Trump’s Crisis Handling Has Spiked Number of Undecided Voters

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic collapse has shaken voters’ confidence in him, with the percentage of undecided voters more than doubling in the last two weeks.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is also seeing voters take a second look at their support. With his campaign limited to a few livestream events a week, he hasn’t been able to capitalize on Trump’s newfound weakness.

Three weeks ago, only 5% of voters overall were undecided in the 2020 race. That number has jumped to 12% and in one Fox News poll, 16% as voters appear to find both candidates wanting during a national emergency.

The spike in undecideds is the latest element of an election year knocked off balance by the twin crises. Pollsters caution that it’s too early to draw conclusions, given the seven months still to go before the November election and deep uncertainty about where the country will be in terms of the pandemic and the economy.

Trump’s Crisis Handling Has Spiked Number of Undecided Voters

Both candidates are making their case, but it’s not clear voters are listening.

Trump says he saved the economy once and that he can do it again, even as his poll numbers sag. Biden implores voters to remember his work helping to guide the economy out of the last recession as Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009, but he has no platform to display his skills from his basement in Delaware.

The number of people who said they’re “extremely interested” in the presidential election dropped from 55% to 48%.

Trump has clearly seen his approval rating sinking and is spending more time revving up his base supporters, tweeting attacks on Democratic governors; issuing orders halting immigration and disdaining global institutions -- all hallmarks of his 2016 campaign.

“It appears President Trump’s approval of the pandemic is fading and Joe Biden has been marginalized without any air time or significant policy to advocate for,” said Emerson University pollster Spencer Kimball. “Voters are under a lot of stress and at the moment might claim to be undecided.”

Polls in the RealClearPolitics average showed just 5% of respondents answering “don’t know,” “someone else” or declining to answer. Last week, that number peaked to 12%.

In January, the IBD/TIPP poll had just 3% picking neither Trump nor Biden when asked to choose between the two. That went to 5% in February and 12% on April 6.

Similar responses in the Fox News poll have risen from 9% to 16% over the same period.

More Peril for Trump

For Trump, the increase in undecided voters could represent an even greater peril, given the conventional wisdom that undecided voters tend to break for the challenger, even though that doesn’t happen in every election. The brief “rally around the flag” effect that the president enjoyed early in the coronavirus crisis has abated.

Trump’s Crisis Handling Has Spiked Number of Undecided Voters

In 104 head-to-head polls taken since Biden got into the race last year, Trump has led only four times and tied twice.

Biden should be enjoying a smooth ride now. He’s sewn up the Democratic nomination and is beginning the search for a vice presidential running mate and even a transition team, should he win. Yet he’s going to have to add extra work persuading voters to change leaders in the middle of a crisis.

Biden still leads by 5.9 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average, but the rise in undecideds has caused him to drop below 50% — giving him a plurality, but not majority of support.

Trump’s Crisis Handling Has Spiked Number of Undecided Voters

Some pollsters cautioned the change might not be dissatisfaction with the choices.

The increase across multiple polls “certainly seems compelling,” said Jay Campbell of Hart Research, who conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. His polling shows the increase is within the margin of error.

“The Covid situation has absolutely altered the dynamics of campaigning and has introduced an element to the public and political dialogue that is unlike anything any of us have ever seen, but — for the moment — it doesn’t seem to be changing how Americans view these two candidates,” he said. To wit: The net approval ratings of both candidates are relatively stable.

The numbers might also present an opportunity for a third-party candidate to play spoiler in the race, although there doesn’t seem to be any other current candidate positioned to compete in more than a handful of states. Michigan Representative Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party out of dissatisfaction with Trump, has indicated he was considering a run, as has Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

That doesn’t mean voters aren’t considering the possibility. “I do see Mark Cuban in the news a little bit more these days,” Kimball said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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