Trump is unpopular in America. But not where it counts

Donald Trump, Kurt Suzuki. President Donald Trump reacts as Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki...
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“I anticipate that we will win the House, and hopefully win the Senate, and certainly win the White House,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in September, expressing quite a bit of optimism about Democrats’ 2020 chances. As one of the Democratic Party’s leaders, projecting confidence about her party’s electoral chances is part of Pelosi’s job. What’s notable is how she framed the party’s odds of achieving the three goals: the presidency as the easiest, followed by the House, with the Senate as the most difficult. Pelosi’s assertion echoes a sentiment popular among Democrats — that taking down President Trump is virtually a guarantee — buoyed by polls that show top Democratic candidates ahead of Trump in the national popular vote. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, for example, Vice President Joe Biden currently leads Trump by 8.9%, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders lead him by 5.2% and 6.3%, respectively. Taking these numbers at face value warrants a degree of confidence for Democrats, but new polling from The New York Times reveals a far less rosy picture.

Yes, Democrats are leading the popular vote — just like in 2016, when Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Trump. But Clinton is not president, and that's because in the electoral college, Democrats are at a disadvantage. In the six states likely to decide the election — Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida — Trump retains a very strong position, thanks to his support among white voters without a college degree. In Michigan, for example, Trump is leading Warren by 6%, while trailing Sanders by 2% and holding even with Biden. In Florida, Biden leads Trump by 2%, but Sanders trails him by 1% and Warren by 4%.

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Because of where Trump’s supporters live, he’s able to make up his vast popular vote gap — much of it coming from solid liberal bastions like California and New York — with tiny margins in a handful of key battlegrounds. This unequal distribution results in electoral college math that should be alarming for Democrats seeking encouragement about the 2020 election. FiveThirtyEight reports that Trump's disapproval rating is currently at 55%, and yet the top three Democrats are still trailing in the key areas that flipped from supporting President Barack Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016, indicating that none of them have successfully managed to bring those voters back into the fold.

That’s a problem on its own, but the Times’ analysis goes a step further in outlining the challenge ahead for the Democrats. One of the paper’s most crucial findings is that two-thirds of people who voted for Trump in 2016 but flipped to support Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 plan to vote for Trump again in 2020.

Clearly, support for Trump is a unique voter trait, and not necessarily an intuitive one. In 2018, voters delivered Republicans a resounding rebuke in the midterms, handing Democrats dozens of seats and the House majority. Many Republican policies are widely unpopular, and the party on its own could not capitalize on the president’s winning coalition without him on the ballot. But when it comes to Trump, he is the leader of a cult of personality that extends beyond party lines.

Democrats will have to contend with how this strength manifests in battleground states. Trump voters who are boomeranging back to his side may have been enticed by some of the more moderate Democrats who won in 2018 swing districts. They aren’t ready to give up their support for the president, though, who remains a singularly galvanizing figure in his party; the Times reports that an astronomically high 90% of registered voters say they are "almost certain" or “very likely to vote” in 2020, which is even higher than the 87% who said the same thing in the closing weeks of 2016.

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The Times' polling is particularly troubling for Warren, whose candidacy surged in recent months. The results showed that while most Americans have already made up their mind, 1 in 6 voters will decide their vote based on whether Biden or Warren is the Democratic nominee. Even as Warren surges in progressive cities, she’s facing a stiff headwind among these swing voters who are crucial to delivering the White House, even if they’re not as central to the Democratic base. The poll found that a substantial number of Democrats who support Biden against Trump wouldn’t support Warren because her views are too extreme. Among these voters, 47% have an unfavorable view of the Massachusetts senator, compared to 26% who have a favorable view.

These numbers suggest that the heavy concentration of white working-class voters in six swing states is single-handedly pushing America to the right, preventing candidates from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party from having a clear path to victory in a general election. Warren — and to a lesser degree, Sanders, who demonstrates a bit more strength in the Rust Belt states, perhaps able to capitalize on his long history of fighting for blue-collar workers despite being ideologically even further to the left than Warren — faces an uphill battle in winning them over.

All in all, these numbers aren’t a forecast of doom for Democrats. The margins remain razor thin and vary between the potential candidates. But the general election is nowhere near a slam dunk for whichever Democrat wins the primary, despite what it might feel like on liberal Twitter. Trump remains strong in the exact same places that gave him his unexpected victory in 2016, and changing the minds of voters in this polarized climate is going to be an uphill battle. Democrats need some confidence — but complacency is their worst enemy.