Exclusive USA TODAY poll: Biden widens his lead, but Trump keeps the edge on enthusiasm

Black Lives Matter

President Trump is falling further behind Democrat Joe Biden in the race for the White House, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll finds – but the president’s real opponent seems to be himself.

Opposition to Trump is by far the biggest factor propelling support for Biden, including among those who are lukewarm to the presumptive Democratic nominee. 

Biden now leads Trump by 12 percentage points, 53%-41%, the nationwide survey shows. In a three-way ballot test, including a third-party line, Biden leads the Republican incumbent 46%-37%.

But Trump continues to hold a significant edge when it comes to enthusiasm among his supporters, an important factor in turning out voters. Half of Trump backers said they were “very excited” about their candidate, almost double the 27% of Biden backers who felt that way.

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“Biden is a return to the status quo but it’s better than the direction we’ve been heading,” said James Pehrson, 23, a Democrat from Fairfax, Virginia, who was among those polled.

“I am not crazy enthusiastic about Biden as a candidate,” he said, but he has concluded that Trump is “not fit” for the presidency.

In contrast, Hannah Driskill, 32, a third-grade teacher from Cabot, Arkansas, said she “will 110% vote” for Trump because of his stance on law-and-order and his record on the economy. “He’s done great things for our country,” the Republican said in a follow-up phone interview.

The survey asked voters to volunteer a word or two why they supported their candidate. For Trump, 20% cited the economy or jobs; 13% said he was doing a good job in office; 12% said they agreed with him on issues. Those top reasons were all tied to the president and his performance.

For Biden, 44% said they were casting a vote against Trump. The second-ranking reason, at 8%: “Need a change.” Those top reasons were all tied to the president, too.

By a narrow 45%-41%, those surveyed predicted Biden would defeat Trump in November.

The poll of 1,000 registered voters, taken by landline and cell phone Thursday through Monday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

The findings underscore the imperative for Biden to articulate a clear agenda for the country and to generate more enthusiasm among key Democratic groups, including young people. His choice of a running mate and his performance in the fall debates could be crucial opportunities to do that. 

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In the poll, Black voters were more likely than white voters to say they were “very excited” about their candidate, 36% compared with 29%. Among young voters in both parties, just 16% of those under 25 and 23% of those 25 to 34 reported being “very excited.” Among seniors, that number rose to 50%.

The findings had a warning flare for Republicans down the ballot. Asked about their vote for Congress in November, 51% of those surveyed said they were inclined to support an unnamed Democratic candidate; just 37% said they were inclined to support an unnamed Republican.

Biden picks up support; Trump’s support barely budges 

Biden, who continues to wage a campaign constrained by concerns about the coronavirus, has improved his standing since the USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll in the spring. His support has ticked up three points in the two-way ballot test and two points in the three-way ballot.

Trump’s support has barely budged, down a single point since the April survey in the three-way ballot and up a single point in the two-way ballot, more evidence of the rock-solid standing among his base he has demonstrated since he was elected four years ago.  

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From left, US President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But opposition to the president has also hardened amid criticism of his handling of COVID-19 and his response to demonstrations demanding racial justice and changes in policing. While 22% “strongly” approve of the job the president is doing, more than twice as many, 46%, “strongly” disapprove. That’s a significant jump from April, when 37% “strongly” disapproved.

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Overall, 40% approved of Trump’s performance, 58% disapproved.

On both the pandemic and the protests, the poll shows the president out of step with the views of most Americans.

“Our country still has problems and it’s not the problems that Trump has talked about,” said Jacob Walker, 44, a school administrator and an independent voter from Auburn, California. He leans toward the GOP but plans to vote for Biden in November. “It’s different kinds of problems that we need to face that I think Biden will, probably not perfectly, face … far better.”

On handling the coronavirus, those surveyed overwhelmingly said Biden would do a better job than Trump, 57%-33%. 

Asked about the national political conventions being held next month, most Americans opposed the decision by Republicans to stage a traditional rally in Jacksonville, Florida, for Trump to accept the GOP nomination, despite the pandemic. That was called “reckless and dangerous” by 54% of those surveyed, including more than one in three Republicans.

Half that number, 27%, said Democrats were making a mistake in moving largely toward a “virtual” convention anchored in Milwaukee, saying it would “cost them an opportunity to generate enthusiasm and organize supporters.” One in four Democrats called that decision a mistake.

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‘I don’t like the Twitter machine’ 

On handling race relations, Americans by 2-1, 59%-30%, said Biden would do a better job than Trump.

The president has characterized the protesters brought to the streets by the Black Lives Matter movement as “thugs” and “anarchists” and vowed to crack down on them. But just 38% of those surveyed said the protesters were “going too far.” A 52% majority called the protests “an appropriate response to racial matters in the United States.”

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Patrick Dohogne, 56, an executive with a construction company in Hartland, Wisconsin, supports the peaceful protests but has been dismayed by violence he has seen at some. A Republican, he praises Trump’s record on appointing conservative judges, reducing federal regulations and cutting taxes, but he still expresses some uncertainty about his vote in November. He’d like “kind of a combination of both” candidates, he said.

“I don’t like the Twitter machine; I never have,” Dohogne said of Trump’s provocative tweets. “That is the negative part of him I don’t particularly care for,” though he said it shouldn’t be surprising. “He was a showman-type person; he is a stereotypical New Yorker, kind of outspoken and what-not.”

If Biden wins, he is likely to have “a heck of a time” in trying to pull the country together, Dohogne predicted. 

 “I think it’s going to be very hard, whoever gets elected, to try and reach out and try to promote bipartisanship and try to promote the country coming back a little more to the mainstream in the middle. I firmly believe that needs to happen.”

Big issues? Biden better on handling 6 of 7, say those surveyed

Asked about seven major issues facing the nation, those surveyed said by double digits that Biden would do a better job in handling six of them: Race relations, the COVID-19 pandemic, health care, immigration, national security, and dealing with China. 

Americans split on the seventh issue, the economy, with 47% saying Trump would do a better job, 45% saying Biden would.

There was a similar divide when asked whether each candidate had demonstrated seven key traits of leadership. The characteristics: Can get things done; cares about people like you; honest and trustworthy; can bring the nation together; will keep his promises; has a vision for the country, and has the right experience to be president.

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President Trump received a positive rating for one leadership characteristic: having "a vision for the country."

Trump received a positive rating on just one of them: having “a vision for the country;” by 54%-43%, those surveyed said the president had demonstrated that characteristic. But they split evenly over whether he could “get things done.” By double-digits, they gave him negative ratings on the other five traits. 

Trump’s worst rating was on whether he could “bring the nation together.” By 69%-27%, those surveyed said he hadn’t demonstrated that characteristic.

Biden received a positive rating on all seven issues. By double-digit margins, those surveyed said he could bring the country together, had a vision for the country, “cares about people like you,” and can get things done. By 9 points, they said that he would keep his promises and that he was honest and trustworthy.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden received a positive rating on all seven key traits of leadership, including keeping promises, honest and trustworty and having a vision for the country.

Two-thirds of those surveyed, 67%, said Biden, a former vice president, had “the right experience to be president.” Just 37% said that of Trump, who of course has been president for 3-1/2 years.

“I’m actually very excited about (the election) with hope that Donald Trump will be re-elected,” said Arlynn Garcia, 71, a retiree and independent voter from Lake Havasu City, Arizona. 

But she worries there is “something in the air” that has made the times uncertain.

“Everything is political. You don’t know what to trust any more.” she said. “So I’m really nervous about it.”

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