Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
The ultimate conclusion of last night’s debate became apparent about ten minutes into the proceedings: it was going to be a wash. Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace yelled over each other for an hour and a half. Viewers who stuck around for the entire regrettable affair learned one, and only one, piece of valuable information, which is that Trump still won’t condemn white supremacists. (As Rick Santorum helpfully pointed out on CNN, why would the president knock his own supporters?)
But don’t settle for the word of one weary blogger. A focus group commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers and conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg showed no significant shift in public opinion after it ended. The group, which spanned a wide range of age, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, registered their opinions with dials over the duration of the debate. Though they were often lukewarm on Biden, their reaction to Trump signals real weaknesses in the white-working class vote that helped him narrowly win the presidency. We spoke to Greenberg on Wednesday morning.
“The structure of the race was totally unchanged,” Greenberg explained. “If you look at the personal favorability, look at the attributes of each candidate, if you look at who is better on some key issues, there is no change.”
That’s mostly a problem for Trump, he added. The president is trailing Biden in important polls, his approval ratings are not high, and recent surveys show significant levels of dissatisfaction with his response to COVID-19. Only 35 percent approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people, ABC News and Ipsos reported in early September.
“He’s trying to come back,” Greenberg said of Trump, “but he’s actually kind of locked in the structure of the existing race, which makes it even more difficult for him to overcome.” By the time it was over, half as many people were undecided—but they split evenly for Biden and Trump, leaving him no better off after 90 minutes of screaming.
Biden, meanwhile, has eaten into Trump’s support among white-working class men in particular, though they remain more supportive of Trump than other demographics polled. White-working class voters were the only group to notch a Trump favorability rating above 50, during the debate, according to Greenberg. But that number is still low for a sitting president, Greenberg pointed out. “I’m used to these lines going up to 90 when people really embraced or liked something,” he said.
If the white-working class isn’t in love with Trump, then who’s left? Certainly not the group that Greenberg terms “the rising American electorate,” composed of millennials, voters of color, and unmarried women. On one of the biggest issues in the election, health care, they rated Trump — who said insulin is “so cheap” that “it’s like water” — as low as 38 percent and never as high as 50. Biden did somewhat better, with his favorability mostly hovering around 50 percent and maxing out shy of 70 percent. Among white millennials, Biden improved his standing.
But election integrity is where things really fell apart for Trump. The president’s false claims about absentee ballot fraud (ballots in waste baskets! In creeks! Being sold to who knows for God knows what purpose by the West Virginians!) did not impress anyone. The best he did was with white-working class men who gave Trump his highest ratings on the issue, but their favorable sentiments never rose higher than 61 percent. The same was true of white-working class women. For most other groups, Trump’s ratings collapsed down to the mid-40s overall, and were lowest among Black voters and white unmarried women.
“When you look at the pre- and post-debate results, and when you look at personal favorability, Trump disappointed the white-working class men,” Greenberg noted. They came away feeling about 7 points less positive than Trump and gave Biden 6 more points.
While they aren’t deserting Trump en masse, the slippage is notable, especially since Trump slightly improved his position with white-working class women. Among them, Greenberg said, “his vote went up from 44 to 53 percent.” The turnaround was powered by their changing opinions of Trump and health care: they headed into the debate favoring Biden on the issue by an 11-point margin and came out supporting Trump by 6 points. When asked generally about “issues affecting the middle class” though, white-working class women mostly sided with Biden.
Other polls confirm that Trump had a very bad night. Six in ten believe Biden won the debate, CNN reported on Wednesday. And Trump can’t afford those numbers. His victory in 2016 was so shocking that it can be easy to forget how narrowly he won, with the help of the white-working class men who are now Biden-curious. Trump barely became president and he isn’t in a strong position to repeat the feat. He has internalized this, at least a little. Nothing else explains his obsession with fantasy voter fraud. A confident candidate doesn’t tell tales about ballots in waste baskets and creeks. Trump hasn’t fundamentally improved his position since he squeaked out a victory vote four years ago, and he didn’t help himself last night.