July 02, 2020 124 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, written from our gaudy rococo manse where, when it’s a hot and muggy summer day, we enjoy a good neighborhood squirt gun fight on the front lawn, but with a twist—the squirt guns are assault rifles.


This week we’re ranking what is described, in the parlance of digital media, as “snackable nuggets” from recent presidential race polling—which demographics or issues are giving Trump problems (nearly all of them), which demographics or issues are giving Biden problems (???), what the “enthusiasm gap” means (not much), and so on. Why is Trump losing so badly? Because no one likes him, duh. Uh, we mean, it’s very complex …


Donald Trump, surrounded by red and blue shapes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

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1. The white-collar realignment

It’s complete.

One way to look at the outcome of the 2016 election was how differing rates of change in the nascent national political realignment secured the election for Trump. Working-class white Americans—the ancestral backbone of the Democratic Party—fled to Republicans faster than middle-class white Americans—the relatively recent backbone of the Republican Party—fled to Democrats. Donald Trump won white voters without college degrees by 39 percentage points and clung to white voters with college degrees by 4. With that, he took the Rust Belt while staving off Democrats in the Sun Belt. But since Trump took office, white voters with college degrees have been playing catch-up. The recent New York Times–Siena national poll, in which Joe Biden had an overall 14-point lead, showed Biden leading white voters with college degrees by 28 points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won white women with college degrees by 7 points. In the Times-Siena poll, Biden was leading among the same group by 39 points. Democrats picked up 40 House seats in the 2018 midterms on the strength of the shifting suburbs. Soaring suburban turnout supplemented Biden’s strength among Black voters to secure him the presidential nomination. And it’s why he’s now on track to crush Donald Trump.

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2. The senior vote

Grandma’s seen enough.

For the first time since the 2000 election, when Al Gore famously emphasized his plan to keep Social Security cash in a “lockbox,” the senior vote—those 65 and older—might go for a Democratic presidential candidate. Biden has been posting consistent leads among seniors in a slew of national polls released this spring and early summer. This was an age cohort that Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016. Why is this happening? Well, Biden, like 100 percent of older voters, is old. They share a mutual bond in remembering what disco was like. While Donald Trump is also old, Trump makes fun of Biden for being old, which old people may not appreciate. Also, under Trump’s watch, a death virus that’s disproportionately lethal for older people has been spreading uncontrollably across the country. And then there’s the simple fact that all demographics are moving away from Trump in broad-based disgust. The implications of this shift could be profound. Older voters make up disproportionately higher shares of the electorate than the national average in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt—i.e., where all the critical swing states are. There’s been so much discussion since Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 about how Democrats needed to excite the base to get young people, specifically, to turn out. But what if Biden instead can just move seniors, who already turn out, a few points in his direction?

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3. The overrated Trump enthusiasm edge

The 17 remaining people who support Trump really, really like him.

In many write-ups of recent polls in which Trump is getting his clock cleaned, you’ll see a caveat: But Trump Still Leads on Enthusiasm. Here’s a fresh one from USA Today–Suffolk this week. Biden is leading Trump by 12 points in a head-to-head national contest, the paper explains, but Trump “continues to hold a significant edge when it comes to enthusiasm among his supporters, an important factor in turning out voters. Half of Trump backers say they are ‘very excited’ about their candidate, almost double the 27% of Biden backers who say that.” This may sound promising for Trump on its face, but thinking about it for a few seconds reveals a fundamental shortcoming of Trump’s reach. If your one campaign move is to throw red meat to your base, your base will absolutely be enthusiastic about you. The flip side to that, though, is that you’ve alienated everyone else and left yourself with a rump 41 percent of the electorate, as this particular poll shows Trump earning. Enthusiasm, as with other overdiscussed factors like “ground game,” is significant when a race is within a couple of points. This race, right now, is not. 

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4. Trump’s edge on the economy

Can he hold it?

The bottom may have, for now, fallen out on Trump’s approval rating. But if you look at the timing of the fall, it’s much more closely correlated to the president’s response to anti-police protests and general unrest than it is to the (first) coronavirus outbreak and attendant economic collapse. Even the horrible polls that show Trump trailing by double digits overall, and in most subcategories, still show him with a narrow advantage over Biden on the economy. The multitrillion-dollar relief package that Congress passed wasn’t flawless, but some of its provisions—especially the generously enhanced unemployment benefits—were successful at keeping incomes afloat amid widespread unemployment. But now we are heading toward a cliff. The enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of the month. Businesses that took advantage of the PPP will run out of those funds. Rent and mortgage delays and eviction freezes will expire. Strapped state and local governments are entering a new fiscal year without knowing whether additional federal relief is coming. Congress is expected to take up another coronavirus relief package in mid-July, but Republicans have been hostile to additional spending. It’s a position they might want to reconsider if they wish to preserve Trump’s one remaining advantage, and theirs.

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5. “Honesty”

A bellwether stat!

An interesting observation from CNN’s Harry Enten: In 2016, voters said Hillary Clinton was more “honest” than Trump by 3 percentage points, nationally. She won the popular vote by 2 points, nationally. Voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania said Trump was more honest, though, and he won those states. Polls asking the “honesty” question in 2020, meanwhile, are finding that Biden is considered more honest than Trump by about 10 to 12 percentage points, approximating his polling lead. If the “honesty” margin can be used as a proxy for the overall vote, it lays out a road map for Trump’s comeback: He just needs to convince an additional 10 to 12 percentage points of the electorate that he’s honest. Since that’s not in the cards, he needs to convince an additional 10 to 12 percentage points of the electorate that Biden is dishonest. This may all sound too cute by half. But so is the entirety of political analysis, and you all eat it up! “Honesty”—that’s the whole ballgame, science says so.

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6. The white evangelical vote

Trump can’t afford any slippage here. There’s some slippage.

Why would Trump and his senior advisers go so far as to gas peaceful protesters to clear the way for a photo-op outside a church? Mostly because they’re rotten people. But about a week before the infamous incident, there was a story in Politico about how a “sudden shift in support for Donald Trump among religious conservatives is triggering alarm bells inside his reelection campaign,” observing that the slippage was prompting Trump’s messaging about reopening churches. The church photo-op backfired, both because it was a horrific thing to do and, also, what white evangelical is impressed by a photo-op outside a heretical mainline Protestant church? Trump won 81 percent of white evangelicals in 2016 and needs to at least match that to win reelection. His best chance for rebounding might be, well, John Roberts. With the chief justice showing disturbing signs of occasional social liberalism, social conservatives may recognize that additional conservative appointments are necessary. Although, as one anti-abortion Christian conservative told my colleague Ruth Graham, it’s also possible that evangelical voters will realize that holding their noses and voting for Trump to get their judges isn’t getting them the decisions they want, so maybe it’s not worth it.

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7. White working-class women

Leaving Trump, like everyone else.

Let’s end where we began. Trump’s problems with white voters are not entirely limited to middle-class suburbanites. His support among white working-class voters is sagging too. As previously mentioned, Trump won white voters without college degrees by 39 percentage points in 2016; in the New York Times–Siena poll, he was only leading by 19. The prime mover here is white women without college degrees, a group Trump won by 27 percentage points in 2016. Recent polling has shown that number shrinking to single digits. You may notice some overlap between white women with college degrees and white women without college degrees: The entirety of the group is comprised of white women, they are running away from Donald Trump, and it is very difficult to find a single thing that Trump has even tried to do about it.