You can take a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty view of this new NYT poll of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Glass half full: Trump’s “law and order” message *does* appear to be working to some degree. In June, the last time the Times polled Wisconsin, Biden led by 11. Today he leads by just five. More to the point, across all four states more people than not think he’s been too soft on the droogs burning down businesses in Kenosha, among other places.
By a 20-point margin, 53 to 33, voters over 65 in the four states said the former vice president had not done enough to denounce rioting. And 70 percent of these same voters said crime was a “major problem” in the country…
And there are signs that Mr. Trump’s barrage against Mr. Biden on the issue of policing, while inaccurate, has been effective: 44 percent of those surveyed in the four states said he supported defunding the police while only 39 percent said he was not in favor of doing so, which the former vice president has said repeatedly.
Among all Wisconsin voters, 56 percent say Biden hasn’t done enough to denounce the rioting versus just 31 percent who say he has. (Even among Democrats, 28 percent think he hasn’t done enough.) The numbers are similar in Minnesota at 54/35. Biden has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to defund the police and he’s made several on-camera statements condemning the violence over the past few weeks, but that message isn’t getting through. And it’s helping to keep Trump close.
Glass half empty: Even so, Biden leads in all four states by an average of six points. In none of those states does Trump reach 44 percent, an ominous ceiling in a race with no serious third-party factor. Despite voters’ unhappiness with Biden for not condemning rioting strongly enough, he actually leads Trump in Minnesota and Wisconsin on the questions of who’d do a better job on “law and order” (48/47) and handling violent crime (48/46). How can that be?
“That’s probably in part because they think Biden’s better at unifying the country, handling protests, and think Trump encourages violence,” reasons the Times’s Nate Cohn. Indeed, Biden leads Trump big on who’d be better at handling race relations (56/37), unifying America (53/38), and handling protests (51/42). And across Wisconsin, despite the chaos in Kenosha, voters still have a favorable view on balance of Black Lives Matter (49/43). Trump’s view of law and order boils down to “toughness”: Who’s more likely to crack down hard on looters, him or Sleepy Joe? The electorate’s view of law and order seems to be more complicated: Who’s more likely to lower the cultural and political temperature such that violence will be less likely to happen? For example:
Scott Lacko, a 55-year-old from the northern Wisconsin community of Eagle River, backed Mr. Trump in 2016 but will be voting for Mr. Biden this fall. The riots concern him deeply; he argued that Black people shot by police would have been spared had they followed instructions and said that “it’s sad to see these individuals continue to be placed on a pedestal.” But he said that Mr. Trump’s law-and-order push had not won him over.
The president, Mr. Lacko said, cannot be trusted to act in anyone’s interest but his own. He reflected a majority of Wisconsin voters in seeing Mr. Biden as a unifier of the country: 52 percent said they trusted him more to bring people together, compared with 39 percent for Mr. Trump.
“Trump certainly tries to take advantage of the situation and muddy the water,” he said. “I may not have agreed with some of the things Biden said, but at least he’s trying to bring people together and find some way through it.”
Seniors are another case in point. As noted above, a clear majority of them think Biden’s been too soft on rioting. And yet, per the Times, “Biden enjoys a 12-point lead, 52 to 40, among people 65 and older across the four states and, by overwhelming numbers, they say he would do a better job than Mr. Trump unifying the country, handling race relations and addressing the pandemic.” Winning the 65+ crowd, traditionally a Republican bloc, would all but guarantee Biden the presidency. And here he is with a double-digit lead among them in a bunch of battlegrounds *despite* seniors’ misgivings about his resolve in fighting crime. That’s a withering commentary on their trust in Trump.
The bottom line, I think, is that while the rioting has hurt Biden, there are too many other big-picture problems competing for voters’ attention in this nightmare of a year for urban violence to hurt him too much. In a world without COVID, with the economy still humming along, I can imagine a left-wing rampage becoming a gamechanger that erased his five-point pre-pandemic lead over Trump. As it is, the electorate has to weigh riots against which candidate will better handle coronavirus, which candidate will better manage the economy recovery (which includes federal relief), which candidate will better navigate racial tensions, and on and on. “Nearly one in five Wisconsinites who said that riots in American cities were a bigger problem than racism in the criminal justice system planned to vote for Mr. Biden,” the Times reports, clear evidence that even some voters who share Trump’s priorities on “law and order” don’t necessarily see him as the better option all things considered.
You can imagine a scenario in which rioting *does* become more of a gamechanging liability for Biden down the stretch. More rioting close to Election Day and/or an especially violent outburst somewhere might cross a red line for some voters who are leaning Biden right now and push fighting crime to the top of their list of policy priorities. But you can also imagine scenarios in which Biden wins over some of the voters who are leaning Trump at the moment because of the “law and order” issue. Biden’s going to tell America at the debates that he doesn’t support defunding the police, contrary to what Trump claims. How many voters will feel reassured by that and give him a second look? A second wave of COVID might also work to Biden’s advantage by refocusing voters on the pandemic and causing them to lose interest in the rioting. What happens to Trump’s numbers when the one issue that seems to be working for him right now — to some degree — suddenly becomes less of a priority for Americans?
There’s one other poll out today that’s worth paying a little attention to. This comes from a national survey by Yahoo News and YouGov:
Asked if their opinion of Trump’s coronavirus response has changed because of Woodward’s big scoop — a tape of Trump privately acknowledging the virus was “deadly stuff” even as he publicly sought, in his own words, “to play it down”— nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) say yes. Even 15 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 say the Woodward news has changed their mind about the president’s handling of the pandemic.
Those might seem like small numbers. But in an age of extreme polarization, they could augur a real shift. Overall, 15 percent of Americans say the Woodward quotes have made them less likely to vote to reelect the president in November — and a third of these were 2016 Trump supporters.
I’m skeptical of that, as there hasn’t been any strong shift towards Biden in the RCP average over the last few days after the Woodward stuff came out. But then, sometimes it takes a week or two or more for news to percolate among voters before preferences begin to shift. The danger of Trump’s quotes to Woodward, I think, is that they’ll make any second wave of COVID in October that much more of a political liability for him among voters in the final weeks of the race. He’ll be fighting strong headwinds regardless if there’s bad news about the virus all over the news as the few remaining undecideds out there are making up their minds, but now that Democrats have weaponized his quote to Woodward about “downplaying” the risk early on, it could feel more like a hurricane.