoing public health crisis.

Third Way and David Binder Research partnered to conduct a survey of 1,200 suburban 2020 likely voters in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The survey has a margin of error of 2.8% on the full sample.

Suburbs were defined using a zip-code level classification compiled by the Department of Education. The survey was conducted online using a panel matched to vote history, in English and Spanish, from July 22 to 26, 2020.

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