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Why Trump’s approval bump isn’t helping him against Joe Biden

The voters who increasingly approve of Trump aren’t actually the ones likely to vote for him in November.

- March 31, 2020

As the novel coronavirus pandemic worsens across the United States, the economic implications are grim. The volume of unemployment claims has skyrocketed, and public assessments of the economy have cratered.

The March 19-26, 2020 Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey, for example, shows economic assessments continued to trend downward. As the graph below shows, far more Americans say that the economy was doing worse than a year ago than say it was doing better. Even among Republicans, views of the economy are slightly more negative than positive.

(Nationscape samples are provided by Lucid, which runs an online exchange for survey respondents, and match a set of demographic quotas. The survey data are then weighted to be representative of the American population.)

But as we noted last week, Americans aren’t blaming Trump for this dismal economy. The percentage approving of Trump has actually increased slightly in Nationscape surveys as well as polling averages. Here’s the Nationscape trend:

Trump’s approval bump is quite small relative to the bump other leaders have received. And in this latest Nationscape survey, the 46 percent of Americans who approve of Trump lags the 58 percent who approve of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak — suggesting that some Americans do not think Trump’s handling of the pandemic justifies a positive assessment of his overall performance as president.

But perhaps more notable is exactly who is becoming more favorably disposed toward Trump. In the Nationscape surveys, it is both Democrats and the small fraction of registered voters (11 percent) who say they are independent and do not lean toward a party. Of course, most Democrats disapprove of Trump but his current net approval rating is better than it was in December before the coronavirus first emerged.

This helps make sense of a puzzle: Why has Trump’s approval bump not helped him in his probable November matchup again former vice president Joe Biden? The Nationscape shows no clear movement toward Trump in the past few weeks.

This graph makes it clear that Democrats remain firmly in Biden’s camp, even as a few more of them say that they approve of Trump. And while independents have gravitated somewhat toward Trump relative to Biden, there are simply not very many of them in the electorate as a whole. This explains why Biden’s national lead over Trump has been so stable.

In other words, Trump’s approval bump may be concentrated among voters who are unlikely to support him in November.

Of course, Biden’s lead over Trump varies across polls. Similar to Nationscape, a recent Fox News poll put Biden’s lead at 9 points, but the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll put Biden’s lead at 2 points among registered voters.

But the bigger point at the moment isn’t the exact number so much as the trend — or lack thereof. Right now, Trump’s small approval bump has not helped him narrow Biden’s lead.

Robert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

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