You may have noticed in recent public opinion polls that voters are exhibiting meh sentiments about both Donald Trump and Joe Biden but still seem to prefer the latter by robust and consistent margins. For example, in a national Quinnipiac poll released on April 8, Trump had a relatively strong (for him) job approval rating of 45 percent and a personal favorability rating of 41 percent. Joe Biden’s favorability rating wasn’t much better, at 43 percent. But he led the president in a head-to-head matchup by a solid eight points, 49/41.
As Philip Bump explains, what seems to be going on here is that among the 11 percent of voters in this poll who have an unfavorable opinion of both major-party candidates, Biden has a 32-point lead. That’s very similar to the pro-Biden margin among voters Bump called “cynics” in a column on an earlier Q-Pac survey late last year (at that point, 55 percent of don’t-like-either-candidate voters were inclined to hold their noses and vote for Biden, with 22 percent going to Trump, 9 percent for a third party, and 10 percent staying at home).
This could matter a lot in a close race, as it pretty clearly did in 2016. According to exit polls, 18 percent of voters didn’t care for Trump or for Hillary Clinton, but Trump won that group by a 17 percent (47/30) margin, with 23 percent voting for a third-party candidate.
Why would the dynamic change in Biden’s favor this year? Disgruntled voters tend disproportionately to blame their unhappiness on the party already controlling the White House — reelections are called a “referendum on the president” for a reason — and the out-party candidate is also sometimes given the benefit of the doubt from voters wanting a change. There’s another long-standing dynamic that could hurt Biden, though: unhappiness among supporters of intraparty opponents a nominee has defeated. That’s why he is hastening to patch up things with Bernie Sanders and will count on his rival to help him unify Democrats.
Trump and his campaign know they have lost some of the advantages they enjoyed four years ago, so their strategy all along has been for the president to “do his best to push down his opponent’s popularity and then boost turnout in his own base,” as Bump puts it. Now that the economy is no longer, to put it mildly, a positive talking point for the incumbent, and public assessment of his stewardship of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is slowly but surely eroding, Trump’s campaign is more certain than ever to become a savage hate machine, throwing everything negative at Biden that can be discovered, invented, or exaggerated. Evil as it is, this approach may be the 45th president’s only recourse in November (along, of course, with doing everything possible to manipulate voting rules to suppress pro-Democratic voting groups). But he’s not likely to get an edge this time around from I-hate-everybody voters looking for a change.