President Trump overcame formidable odds and discouraging poll numbers to win the White House in 2016. More than a year out from the 2020 election, it appears he might have to repeat that performance to win a second term, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey.
The new poll tested Trump against five potential general election challengers, and in four of those cases, the president trails, significantly or modestly. He does worst against former vice president Joe Biden, but also runs well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and slightly behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Against South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Trump is numerically behind but the gap is within the range of sampling error.
Among all adults, whether registered to vote or not, the president never tops 41 percent support. Among registered voters, he does better, but his highest level of support against any candidate is 44 percent. In 2016, he won 46 percent of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent, but nonetheless won an electoral college majority by narrowly winning three northern states that had gone to the Democrats in the previous six elections.
Of all the Democrats tested against Trump, Biden currently does the best, aided by significant support from women. He is ahead of the president by 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent, among registered voters. Among all adults, he is at 54 percent and Trump is at 38 percent.
The pattern continues with the other candidates. Sanders runs ahead of Trump by nine points among registered voters and 12 points among all adults. Warren has a seven-point edge among registered voters and an 11-point lead among all adults. Trump also trails Harris by seven points among registered voters and is 10 percentage points back among all adults. The Buttigieg-Trump margin is the closest, with registered voters splitting 47 percent for the South Bend mayor to Trump’s 43 percent, and adults overall tilting 47-41 in Buttigieg’s direction.
The margins in these hypothetical tests have moved at least slightly in favor of all five Democrats matched against the president since a July survey. At that time, only Biden was running ahead of Trump by double digits among registered voters, while the others were within two points of the president.
The shifts coincide with a drop in the president’s approval rating. Currently, 38 percent of Americans say they approve of the job he is doing while 56 percent disapprove. His approval has declined by six points since July.
Other public polls have tracked a smaller dip in Trump’s approval rating. A Washington Post average of seven other nationally representative polls in August found Trump’s approval rating at 41 percent, down slightly from a June average of 43 percent in those same polls.
For Trump, the current standings represent a troubling threat: No president in modern times has been reelected with approval ratings as low as Trump’s are today. For the sake of comparisons, however, Barack Obama’s approval rating at this point in 2011 was just 43 percent. Obama rebounded over the course of the campaign, reaching about 50 percent in the late fall of 2012 on his way to a reelection victory over Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Impressions of the president’s performance are strongly held, especially among those who think he is not doing a good job. The poll finds that 48 percent of the public strongly disapproves of his performance in office while 27 percent strongly approve.
By another measure — favorability — the president’s rating in the new poll stands at 40 percent positive and 57 percent negative. Those kinds of results also often foreshadow major problems for an incumbent seeking reelection, but Trump proved impervious to such barriers when he was elected in 2016.
At the time of that election, his unfavorable rating stood at 59 percent among registered voters. He was helped by the fact that Clinton’s unfavorable rating was identical to his, as they were the two least popular nominees in modern history.
At this early point, none of the potential Democratic nominees tested suffer from similar scorn. In the Post-ABC survey, Biden enjoys a net positive favorable rating of 16 points (53 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable). Sanders has a net positive rating of 12 points (51 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable).
Both are rated favorably by at least slim majorities of Americans though neither has taken the kind of incoming attacks that the eventual Democratic nominee can expect during what may be a long nomination battle and later with Trump as a general election opponent.
Warren, Harris and Buttigieg are less well known nationally and have favorable ratings that are either modestly positive or roughly even statistically. No Democrat tested currently has an unfavorable rating of more than 39 percent, and none is as high as Clinton was at this point in 2015.
The general election matchups reveal a significant gender gap in 2020 choices. Trump runs statistically even with men when matched against Biden and at least slightly ahead against Sanders, Warren, Harris and Buttigieg. Among women, the president is trailing by significant margins — by 30 points against Biden and by over 20 points against Sanders, Harris and Warren. Against Buttigieg he trails by double digits.
One trouble spot for the president in the new survey is a sudden drop off in support, compared with 2016, among white women without college degrees. In post-election analyses of exit polling and voter surveys, Trump won among these voters by margins of 23 to 27 points.
In this Post-ABC poll, Trump is at best running about even with his potential Democratic challengers among the group. Each Democratic challenger pulls at least 45 percent support among white women voters without college degrees and over half of them support Biden against Trump (54 percent).
Just over half of white voting-age women without college degrees disapprove of Trump — 53 percent — while 42 percent approve of his handing of the presidency. That marks a change from poll results in April and July, when the margins were almost the reverse in Trump’s favor. Already, the attitudes of these white non-college women are being closely monitored as a sign of the president’s standing ahead of the election.
The poll also points to suburban voters as the most important battleground in 2020. Democrats won control of the House in last year’s midterm elections with the help of support from suburban voters; the Trump campaign recognizes the importance of not letting that pattern repeat in November 2020 and has sought to appeal to that group, as have potential Democratic nominees.
The potential Democratic nominees tested against Trump enjoy significant margins among urban voters while the president has big leads in rural and small-town parts of the country. All five Democrats currently are attracting at least somewhat more support in the suburbs than Trump although only Biden has a substantial lead among suburban voters, at 18 points.
The poll shows signs that, while Americans rate the overall economy positively, and the president has regularly pointed to the economy as one of the reasons voters should support him for reelection, perceptions of the economy alone are not driving as many votes to the president as he might hope.
Among the 59 percent of registered voters who rate the economy as “excellent” or “good,” Trump has 63 percent support in a head-to-head matchup against Biden, who is favored by 34 percent of this group. Biden also receives 86 percent support among voters who rate the economy negatively.
A similar dynamic hurt Republicans in last year’s midterm elections. Despite two-thirds of voters saying then that the economy was in good condition, Republicans received nine percentage points less support than Democrats in the overall House vote.
The Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone from Sept. 2 to Sept. 5 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, 65 percent of whom were reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is four points among the sample of 877 registered voters and is larger for other subgroups.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.