President Donald Trump’s current general election polling is dismal, putting him down about 9 percentage points in general election polling averages, which is far too large a deficit for individual state peculiarities to matter. That slide in the polls includes the evaporation of modest gains with African American voters that were visible last year, and substantial defections from the large bloc of older white voters who were very solidly in Trump’s camp in 2016.
But the decline has not been seen across the board. As Domenico Montanaro reported in his writeup of NPR’s polling on the race, “the one group Biden continues to underperform with slightly is Latinos — 59% of Latinos said they’d vote for Biden over Trump, but Clinton won 66% of their votes in 2016.”
Trump’s relative resilience with Latino voters can be easy to overlook because he is losing these voters by a large margin (39 points according to the New York Times). Still, he is losing them by less than he did in 2016, which is strange at a time when his numbers are otherwise falling.
Democrats’ baseline assessment is not that this reflects a sudden rightward shift in Hispanic opinion, so much as the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders was by far the Latino community’s choice in the primary, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has not thus far made the kind of major investment in the community that Latino Democrats would like to see.
“Familiarity is the best reason,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents one of the biggest clutches of Hispanic swing state voters in his Phoenix-area district, tells me. “Most of them will come back but money has to be spent on them.”
What’s most interesting about Biden’s relatively soft numbers with this demographic is how closely they parallel the two lingering issues that worry Democrats about the electorate. Despite decades in politics, the former vice president is not that clearly defined in the minds of the public. And despite sky-high unemployment, Trump’s approval on the economy is still in positive terrain. According to a New York Times poll, Trump’s approval rating on the economy is five points above water, and a Pew poll earlier this week said voters prefer Trump as an economic manager by 3 points.
Biden’s underperformance with Latinos isn’t enough to swing the election as things stand now. The question is whether these economy-focused voters are a canary in the coal mine for what a Trump comeback could look like.
Biden’s numbers with Latinos are surprisingly soft
Biden’s performance among Latino voters is a controversial question among Democrats. Some, especially those who trust the higher estimates of Clinton’s vote share provided by outfits like Catalist and Latino Decisions, see Biden running clearly behind Clinton. Others who rely on lower estimates from Pew and elsewhere see his current results as probably even with hers.
These estimates are always controversial in part because Hispanic identity is somewhat mutable and hard to pin down. And, as one pollster told me, “it’s a small group so you get more noise” in the data.
Still, there’s broad agreement across methodologies, however, that Biden has somewhat fallen short with Latinos, relative to his rise among the white electorate. And specialists think they know why.
“Latinos don’t have a strongly formed opinion about who [Biden] is,” explains Stephanie Valencia, a co-founder of Equis Research.
Her group’s polling includes detailed state-by-state breakdowns, so they can examine small but important populations like Latino communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Their work confirms that Biden’s numbers, while good, do not show the same kind of big increase in support that he’s seeing with white voters. There’s also a substantial gender gap, with Latinas showing considerably more support for the Democratic nominee than their male counterparts. But, Valencia says, “we aren’t seeing any increase even among Hispanic men for Trump” so much as a very large bloc of uncommitted voters that she’d like to see Democrats put major money into contesting.
The other factor helping Trump among Hispanic male voters is that they are — or at least were, earlier this spring — open to Trump’s pitch that electoral attention should be focused on the economy rather than on the coronavirus.
Biden has two big vulnerabilities
At the beginning of June, two political scientists, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, published a paper detailing the results of an experiment on messaging around Trump and Biden.
They took a sample of 291 messages — some pro-Trump, some anti-Trump, some pro-Biden, and some anti-Biden — and subjected a sample of 131,742 people to a random selection of two messages each out of the 291.
They found that “both positive and negative messages about Biden have significantly larger effects on stated vote choice than either positive or negative messages about Trump.” What’s more, even the tiny impact of the Trump messages may be a kind of statistical illusion. There are two other points of particular interest:
- Specific pro-Biden messages are more effective than vague messages.
- Anti-Trump messages didn’t shift voting intention even though they often were effective at shifting perceptions of Trump on the specific subject of the ad.
For Broockman and Kalla, this research shows that there is a kind of saturation effect going on with voters. It’s not that you can’t tell people anything new about Trump, it’s just that telling them new things doesn’t make a difference at this point about whether or not they support him. By contrast, new information about Biden shifts votes. Unite the Country, a Super PAC originally formed to support Biden in the primary, has embraced this message and recently started airing pro-Biden ads which had heretofore been rare in the Democratic independent expenditure mix.
But Priorities USA, which was the main Democratic Super PAC from the 2016 race and which has generally overshadowed Unite the Country since Biden emerged as the clear nominee, disagrees with that assessment. For Priorities, the key fact is that the campaign is a dynamic battleground that is constantly being shaped and reshaped by the advertising landscape.
“In the week following the declaration of a national emergency, [Trump’s] approval jumped 10 percentage points,” notes Priorities USA analytics director Nick Ahamed. “So we intervened to shape voters’ perceptions that it was Trump’s fault.”
The good news for Biden is that effort has worked. The public’s assessment of Trump’s Covid-19 response is now dismal and with the pandemic front of mind for most voters, the president’s overall polling has plummeted. Their concern is that while the public is not currently very focused on the economy, voters generally do continue to give Trump an edge there. So if the economy becomes an even more salient topic by the fall, Trump could have a real shot at a rebound.
Economy-focused voters like Trump
In Equis’s polling, a key driver of the Hispanic gender gap is that Latinos were much more likely than Latinas to express worry about the economy relative to worry about getting sick.
Trump’s big remaining hope of winning the election is that surveys show the public still has confidence in his economic management.
A June 30 Pew poll showed Biden with an edge on handling race relations, criminal justice issues, and the public health impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Trump had a three point edge on making good decisions about economic policy. In the New York Times poll that was overall disastrous for Trump, “his approval rating is still narrowly positive on the issue of the economy, with 50 percent of voters giving him favorable marks compared with 45 percent saying the opposite.”
Trump’s problem is that a clear majority of voters are focused on other things. The exception to that is Latino men, who Trump is ill-positioned to win over due to his positioning of himself as the candidate of white backlash against Latin American immigration. But Trump is currently doing better than expected with this swath of the electorate, pointing to a possible resurgence in the president’s support among older white voters who are a better cultural fit for him but who are currently focused on the threat of the coronavirus.
It seems likely that the shift in the outbreak’s epicenter toward Florida and the Southwest will increase concern about Covid-19 among Latino voters and eliminate Trump’s pocket of strength there. But the larger lesson is not so much about Hispanic voters as the extent to which Biden’s strong standing in the polls is potentially a hostage to the news environment. As long as voters don’t explicitly see economic problems as Trump’s fault, he has hopes for a revival of fortunes.
Democrats have more to do to close the sale
The tedious, commonsense resolution of the dispute between Broockman/Kalla and Priorities USA is that successful campaigns run both positive and negative ads plus “contrast” ads that mix both. In practice, Priorities continues to test all forms of ads while also relying on a division of labor, expecting the Biden campaign to invest in defining Biden while they perhaps focus more on Trump.
Biden’s standing with Hispanic voters, meanwhile, would unquestionably benefit from targeted and sustained investment.
But what’s most interesting about Biden’s pocket of weakness here is the extent to which it reflects fairly generic strategic vulnerabilities. Biden is well-known but not sharply defined. And precisely because he’s so well-known, he didn’t generate the burst of bio-focused free media coverage that would have been seen for a more fresh-faced choice. That creates the possibility that sustained attacks from Trump will bring Biden’s numbers down, but also an opportunity for a positive introduction to push them up further.
From what we can tell, voter attention on the economy helps Trump — and that’s true even in demographic groups that are not predisposed to be favorable to him. If economic issues acquire greater salience with white voters than with Latino voters, Trump could be in a position for a comeback. That’s why recent Democratic advertising has focused on reminders of Biden’s role as a steward of the 2009 Recovery Act, and on connecting the dots between Trump’s coronavirus response failure and the country’s economic crisis. For now, though, that deal has not been sealed and Biden’s lead — though large — rests on the somewhat unstable foundation of a public that isn’t yet very focused on economic issues.
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