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Trump's bump goes bust: Polls point to rising disapproval as voters sour on U.S. president's pandemic response

There are signs the political bounce U.S. President Donald Trump's received in the polls earlier in the coronavirus crisis has, at least for now, deflated.

Some troubling numbers for Trump in key states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania

U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to protest COVID-19 restrictions, like this one in Pennsylvania this week. But polls clearly show that Americans massively disagree with these protesters that it's time to reopen the economy. (Jason Burles/CBC News)

There are signs the political bounce U.S. President Donald Trump's received in the polls earlier in the coronavirus crisis has, at least for now, deflated.

Election polls in key states show him trailing Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for president in the November election, and the Gallup polling firm registered his biggest drop in popularity since taking office.

Trump enjoyed a brief rise in public opinion in late March, getting some of his best polling numbers since early 2017, averaging 46 per cent approval and 50 per cent disapproval on the polling site FiveThirtyEight, which tracks a number of polls.

That polling pop fizzled this month, dropping to 43 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively.

The polling aggregator RealClearPolitics.com shows a widening gap between Trump's approval and disapproval in April in several of the polls it tracks, with the spread ranging between two and 11 percentage points. 

'You never mention it'

In recent days, some polls also suggest Trump is out of sync with public sentiment when it comes to reopening of the economy. Multiple surveys suggest an overwhelming majority of Americans favour a go-slow approach, but Trump has been vocal about his support for protesters in several states calling for an end to COVID-19 shutdowns.

This week, Trump chastised reporters for not giving him the credit he says he deserves for tackling the pandemic. 

While the death toll from the virus has surpassed 50,000 in the U.S., projections have been revised significantly downward in recent days.

Trump also expressed annoyance at the lack of media coverage about how the U.S., after a panic over ventilators, now has such a surplus of ventilators that it can start exporting some.

"You never mention it. You never mention it," Trump said at a press conference Wednesday.

"There's no story [about] what a great job we've done with ventilators."

Trump at his daily press conference at the White House on April 16, during which he berated the media for not adequately covering his coronavirus successes stories. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Disapproval ratings higher

Any mention of presidential polling merits an important caveat: the overwhelming consensus among American political observers is that the 2020 election will be a close, hard-fought affair, as modern U.S. presidential contests usually are.

In other words, it's a game of inches.

Compared to most politicians, Trump's approval numbers have been seemingly set in concrete — they budge a couple of points one way, a couple of points the other way.

But Trump did come close to achieving a distinction that's eluded him since the start of his presidency: for one brief moment last month, Trump nearly had an approval level higher than his disapproval ratings, which hasn't happened since his first days in office at the start of 2017.

The website Real Clear Politics illustrates how Trump briefly had a majority of Americans supporting his handling of the pandemic. (Real Clear Politics)

But now, he's back to being what polling junkies refer to as under water. 

RealClearPolitics.com finds his disapproval rating is on average five percentage points higher than his approval rating; FiveThirtyEight puts the gap at nine per cent. 

Governors faring better

It's not looking any better in the election polls.

Trump is trailing his general-election rival Biden in 29 of the last 30 head-to-head polling matchups, a lag that persisted even during his brief popularity spike in March.

In addition, he's also getting lower marks for his handling of the crisis: both polling aggregators now show more disapprovals than approvals.

A number of other politicians, outside and inside the U.S., have gotten a bigger political lift, including Democratic state governors Trump has been fighting with.

Trump's approval numbers have fallen off their March highs, to where they were in February, which is still better than last fall. (Real Clear Politics)

Those state numbers matter most.

That's because winning the popular vote doesn't make you president. Just ask Hillary Clinton. What decides elections is states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

There's more bad news here for Trump.

  • Polls in Florida in the last week show him three or four points behind Biden. 
  • His numbers are worse in Michigan. A handful of surveys in the last week show him lagging Biden by between six and nine points.
  • In Pennsylvania, numerous surveys show him behind between five and eight points. One shows him tied with Biden.
  • Wisconsin is a bit better for Trump. But he was still lagging in a number of surveys.
  • It's been a couple of weeks since the last survey from Arizona, but Trump was down by as much as nine per cent in some polls in a state Republicans almost always carry.

Seniors favour gradual reopening

In Michigan, where demonstrators protesting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's lockdown orders were among those cheered by Trump, a poll commissioned for Fox News last week showed the governor about 15 points more popular than Trump.

That same poll showed Biden eight points ahead of the president.

Another important trend for Trump is his score among older voters. Senior citizens are an indispensable, solidly Republican constituency.

A large majority of Americans opposes reopening the economy now, and a small majority opposes Trump's handling of the crisis. Here a woman affixes a sign to her vehicle during a protest Thursday in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

That Fox survey from Michigan also showed Biden leading Trump by 18 points among self-described baby boomers. And it appears Michigan seniors aren't as ready to reopen the economy as the protesters Trump cheered on.

Only one-quarter of self-described baby boomers in the Michigan poll said they preferred a quicker reopening.

Noisy minority, meet silent majority

A mere 12 per cent of Americans think current lockdown restrictions go too far, according to a new poll for the Associated Press.

But about 80 per cent of Americans want to keep pandemic restrictions in place, said the poll, which is supported by multiple similar surveys.

That's after days of widespread news coverage of protests. One such scene unfolded in Pennsylvania this week, where people honked car horns at a rally outside the state legislature.

Thousands of people frustrated by the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown protested in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday. 2:02

Even though a Fox poll from Pennsylvania found most residents favoured a go-slow approach to reopening the economy.

Trump's message has wavered several times. His official guidelines actually call for a slow, multi-phase reopening of the economy based on a series of criteria.

But then last week, he expressed support for protests against lockdowns in Democratic-controlled swing states, tweeting "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!"

Now, he's gone back to a cautious message. 

This week, Trump questioned the logic of Georgia's Republican governor to immediately open gyms, massage parlours, tattoo shops and beauty salons.

"I disagree strongly," Trump said, pointing out that the idea violates federal recommendations.

"I think spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlours and barbershops ... is just too soon. I think it's too soon."

A number of Trump supporters say the restrictions need to loosen up, arguing that they penalize small businesses, and hurt the economy in rural areas where there are few cases.

"They're using our constitution like toilet paper in a crisis," said one woman at the Pennsylvania rally, holding up a flag and a booklet containing the constitution.

"We're living by science and data, not our constitution. That's wrong. We are not safe if we are not free."

Protesters did get some concessions this week: In Michigan, Whitmer extended stay-at-home orders to May 15 but also allowed some businesses and outdoor activities to resume. 

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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