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Donald Trump: A record number hold a strong opinion of President

CNN logo CNN 5/9/2020 Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie © CNN

President Donald Trump's campaign is about to unleash a "Death Star" against former Vice President Joe Biden, according to campaign manager Brad Parscale. In any other era with any other president, such imagery might seem out of place. It makes sense for Trump.

Trump's path to victory will probably rely upon defining Biden through negative advertising. What's far from clear is whether that will work.

Right now, most voters feel very strongly about Trump. We can see this in polls which ask voters whether they have a strongly favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or strongly unfavorable view of him. If you average polls from late March onward from Grinnell College/Selzer and Company, Fox News and Monmouth University, 27% of voters have a very favorable view of Trump and 42% have a very unfavorable view of him.

All told, 69% of voters have either a strongly favorable or unfavorable view of the President.

That 69% is the largest at this point in an election cycle since pollsters started asking this type of question in 1980. The previous record was Trump in the 2016 campaign, when 65% of voters had either a very strong favorable or unfavorable opinion of Trump. A similar 64% of voters had a strongly favorable or unfavorable view of George W. Bush during his reelection fight in 2004. No other presidential nominee ever hit 55%, which just tells you how historically polarizing Trump is.

Now, compare Trump's numbers to Biden's this year in the same polls. A relatively low (compared to Trump) 46% say they have a strongly favorable or unfavorable opinion of Biden. Broken down, that includes 18% very favorable and 28% very unfavorable.

In other words, voters are 23 points less likely to have a more strongly held position of Biden than they are of Trump. There's considerably more wiggle room to knock Biden down than there is to raise Trump up.

Even if Trump is able to move the needle a slight bit, it could be a big deal. Trump's deficit to Biden has only averaged about 6 points nationally.

Put another way, Trump's campaign strategy makes a lot of sense on the face of it.

Yet, something making sense and something actually working out are two very different things.

Elections in which incumbents are running are usually about the incumbent. In the polling we've seen so far this election, voter choice is highly correlated with feelings toward Trump, not Biden. Trump's winning about 90% of voters who have a favorable opinion of him, as Biden is taking about 90% who have an unfavorable view of Trump. This is a very different story from 2016 when Hillary Clinton won less than 80% of those who didn't like Trump.

The fact that so many voters hold a hardened view of Trump may tell us something about the trajectory of this race going forward. Biden's 6-point lead in the polls has been fairly stable. There's no guarantee the polls will stay that way, but history suggests that it very well could.

Since 1980, the elections where the results differ dramatically from the polls at this point tend to be when opinions of the incumbent president are not strongly held. The two incumbent elections (1980 and 1992) where the difference between the polls at this time and the results was greater than 5 points were ones in which only about one-third (33%) of voters had a strongly favorable or unfavorable opinion of the incumbent.

Now, look at the elections where the strength in opinions about the president look most like this one: 2004 and 2012. They were the only ones before this election where over 50% had a strongly held opinion of the incumbent at this point. Those elections saw the smallest shifts (3 and 2 points respectively) between the polls at this time and the results.

Trump, of course, is trying to avoid the polls staying steady by turning the focus toward the less defined Biden. Again, it's not a bad idea. But while opinions of Biden are less strongly held than of Trump, they're pretty strongly held relative to past challengers. No other challenger (including John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012) since 1980 had as many voters giving them either a strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable rating.

That is, it'll be easier to move opinions about Biden than Trump, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be simple or even effective.

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