The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New evidence that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is pushing his support lower

About a sixth of those who approved of the president in March no longer do. More than two-fifths of them live in places hit hardest by the pandemic.

President Trump leaves a rally in Tulsa on June 20. (Bloomberg News)

Over the past two months, former vice president Joe Biden’s lead over President Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of national polling of the upcoming presidential contest has nearly doubled. It’s a period that has overlapped with a number of major shifts in the country and in the national mood, including the ongoing — and now resurging — coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests focused on racial equality. So it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume that perhaps those two things are correlated.

New data from the Pew Research Center bolsters the idea that Trump’s position in the polls is worsening as a function of what’s happening in the country. Specifically, it seems likely that the pandemic is pushing his approval ratings lower, which, in turn, is making his position in the presidential contest more precarious.

There are two changes since April that hint at this change in an obvious way. The most obvious is that Pew has Biden’s lead over Trump improving from two points that month to 10 now. Biden is now supported by 54 percent of the country, according to Pew, compared with Trump’s 44 percent.

At the same time, satisfaction with the direction of the country has collapsed. That month, 31 percent felt satisfied with how things are going in the country compared with 68 percent who said they were dissatisfied, a net minus-37 view of the nation. That gap has grown to minus-75 points, thanks largely to a collapse in satisfaction among Republicans. Only about a fifth of Republicans still express satisfaction about how things are going.

Again, strongly suggestive of why Trump’s fortunes are eroding. But then there is Pew’s more direct examination of how views of Trump have changed, measured in shifts in opinions of his performance as president among a consistent panel of poll respondents.

Three months ago, Pew asked a group of people whether they approved of Trump’s performance as president. On net, they didn’t, with 45 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving. This month, Pew asked the same people — a group statistically representative of the country as a whole — how they viewed Trump.

Eight percent jumped from the “approve” to “disapprove” columns, totaling one out of every six people who approved of Trump in March. Now, nearly 6 in 10 disapprove of Trump’s performance as president.

Who are those people whose opinions of Trump deteriorated? Pew’s analysis indicates that they are more likely to be under the age of 30 than those who approved of Trump in both March and June. They are also likely to be in a lower income bracket, a trait that tends to correlate with age to some extent.

Perhaps most indicatively, though, 45 percent of those whose opinions of Trump sagged live in areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

In other words, there’s a significant link between living in places where the effects of the pandemic have been worse and views of Trump heading south.

What constitutes an area hit harder by the pandemic? Pew looked at deaths per 100,000 residents, assigning each county to a high, medium or low designation. It’s worth noting that the data used for this analysis looks at deaths as of June 17, meaning that the recent resurgence of the virus in heavily red states (Texas, Florida and Arizona, among them) isn’t entirely captured in the categorizations.

Respondents were asked specifically how much confidence they had in Trump or Biden to address the pandemic. Forty-one percent expressed at least some confidence in Trump. More than half said the same of Biden.

While Pew’s use of a panel shows a direct shift in views of Trump otherwise hinted at by national polling, we can still only impute the role played by the pandemic in shifting those opinions. That said, the circumstantial evidence is strong: As the pandemic has ground on, Trump’s approval ratings and position in the polls have dropped. One in 6 of those who approved of him in March no longer do, and just shy of half of them live in areas where the per capita death toll from the pandemic has been the highest.

There are always multiple factors at play in how views of politicians change. In this case, though, it seems clear that Trump’s fortunes are inversely linked to that of the virus: As it is more successful at ravaging the country, the country’s view of its president grows worse.