The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump remains unpopular in swing counties, just like in 2018

President Trump arrives for a Fox News "virtual town hall" on the coronavirus broadcast from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

A new Monmouth University poll finds that Joe Biden is leading President Trump nationally by a scant three points among registered voters, 48 percent to 45 percent. But here’s a fascinating finding from that same poll:

In approximately 300 “swing” counties where the margin of victory was less than ten points for either candidate – accounting for about one-fifth of the total U.S. electorate – 50 percent back Biden compared with 41 percent who support Trump.

Biden leads Trump by nine percentage points in those 300 swing counties. By contrast, Hillary Clinton carried them in the aggregate against Trump in 2016 by a scant one point. That’s possible, of course, because Trump won in the electoral college, even though he lost the national popular vote.

I talked to Patrick Murray, the polling director for Monmouth, to get some perspective on this. He told me that these 300 swing counties include many different types of counties, including ones that lean somewhat but not heavily Demoratic; suburban counties that shifted Democratic in 2018; and rural ones that Trump carried, albeit not by very large margins.

Murray said he views the swing counties as a useful metric, because even though they are spread all around the country, they give us a rough sense of how swing voters and swing states might behave.

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What’s particularly interesting, though, is what has happened to Trump’s approval ratings in all of those swing counties.

In the current poll, Trump’s approval in those 300 counties is 42 percent to 50 percent.

In comparison, Murray noted, Trump’s approval rating in those swing counties in November of 2018, a few days after Democrats won the House, was 38 percent to 50 percent.

So Trump’s approval is only a shade higher today than it was just after Democrats won their largest midterms victory since Watergate, and his disapproval rating is identical.

Murray said that the story of Trump’s approval ratings in these counties has been very consistent.

“These counties were close in 2016, and then they went negative on him and stayed there,” Murray told me. “Even in a national crisis, we’re still not seeing a lot of movement.” Murray added that the movements in those counties have been “small.”

Now, this is of course one poll. We’re getting other ones that look better for Trump. For instance, a new Gallup poll has Trump’s approval rating at 49 percent, though one might add that he was at 44 percent only last week, having dropped precipitously from 49 percent last month.

Meanwhile, in the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, Trump’s approval seems to have edged up, but those improvements remain within a pretty small range.

It’s absolutely plausible that Trump’s numbers will rise in the short term, particularly if there’s a “rally around the leader” effect amid the coronavirus crisis. But many health experts seem to agree that the coronavirus is a gathering storm, and that Trump’s failures have laid the groundwork for the calamity to grow to extreme proportions in short order. And our slide into economic disaster is only beginning.

It remains to be seen how all of that will impact Trump’s political fortunes. But right now, the story remains what it has been for a long time — he’s unpopular, and that’s particularly so in the counties that will decide the 2020 election.

Use the Post Opinions Simulator to pick a state and see what might happen in upcoming primaries and caucuses.

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