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Trump Onslaught Against Biden Falls Short of a Breakthrough

The New York Times /
Siena College poll

Joe Biden is leading among likely voters in four swing states, including one Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016.

2016 Result NYT/Siena
Sept. 2020
Minnesota (n=814) +2 Clinton +9 Biden
Nevada (462) +2 Clinton +4 Biden
New Hampshire (445) 1 Clinton +3 Biden
Wisconsin (760) 1 Trump +5 Biden
Four states combined (2,481) 1 Clinton +6 Biden
Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters from Sept. 8 to Sept. 11.

President Trump’s weekslong barrage against Joseph R. Biden Jr. has failed to erase the Democrat’s lead across a set of key swing states, including the crucial battleground of Wisconsin, where Mr. Trump’s law-and-order message has rallied support on the right but has not swayed the majority of voters who dislike him, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College.

Mr. Biden, the former vice president, leads Mr. Trump by five percentage points in Wisconsin and by a wider, nine-point margin in neighboring Minnesota, a Democratic-leaning state that Mr. Trump has been seeking to flip with his vehement denunciations of rioting and crime.

The president has improved his political standing in Wisconsin in particular with an insistent appeal to Republican-leaning white voters alarmed by local unrest. But in both Midwestern states, along with the less-populous battlegrounds of Nevada and New Hampshire, Mr. Trump has not managed to overcome his fundamental political vulnerabilities — above all, his deep unpopularity with women and the widespread view among voters that he has mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Overtaking Mr. Biden in some of those four states could be a significant boost to Mr. Trump’s re-election chances. He narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016 and barely lost the other three to Hillary Clinton.

While Mr. Trump has steadied his candidacy since his political nadir early in the summer, the Times poll suggests that, less than two months before Election Day, he has yet to achieve the kind of major political breakthrough he needs.

Voters in Wisconsin and Minnesota are split on the question of which candidate they trust more to handle the subject of law and order, which Mr. Trump has tried to elevate. But the poll, conducted among likely voters, showed they prefer Mr. Biden by clear margins on the issues of the coronavirus pandemic, race relations and fostering national unity, a sobering result for the president’s supporters.

Those in Minnesota and Wisconsin who trust Joe Biden or Donald Trump to do a better job on …
Race relations
Unifying America
Handling protests
Violent crime
Law and order
The economy
Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 1,574 likely voters from Sept. 8 to Sept. 10 in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Further, Mr. Trump is still struggling to garner the level of support most incumbent presidents enjoy at this late stage of the campaign. In none of the four states did Mr. Trump’s support reach the 45-percent mark — a particularly ominous sign given the absence of serious third-party candidates, who in 2016 helped him prevail with less than 50 percent of the vote in a series of battleground states.

And while Mr. Trump delivered a focused set of attacks on Mr. Biden at the Republican convention, he has swerved far off message in recent days as he has struggled to rebut reports that he disparaged American war dead and told the journalist Bob Woodward that he deliberately misled the public about the severity of the pandemic.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Biden received 48 percent support compared with 43 percent for Mr. Trump. That’s a significant drop-off from June, when a Times/Siena poll showed Mr. Biden ahead by 11 points.

Nearly all of the narrowing came as a result of Mr. Trump’s recovering support from voters to the right of center, some of whom had expressed feelings of disillusionment in the earlier poll amid the ravages of the pandemic and a major wave of racial-justice protests.

Mr. Biden is further ahead in Minnesota, 50 percent to 41 percent. Though no Republican presidential candidate has captured Minnesota since Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Mr. Trump lost it by only 1.5 percentage points four years ago. His campaign wants to compete aggressively there to counter anticipated setbacks elsewhere in the industrial Midwest. Both nominees are headed there next week.

Chris Rutherford, 51, of Minneapolis, is leaning back in Mr. Trump’s direction as a result of recent unrest. A Republican who said he was dismayed by Mr. Trump’s “constant lying,” Mr. Rutherford said he had been deeply troubled by the damage to his community inflicted first by the coronavirus pandemic and then by episodes of vandalism and rioting.

“Covid is wiping out these businesses and this was the nail in the coffin,” Mr. Rutherford said, stressing, “We cannot have these riots.”

Mr. Rutherford said that while he slightly favored Mr. Trump, he might still support Mr. Biden if he did more to warn of repercussions for people who “grotesquely violate the law.”

“He says, ‘I condemn,’ but he doesn’t ever say what he’s going to do,” Mr. Rutherford said, adding that if Mr. Biden went further it would be “the straw that would tip me over to him.”

In two less populous swing states that Mr. Trump barely lost in 2016, Mr. Biden is ahead of Mr. Trump by single-digit margins: He leads in Nevada by four percentage points, 46 percent to 42 percent, while in New Hampshire he leads by a three-point margin, 45 to 42 percent.

The Times/Siena poll has a sampling error ranging from 3.9 percentage points in Minnesota to 5.5 in New Hampshire.

The four states surveyed in the poll may represent something of a last line of defense for Mr. Trump: Of the northern battlegrounds he captured in 2016, Wisconsin is seen as his best chance for winning again this year, over Michigan and Pennsylvania. Mr. Trump’s campaign has viewed the other three states as potential pickup opportunities this year that could help him make up for lost ground elsewhere.

The poll results suggest that Mr. Trump retains a path to re-election that runs through these states, but that he has not yet made enough headway in any of them to catch up with Mr. Biden. With little time remaining, the three presidential debates starting at the end of this month may be the best remaining opportunity for Mr. Trump to make significant gains.

It is typical for polls to tighten in advance of Election Day, when more voters tune in to the campaign, candidates sharpen their attack lines and unleash new advertising and the forces of political polarization nudge people to the partisan corners of a divided country.

Still, any sign of Mr. Trump closing the gap is likely to stir anxiety among Democrats who remember all too well how the president overcame Mrs. Clinton’s polling lead at the last minute in 2016.

In the four swing states polled, Mr. Biden’s advantage comes from a combination of strong support from women, people of color and whites with college degrees, though he is also performing better among male voters and less-educated white voters than Mrs. Clinton did four years ago. Mr. Biden is well ahead of Mr. Trump among voters who live in the cities and suburbs, while Mr. Trump has a strong advantage with rural voters.

Support among various groups for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Men (n=1,212)
Women (n=1,237)
18-29 (n=244)
30-44 (n=353)
45-64 (n=750)
65+ (n=1,029)
White (n=2,004)
Non-white (n=387)
City (n=542)
Suburb (n=791)
Rural (n=1,148)
All groups (n=2,481)
Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters from Sept. 8 to Sept. 11.

Across all four states, Mr. Trump is viewed mostly in negative terms, with slim majorities saying they see him unfavorably and disapprove of the job he is doing as president.

Mr. Trump continues to inspire stronger feelings from voters than his Democratic challenger, both positively and negatively: In Wisconsin, for instance, Mr. Trump is seen favorably by 45 percent of voters and unfavorably by 53 percent. But 32 percent of voters there have a strongly favorable view of him, while 45 percent view him in strongly unfavorable terms.

Wisconsin voters are somewhat more warmly disposed toward Mr. Biden, with 51 percent viewing him favorably and 45 percent seeing him unfavorably. But fewer voters had intense feelings about him in either direction: 29 percent viewed him in strongly positive terms and 36 percent had a very unfavorable view of him.

Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Notably, Mr. Trump fares substantially better with suburban voters in Wisconsin than in neighboring Minnesota, a dynamic that could reflect Wisconsin’s more conservative electorate and the immediacy of the public-safety issue in a state where riots struck the outer suburbs of Milwaukee in the last month.

In Minnesota, Mr. Biden was ahead among suburban voters by 20 percentage points. In Wisconsin, that advantage was just five points.

More significant for the former vice president is his strength with seniors, an advantage Democrats did not enjoy four years ago. Mr. Biden enjoys a 12-point lead, 52 to 40, among people 65 and older across the four states and, by overwhelming numbers, they say he would do a better job than Mr. Trump unifying the country, handling race relations and addressing the pandemic.

These same voters remain deeply concerned about the virus, with 58 percent of them saying “the federal government’s priority should be to limit the spread of the coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy.”

If there is a warning sign for Mr. Biden in the survey below Mr. Trump’s modest growth, it is that many seniors want him to more forcefully denounce the violence that has grown out of the summer’s racial justice protests.

By a 20-point margin, 53 to 33, voters over 65 in the four states said the former vice president had not done enough to denounce rioting. And 70 percent of these same voters said crime was a “major problem” in the country.

Ellen Christenson, a 69-year-old Wisconsinite, said she voted for former President Barack Obama twice before backing Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, in 2016. Now Ms. Christenson said she was torn between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden and “could go either way.”

Mr. Biden, she said, had not sufficiently “condemned the violence and the burning.”

Originally a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ms. Christenson said she now felt it had “gone too far,” and she said she “kind of resented” that her workplace recently forced her to take a seminar on microaggressions.

Images of arson and violence in cities like Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., have plainly alarmed voters, albeit in a broader sense: They indicate being far more concerned about crime in the country than they are about crime in their area.

When asked which issue is more important, addressing the virus or addressing law and order, slightly more voters in the four states said law and order.

While Mr. Biden enjoys a nine-point advantage on the question of who would do a better job handling the protests, the difference is smaller on the matter of which candidate would better impose law and order.

And there are signs that Mr. Trump’s barrage against Mr. Biden on the issue of policing, while inaccurate, has been effective: 44 percent of those surveyed in the four states said he supported defunding the police while only 39 percent said he was not in favor of doing so, which the former vice president has said repeatedly.

Yet even as the president tries to steer the campaign away from the pandemic and toward urban unrest, some of the most pivotal voters are more focused on the virus.

Those who didn’t vote in 2016 and those who supported third-party candidates — potentially the decisive slice of this year’s electorate — each said by large margins that addressing the pandemic was more important than addressing law and order.

Here are the crosstabs and methodology for the poll.

Nate Cohn and Matt Stevens contributed reporting.

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