Battleground Poll: Putting Persuadable Voters Under the Microscope

September 03, 2020

TO: Interested Parties

FROM: Priorities USA, Global Strategy Group and Garin Hart Yang Research Group

DATE: September 3, 2020

RE: Battleground Poll: Putting Persuadable Voters Under the Microscope

From the life-altering impact of the coronavirus crisis to the countless Americans taking to the streets to demand justice for Black lives, 2020 has been a year of constant change and widespread uncertainty. But as much as many things have changed, others have defied that broader trend and mostly remained static — including the larger dynamics of the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

As the campaign makes the turn into the final stretch, Priorities USA’s new battleground survey — conducted by Global Strategy Group and Garin Hart Yang Research Group, who completed live phone interviews with nearly 5,000 voters — shows relative stability, with voters maintaining widespread disapproval of Trump’s performance overall and a strong preference for Biden to handle many of the most pressing issues facing the country. In fact, the survey’s most surprising finding may be how much public opinion surrounding the race remains unsurprising and largely consistent over time. (While this survey was fielded primarily before both parties’ conventions, recent public polls have shown the dynamics of the race remaining largely stable.)

Much of this consistency can be attributed to a vast majority of voters who say their support for their candidate of choice is already baked in. According to our survey, only 13% of respondents remain persuadable — meaning they are willing to consider voting for a candidate other than the one they currently support, lean toward voting for a third party candidate, or are still completely undecided.

To be sure, a winning strategy for either candidate must include both increased turnout among base voters and a strong showing among this ever-shrinking group of persuadable voters. This is not an either-or strategic choice. Ignoring either base or persuadable voters is a losing strategy.

This memo will take a closer look at two key subgroups of persuadable voters — those who say they could still consider voting for Trump though they do not support him today, and those who voted for a third party candidate in 2016 — examining who they are, what they care about, and how Democrats can win their support between now and November. In what’s expected to be a close contest in the Electoral College, this small minority of still-persuadable voters could have an outsized impact on the final result.

Trump-curious voters distrust the president on several key issues, despite high marks on the economy

Nearly half of all voters (48%) across the battleground states say there is no chance they would consider voting for Trump — a clear sign of how rocky the president’s path to reelection has become. (By contrast, 42% say there is no chance they would consider voting for Biden.)
However, there is a 5% slice of the electorate who do not currently support Trump but who say they could still consider him. We refer to these voters as being “Trump-curious.” If Trump kept all of his current voters and added all of these Trump-curious voters, it would bring his total support across the battlegrounds to 49%. While that’s an extreme and highly unlikely example — our analysis indicates the president would have to overcome significant negative baggage to win Trump-curious voters’ support — it does serve to illustrate how these voters’ decisions could still quickly alter the landscape of the race, even in the election’s final days.

The demographic profile of this Trump-curious cohort tends to fairly closely reflect that of the survey’s overall sample: They’re more likely to be women than men, by a 54% to 46% margin. Two-thirds are white, compared to 17% and 9% who identify as Latino and Black, respectively. And they are largely concentrated in cities (26%) and their surrounding suburbs (39%). Overall, more than one in three are white women.

In 2016, these voters split narrowly for the president, with 42% supporting Trump and 38% voting for Hillary Clinton, while 14% opted for a third party candidate. However, it appears that the sands have shifted in the intervening years, as 45% of these voters now report they currently plan to support Biden, with 43% still undecided and 12% leaning toward a third party candidate. However, all say voting for Trump remains on the table, so it is incumbent upon Democrats to keep as many of them as possible in the tent, as the president likely cannot secure re-election without winning back a large number of these voters.

Like most of the electorate, these Trump-curious voters are highly pessimistic about the direction of the country, with only 12% saying they are satisfied compared to 57% who say they are dissatisfied. And they appear to lay much of the blame at Trump’s feet, with the president deeply underwater on both his personal favorability (15% view him favorably versus 42% unfavorably) and his overall job approval — only 30% approve of his performance, while 52% disapprove and 19% express a neutral opinion.

This stark disapproval also extends to virtually every issue. Trump finds himself more than 20 points in the red with these voters on his handling of several key issues facing the country. An overwhelming majority (70%) disapprove of his performance on the coronavirus crisis, with only 27% approving. He gets similarly bad marks on his handling of racial issues, where 62% disapprove compared to only 28% who approve, and on health care, where 55% give Trump a thumbs down versus 35% who approve.

Unsurprisingly, these low approvals of the president’s performance translate into large leads for Joe Biden when these Trump-curious voters are asked which candidate they prefer on a variety of related leadership traits:

Similarly, when these voters were exposed to a battery of potential attacks on Trump, two stood out head and shoulders above the rest as the most concerning: 1) Trump’s plans to cut Social Security and Medicare so he can pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy; and 2) Trump’s continued efforts to gut health care coverage for millions of Americans, including patients with pre-existing conditions, even in the middle of a pandemic.

These two lines of attack, along with Biden’s significant advantages on several pressing issues that should remain salient between now and November, offer a potential template for Democrats to keep most Trump-curious voters in our column and win enough of the remaining undecideds to prevail. A sustained focus on messaging around Trump’s failure to lead on the life-and-death crises facing the country — including the coronavirus pandemic and rampant racial injustice — while also continuing to hold him accountable for his plans to destroy popular health and retirement programs that millions of Americans depend on should be effective.

Third party voters may have put Trump over the top in 2016, but they’re breaking for Biden this time

In every presidential election in memory, some small percentage of Americans have bucked both major parties by backing third party candidates. Normally, the margin is wide enough that these protest votes have little influence on the final outcome. That is, until 2016.

In an election that was ultimately decided by roughly 80,000 votes spread across just three states, a larger-than-usual number of third party votes may have tipped the scales and put Donald Trump in the White House. For example, third party candidates received more than 275,000 votes in Michigan, a state that ultimately went to Trump by a razor-thin margin of roughly 10,000 votes. Similarly, in Wisconsin, third party candidates garnered north of 180,000 votes. Trump won the state by just shy of 23,000 votes. The story is the same in Pennsylvania. If just a modest percentage of those votes had gone to Clinton, the country likely never has to live through President Donald Trump.

So the outsized importance of the third party vote in 2016 raises obvious questions for 2020: Has anything changed four years later? Will those same third party voters reject both major candidates and unwittingly play spoiler for Trump once again?

There are still 61 days before we can know for sure, but our polling indicates these voters are breaking differently this year. More than anything, 2016 third party voters strongly oppose Trump — and that’s leading many of them to support Joe Biden this time around.

A massive 70% of these voters say they’re dissatisfied with the direction of the country, 11 points higher than the electorate writ large. Similarly, 2016 third party voters are much more likely to view Trump unfavorably (64%) and disapprove of his job performance (62%). They also overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus response, the racial situation in the country, and healthcare — each by a margin of more than 40 points.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering their complete antipathy to the incumbent, these voters now favor Biden over Trump by a wide margin. Fifty-three percent of 2016 third party voters now report that they plan to vote for Biden in November, compared to only 18% who plan to support the president. Only 18% say they plan to vote third party again in 2020, underscoring that voters understand the high stakes in this election.

With 60% of these decisive 2016 voters saying there is no chance they would even consider voting for Trump, it will be exceptionally difficult for the president to make any significant in-roads here — narrowing his path to re-election even further.

About This Poll

Global Strategy Group and Garin Hart Yang Research Group conducted a live phone survey from August 12-18, 2020, with a total sample of 4,800 interviews, with representative subsamples of 800 likely voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin. The states were weighted together based on the number of electoral votes each one represents. The distribution of voters across demographic, geographic, and political factors reflect the expected composition of the 2020 electorate in each state.