The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A massive shift away from Trump in six key states indicates serious trouble for his reelection bid

President Trump. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There have been rumblings for weeks now that President Trump’s campaign team sees his reelection chances withering. There have been reports of meetings at the White House focused on righting the ship, of shake-ups in staffing aimed at bolstering the president’s position — or, at least, his own sense that things are progressing.

As that’s been happening, there’s been a steady deluge of bad news for the president, including an embarrassing primary loss in North Carolina and a humiliating failure to turn out supporters at an event in Tulsa last weekend meant to mark his splashy return to the campaign trail. The news for the country Trump leads has been even more problematic for the president, of course, with ongoing protests over the treatment of black Americans by police, a renewed focus on eradicating Jim Crow-era tributes to the Confederacy and a new surge in coronavirus cases that can’t be attributed to increases in testing.

Despite all of that, we’d only gotten glimpses of how bad things looked for Trump electorally. A few scattershot state polls offered only peeks at where Trump stood. National polls, while certainly grim for the incumbent, come with the asterisk planted firmly four years ago: electoral-vote results might differ.

The Fix’s Natalie Jennings analyzes what former Vice President Joe Biden meant when he said President Trump would try to steal the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Thursday morning, we got some new clarity on how Trump’s reelection bid looks, with a series of state polls conducted by Siena College for the New York Times. In six states that constituted fully a third of Trump’s electoral vote total in 2016 — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — he now trails former vice president Joe Biden by an average of nine points. In most states, Biden’s lead is clearly outside the polling margin of error.

The erosion in support for Trump is centered among a few particular demographic groups. While younger voters are much less supportive of him than in 2016, it doesn’t really matter since they voted for Hillary Clinton four years ago anyway. But he’s also continued to see support from older voters diminish, something we noted back in early April. Among voters age 65 and older, Biden now leads Trump in four of the six swing states included in the Times-Siena poll, all states where Trump won with those voters four years ago.

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You can see the shifts in margins between 2016 exit polling and the new Times-Siena poll on the chart below.

Trump is also losing independents in each of those states after winning them four years ago, according to exit polling. On average, independents moved 15 points away from Trump across the six states. As the Times story about the poll notes, Biden’s also doing better with white voters in all six states, an important factor because of how much of the electorate is white in each case.

Biden also does well with a particular subset of respondents to the Times-Siena poll: those who say they didn’t vote in 2016. In each state except Michigan, Biden earns at least half of the vote from this group of voters, which makes up about 16 percent of respondents on average. Across all six states, Biden leads by 30 points.

There are a few ways to look at this group of respondents, each of which is valid. The first is that these are people who are less likely to vote in 2020, given their lack of a record of voting. Voting is a habit and those who vote infrequently are (by definition) less likely to vote than those who vote frequently. But this may also reflect a renewed interest in voting in 2020 by voters who were not interested in voting four years ago. Some 4.4 million people who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 failed to vote in 2016; if they come back to the polls and vote for Biden, it could make a significant difference — and be reflected in the respondent pool mentioned above.

Then, of course, there are those who might have been too young to vote in 2016, those voters who’ve turned 18 since the last election. That the youngest voters are the most heavily anti-Trump across the states included in the Times-Siena poll would comport with the results among voters who didn’t vote four years ago.

The short version of the Times-Siena poll is that, at this moment, Trump stands to lose about a third of his electoral votes and, therefore, the White House. The longer version is that this is one poll at one moment, months before the election itself. It does, however, both mirror national polling showing a broad Biden lead and other state polls (like one from Wisconsin released on Tuesday that showed a similar Biden advantage). It also reflects the obvious differences in the race, like Biden’s relative popularity compared to Clinton.

Most of all, though, the new polls make clear why Trump’s team has been scrambling. Without a significant reversal, Trump will lose. Such a reversal is certainly possible — but it’s not inevitable.