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Presidential Polls Ahead of the Trump vs Biden Debate

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Presidential Polls Ahead of the Trump vs Biden Debate

A crucial fraction of the millions who watch the first presidential debate on Tuesday will have yet to make up their minds. Here’s what polling tells us about the issues that will come up.President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on Monday. Mr. Trump is likely to try to turn the…

Presidential Polls Ahead of the Trump vs Biden Debate

A crucial fraction of the millions who watch the first presidential debate on Tuesday will have yet to make up their minds. Here’s what polling tells us about the issues that will come up.

Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Giovanni Russonello

[Watch the presidential debate live and follow along with our real-time analysis.]

In the realm of public opinion, one overarching issue has dominated this year’s presidential race: President Trump himself.

Throughout his term, Americans have expressed strong opinions about him one way or the other, according to polls. And today, most voters know for certain where they stand in the contest between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — largely because they’re certain about whether they want to re-elect the president.

In a New York Times/Siena College survey released on Sunday, more than three-quarters of likely voters nationwide called this the most important election of their lifetimes, reflecting the strong feelings on either side.

Still, a crucial fraction of the millions who tune in to the first presidential debate on Tuesday will have yet to make up their minds. Fully 10 percent of likely voters in the Times/Siena poll didn’t express a vote preference, or said they favored a third-party candidate.

Will the president or Mr. Biden be able to peel away enough of those votes to make a meaningful difference in the race?

Chris Wallace, the Fox News host who will moderate the debate on Tuesday, has announced the six topics on which it will be focused: the Supreme Court, the coronavirus outbreak, the integrity of the election, the economy, “race and violence in our cities,” and the respective political records of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

Here’s a look at what polling tells us about where the public stands on those issues — and how the candidates may be looking to score points on each front.

In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death, Mr. Trump wasted no time in choosing a successor. He tapped Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an appeals court jurist with a staunchly conservative record — including a history of opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Polls conducted just before Judge Barrett was announced as the nominee showed that voters preferred the winner of the November election to name Justice Ginsburg’s replacement, following the precedent set four years ago, when Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, refused to hold hearings during an election year on Judge Merrick B. Garland’s nomination.

Fifty-six percent of likely voters said so in the Times/Siena poll, compared with 41 percent who said Mr. Trump should go ahead and fill the seat now. Two NBC News/Marist College surveys in Michigan and Wisconsin released on Sunday also found that a slim majority of likely voters in those swing states thought the winner of the election should be allowed to fill the seat.

But now that Judge Barrett has been nominated, both presidential candidates have made it clear that this debate is about a lot more than Senate precedent. In an interview that aired on Sunday, Mr. Trump declared that with Judge Barrett on the bench, it was “certainly possible” that the court might overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Such an outcome would go against the will of most Americans, who support keeping abortion legal. In the Times/Siena poll, voters said by more than two to one that they would be less likely to back Mr. Trump if he appointed a justice who would overturn Roe. By 20 percentage points, voters said in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month that they trusted Mr. Biden on issues of abortion and family planning more than Mr. Trump.

Meanwhile, Mr. Biden, who himself has a mixed record on abortion rights, has put a much more urgent focus on the Affordable Care Act, a law that has grown increasingly popular during Mr. Trump’s term. Americans now tend to say they support it, according to various polls. In the Times/Siena survey, independent voters alone supported it by more than two to one. And in the Kaiser poll, voters said by a 13-point margin that they preferred Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump to determine the law’s future.

The administration is currently backing a lawsuit before the Supreme Court that seeks to annul the Affordable Care Act, and Mr. Biden has argued that confirming Judge Barrett could mean the end of the law.


Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

In making that argument, Mr. Biden has returned repeatedly to the health threats posed by the coronavirus. “We are still in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century, a crisis that has already taken over 200,000 lives — between 750 and 1,000 lives a day, and counting,” Mr. Biden said on Sunday. “And yet the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court right now, as I speak, to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.”

Since May, the pandemic has been a weak point politically for Mr. Trump — in part because a majority of Americans have consistently disagreed with his focus on speedily reopening, and because many voters simply don’t feel they can trust him on this life-or-death matter.

By a 15-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll said they disapproved of how he had responded to the virus — including 50 percent of white voters, who generally lean toward supporting the president. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll this month, 65 percent of Americans said they tended not to believe the information the president provided on the virus. In poll after poll, voters consistently say by double-digit margins that they think Mr. Biden would do a better job handling the pandemic.

At the debates, look for Mr. Biden to return to the virus as often as he can, hammering the president on what he sees as his greatest vulnerability.

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If there is one area in which Mr. Trump retains at least a slight advantage over Mr. Biden, it is the economy. Even as the pandemic has shuttered businesses across the country, putting millions of Americans out of work, a majority of voters have continued to express approval of how Mr. Trump handles economic matters.

By a 12-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll gave him positive marks on that front. In the NPR/PBS/Marist survey, Americans favored Mr. Trump over his opponent by seven points on handling the economy.

To the extent that Mr. Trump can succeed in reminding voters of how things were going before March, he appears to have a strong hand. But where the economy intersects with the virus, things grow dicier.

Fifty-five percent of likely voters said he was at least partly responsible for the economic downturn, according to the Times/Siena poll — a reflection of how frustrated many Americans have been by his refusal to coordinate a national response to the pandemic. Forty-nine percent said that the federal government had not done enough to support the economy amid the outbreak, while just 9 percent said it had done too much.

And in a sign of the country’s appetite for government relief, 72 percent of likely voters said they thought Congress should pass a new, $2 trillion stimulus package to combat the pandemic’s effects.

[Read our New York Times fact check on the first presidential debate.]

Mr. Trump has employed an ever-growing list of narratives to cast doubt on the electoral process — whether he is questioning the security of mail-in voting or encouraging supporters in North Carolina to vote twice, which would be a felony. He has also downplayed the threat posed by foreign countries, particularly Russia, that are seeking to interfere in the election.

Fifty-one percent of Americans said in the recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll that they thought Mr. Trump was encouraging election interference, versus just 38 percent who said he was working to make elections more safe. In a CNN poll last month, 51 percent of Americans disapproved of how the president had handled matters of election security, while just 40 percent approved.

Still, Mr. Trump’s sowing of doubt may have had the desired effect, in at least one sense: Americans have broadly lost faith in the electoral process. In the CNN poll, just 22 percent of voters described themselves as very confident that all votes would be counted fairly, a 13-point drop from 2016.

At least in theory, voters continue to broadly back expanding the means of voting. Asked about whether they would support their state allowing universal access to voting by mail this fall, 73 percent of Americans said they would, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll last month.


Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

One segment of Tuesday’s debate will be devoted to the respective records of each candidate — and, presumably, both will get the opportunity to attack the other over their pasts.

For Mr. Trump, this could be the moment when close scrutiny is turned toward his decades of tax avoidance, as detailed in a recent New York Times investigation — a narrative that Mr. Biden is likely to take up in his own attacks.

Those tax revelations surfaced too recently for polls to address them, but we do know that Mr. Trump has never received high marks for honesty (three in five likely voters called him generally dishonest in a Quinnipiac University poll this month), and that 56 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center in June they thought he had a responsibility to publicly release his tax returns.

For Mr. Biden, his 36-year career in the Senate provides ample fodder for the president to seize upon — from his support for the 1994 crime bill to his vote to authorize the Iraq war. But Mr. Trump has seemed most intent on painting the former vice president as a tool of the far left, an argument that runs counter to much of his Senate track record, and one that has largely proved unsuccessful in peeling away support among swing voters.

For instance, when Americans were asked by Pew this month whether they thought Mr. Biden had voiced support for defunding police departments (he hasn’t), just over a quarter said yes.

Mr. Trump has pounced on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country — and the conflicts that have occasionally flared up around them — in his attempts to convince voters that a vote for Mr. Biden would be dangerous.

But while public support for Black Lives Matter and the protests did plateau this summer after rising in the spring, Mr. Trump does not appear to have gained from this line of attack. When asked whom they trust more to handle crime, voters are about evenly split in most polling. In the NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 47 percent said Mr. Biden would handle crime better, while 44 percent chose Mr. Trump.

And when asked in a different way in a Monmouth University poll this month, Americans delivered a decisive rebuke to the president’s combative approach. Sixty-one percent said they thought Mr. Trump’s handling of the protests had made the situation worse, while just 24 percent said he had made things better.

Forty-five percent of Americans said Mr. Biden would have handled the situation better, according to the poll, while just 28 percent said he would have done worse.

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