WaPo/ABC poll: Suddenly, Trump and Biden in virtual tie -- except in one key measure

Be careful what you wish for. When Bernie Sanders jumped out to an initial delegate lead in this year’s Democratic primaries, the party establishment pushed hard to get everyone else out of the way so that Joe Biden could rebound. After South Carolina, the strategy worked. Biden rolled up victory after victory and has all but eclipsed Sanders from any chance at a delegate lead, let alone the first-ballot majority Sanders would need to get the nomination.

How’s that working out so far?  While Democrats attack Donald Trump for his initial responses to the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has suddenly gained significant ground in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. The gap between them narrowed from seven points to two, and Biden doesn’t get any boost at all from the coronavirus crisis:

Trump has moved from what was a seven-point deficit in February to a near tie with Biden today. Among registered voters, Biden is favored by 49 percent and Trump by 47 percent. When the poll measures preferences among all adults, Biden stands at 50 percent and Trump at 44 percent.

Trump is more trusted to handle the economy, while Biden is more trusted to deal with health care. When voters are asked whom they trust more to confront the coronavirus outbreak, the difference between the two is statistically insignificant.

Interestingly, Trump’s overall job approval rating has also jumped significantly over the past month. In the February poll, Trump got a 46/52 rating; today, it’s 48/46, a change of eight points in the gap. This is the highest approval rating Trump has in the entire WaPo/ABC series, blowing away the previous best of 44/51 from January, a bounce from the collapse of impeachment.

In fact, this is the very first net-positive approval rating Trump has ever received from this series. It’s not the only series showing new highs for Trump, either. His RCP aggregate average gap between approval and disapproval is the narrowest since his inauguration. Whether or not this is a rally effect or more permanent, the trend is definitely real — and remarkable for a president who faced impeachment and removal sixty days ago or so.

That isn’t the most significant finding of this survey, however. An enthusiasm gap has opened up that might be more accurately described as a chasm:

Despite the rapid consolidation around Biden among a broader Democratic electorate, the former vice president suffers from an enthusiasm gap when contrasted with the incumbent president. More than 8 in 10 (86 percent of) registered voters who currently side with Trump say they are enthusiastic about their support. That compares with 74 percent of Biden supporters.

More telling is the gap in the intensity of that enthusiasm, which can translate into who turns out to vote and who might not. Among registered voters who support Trump, 55 percent say they are very enthusiastic about backing him while 32 percent say they are somewhat enthusiastic. Among Biden’s supporters, a far smaller 28 percent say they are very enthusiastic while 46 percent are somewhat enthusiastic.

That was always the risk with Biden, who generates a lot more nostalgia than enthusiasm. Biden didn’t win the nomination so much as having it handed to him by an intervention, assuming he wins it at all. He’s not leading some national political movement, like Bernie Sanders is with progressives-cum-socialists. Democrats are settling for Biden as the most electable against Trump and the least dangerous to their down-ballot prospects.

That enthusiasm number has to be prompting a re-evaluation of that issue, though. If Trump’s peak enthusiasm remains twice as high as Biden’s, that will call into question whether Democrats can hold onto their House gains from the midterms, and whether the Senate race will be as favorable as it should be. The crosstabs show Trump winning the suburban voters 50/46, but doing much better on high enthusiasm, 27/14. In rural areas, Trump leads 72/25 but enthusiasm is 50/7. That’s not a typo; only seven percent of rural voter have a high degree of enthusiasm for Biden. And note that while Biden wins urban voters by a 2:1 advantage (64/32), he only barely edges Trump among the very enthusiastic in the cities, 15/14.

Even in places where Biden should dominate, Trump gets an edge in enthusiasm. Biden wins Northeast voters 59/38, but Trump wins very enthusiastic voters 21/14. In the West, Biden leads 55/40 but trails among high-enthusiasm voters there too, 12/16. The Midwest is a virtual tie (48/47 Biden), but Trump more than doubles Biden among high-enthusiasm voters 26/12.

Democrats fulfilled their wish in pushing Biden across the finish line, or at least pushing him a lot closer to it than Sanders. They may well regret it by November.