The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump begins reelection year more competitive against Democrats than he was three months ago, Post-ABC poll finds

President Trump speaks to a group of the nation’s mayors in the East Room at the White House on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump begins his reelection year in a more competitive position than he was in last fall against potential Democratic challengers, aided by rising approval for his handling of the economy, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The state of the economy and perceptions of Trump’s handling of it pose a challenge for Democratic presidential candidates, who have criticized the president’s policies and focused their economic messaging on inequities between the richest Americans and everyone else and on alleviating the financial struggles of many families who are dealing with rising health-care, child-care or educational costs.

Despite Americans’ concerns that the economic system favors the wealthy, the latest Post-ABC poll finds that fewer than half are worried about maintaining their own standard of living, a shift from 2016, when most expressed concern about losing their financial footing.

With just over nine months until Election Day, Americans see Trump as a slight favorite for reelection, with 49 percent expecting him to win and 43 percent predicting that his Democratic challenger will prevail. But those expectations are highly partisan, with 87 percent of Republicans saying they believe Trump will win reelection while a somewhat smaller 78 percent majority of Democrats say they believe their party’s nominee will win.

The national Post-ABC poll tested Trump in six potential general election matchups and finds that registered voters nationwide are roughly split between supporting the president and backing the Democratic candidates. Neither Trump nor Democrats hold a statistically significant advantage in any matchup.

Former vice president Joe Biden is currently favored by 50 percent of registered voters, while 46 percent support Trump. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has 49 percent support to Trump’s 46 percent, also virtually even given the poll’s four-point margin of sampling error among registered voters.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) receives 49 percent to Trump’s 47 percent, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stands at 48 percent to Trump’s 47 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is tied with Trump at 48 percent. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is at 45 percent to Trump’s 48 percent.

Among the broader population of all voting-age adults rather than just registered voters, most Democrats maintain at least slight advantages over Trump, with Sanders and Bloomberg leading Trump by eight percentage points and Biden leading by seven points. Warren and Klobuchar each hold slighter five-point advantages over Trump, while Buttigieg is roughly even with 46 percent to Trump’s 45 percent.

The close matchups between Trump and Democrats among registered voters represent a contrast with an October Post-ABC poll in which Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg all held double-digit advantages over the incumbent. (Bloomberg and Klobuchar were not tested against Trump in that poll.)

The shift coincides with a rise in Trump’s approval rating from 38 percent to 44 percent among the public overall, with 51 percent currently disapproving. Opinion is even more closely divided among registered voters, with 47 percent approving of Trump and 50 percent disapproving, matching the best margin of his presidency.

Other national polls this month have not consistently found a rise in Trump’s approval rating and also show Democratic candidates maintaining an advantage in national support over Trump. But The Post-ABC poll underscores how a modest improvement in Trump’s political standing can boost his chances at reelection.

Throughout his presidency, Trump’s poll numbers have generally stayed within a narrow range, with far less variation than seen with his predecessors. When his ratings do move sharply in one direction or another at times, they tend to soon revert closer to the norm.

The improvement in his job approval rating in this poll — to 44 percent, an increase of six percentage points since fall — coincides with the Senate impeachment trial, which has further polarized the country. Whether it represents a lasting shift in Trump’s favor has obvious political implications, given the stakes in the election year.

Trump’s improved standing in the latest survey is due in part to political independents. Trump receives between 47 percent and 52 percent support among voters in this group depending on his Democratic opponent, an improvement from October, when he got between 39 percent and 42 percent support. Self-identified independents make up 39 percent of the overall sample in the survey, almost identical to last October’s poll. Most independents, though, lean toward either one party or the other, and in this month’s poll, the mix of independents leaned less Democratic than in October.

In 2016, exit polls showed that Trump won independents by four percentage points nationally and by seven points or more in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where narrow wins ensured his victory in the electoral college.

The Post-ABC poll finds that 37 percent of registered voters say they would support Trump against all six Democratic candidates tested in the survey and that they would be “very enthusiastic” or “fairly enthusiastic” about doing so. Similarly, 33 percent of voters say they would support any of the six Democrats and are enthusiastic about opposing Trump.

The remaining 30 percent who are inconsistent in their support or less enthusiastic about their decision represent a loose definition of voters whose allegiance to one side or the other is more tenuous. Some portion of that group is likely to be targeted for persuasion and mobilization efforts by the campaigns of the president and the eventual Democratic nominee.

Nearly half of these up-for-grabs voters are nonwhite, and 50 percent identify themselves as moderate, both a larger portion than among voters overall.

The 2020 election promises to continue the country’s deep political divisions along gender, racial and educational lines. In a head-to-head matchup, 56 percent of white registered voters support Trump while 68 percent of nonwhites support Biden. Fifty-eight percent of men support Trump, while 61 percent of women back Biden. Among whites only, 54 percent of college graduates favor Biden while 64 percent of those without four-year college degrees support Trump.

Those divisions were roughly similar in matchups between Trump and other Democrats. For instance, 60 percent of men support Trump in a matchup with Warren, while 59 percent of women support Warren in that scenario.

Another critical question is how much Trump may benefit from an improving national economy. Economic growth has been a strong indicator of presidents’ popularity and reelection chances for decades, but Trump’s approval rating has been net negative since he entered office and has shown little sustained improvement despite positive perceptions about the economy.

A newly evident easing of ­financial concerns and the overall economic climate could represent a key asset for Trump, who has sought to take as much credit as possible for historically low unemployment and the continuing economic recovery, which began in 2009.

The 56 percent majority of Americans who now say they are not particularly worried or not worried at all about maintaining their standard of living marks a sharp increase from the start of the 2016 election year, when a minority of adults (37 percent) offered an optimistic view of their finances.

The Post-ABC poll also finds that 56 percent approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, up 10 percentage points from last fall and the highest rating of his presidency on this issue. The difference of 12 points between Trump’s economic approval rating and his overall approval is an indication of how public opinions on other aspects of Trump’s performance have been a drag on his popularity.

Indeed, Americans’ more positive views of the economy and Trump’s handling of it may help him only insofar as they boost his overall job approval rating.

For example, 13 percent of registered voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy but disapprove or have no opinion of his overall job performance. Among that group, 73 percent say they would support Biden while 15 percent would back Trump if the election were today.

In the 2018 midterm elections, when nearly 7 in 10 voters said the economy was excellent or good, according to network exit polling, Republicans still lost a net of 40 seats in congressional elections, with Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone from Jan. 20 through Jan. 23 among a random national sample of 1,004 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 percentage points among the sample of 880 registered voters.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.