In the realm of public opinion, one overarching issue has dominated this year’s presidential race: President Donald 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 Trump and Joe Biden — largely because they’re certain about whether they want to re-elect the president.
In a New York Times/Siena College survey released 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 tuned in to the first presidential debate Tuesday have yet to make up their minds. Fully 10% of likely voters in the Times/Siena poll didn’t express a vote preference, or said they favored a third-party candidate.
The debate centered around six topics: 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 Trump and Biden. Here’s a look at what polling tells us about where the public stands on those issues.
The Supreme Court vacancy
In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death, 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 Barrett was announced as the nominee showed that voters preferred the winner of the November election to name Ginsburg’s replacement.
Fifty-six percent of likely voters said so in the Times/Siena poll, compared with 41% who said Trump should go ahead and fill the seat now. Two NBC News/Marist College surveys in Michigan and Wisconsin released Sunday also found that a slim majority of likely voters in those states thought the winner of the election should be allowed to fill the seat.
The coronavirus pandemic
Since May, the pandemic has been a weak point for 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% of white voters, who generally lean toward supporting the president. In poll after poll, voters consistently say by double-digit margins that they think Biden would do a better job handling the pandemic.
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 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 Trump over his opponent by 7 points on handling the economy.
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. Forty-nine percent said that the federal government had not done enough to support the economy amid the outbreak, while just 9% said it had done too much.
Trump has employed an ever-growing list of narratives to cast doubt on the electoral process. And he has 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 Trump was encouraging election interference, versus just 38% who said he was working to make elections more safe. In a CNN poll last month, 51% of Americans disapproved of how the president had handled matters of election security, while just 40% approved.
Still, 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% of voters described themselves as very confident that all votes would be counted fairly, a 13-point drop from 2016.
Trump’s and Biden’s records
For 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 Biden is likely to take up in his own attacks.
For 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 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.
Race and cities
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 Biden would be dangerous.
But while public support for Black Lives Matter and the protests did plateau this summer after rising in the spring, 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% said Biden would handle crime better, while 44% chose Trump.