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Trump Job Rating “Bump” in Context

By Patrick Murray

Fact 1: Donald Trump’s job rating is at an all-time high.

Fact 2: Donald Trump has not received the same approval “bump” as past presidents in a crisis.

Recent shifts in the president’s job approval have been met with “either alarms or fist pumps,” as one reporter put it to me.  But we really have to keep this in context.  We have become so accustomed to the fact that Trump’s numbers never move all that much, that we accept that as the norm. The current crisis is just an exceptionally stark example of that.

To put this in perspective, if this were any other president, we would expect job ratings to have swung almost instantaneously by at least 10 points.  George W. Bush got a nearly 30 point bump after 9/11.  John F. Kennedy saw a double-digit hike in his already high ratings during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even Jimmy Carter got a 25 point bump in 1979 when Americans were taken hostage in Iran.

In Monmouth’s polling, Trump’s approval rating is only 2 points higher than where it was one month ago, before the pandemic really spread in the country. And for context, his current rating is 3 points higher than two months ago in the midst of his impeachment trial, and 5 points higher than six months ago, when the impeachment process was just getting underway.  Monmouth’s numbers track consistently with the average of all polls.

The scale of these shifts means that we end up trying to discern significance from infinitesimal amounts of evidence.  I am not saying that these small movements cannot be consequential. When the country is as evenly divided as it is now, they most certainly can be the tipping point for political change. What I am really trying to say is that is it very difficult to explain the reasons for these shifts at the microscopic level of detail many observers want. That’s because standard public opinion polls are not the right tool for the job. They are more like magnifying glasses than microscopes.

Let’s take the recent shift in Monmouth’s poll numbers as an example. The one major change we saw in Trump’s job rating was that approval among Democrats went from 6% last month to 11% now. The numbers for Republicans (91%) and independents (44%) stayed exactly the same. Now, the fact that the latter groups were exactly the same in the poll does not mean they are exactly the same in reality, because of the potential margin of error in the poll sample. It’s just that we know they did not move as much (if at all) as the Democrats.

A five percentage point movement among a group that makes up about a third of the population is microscopic in polling terms. Absent a sample size in the tens of thousands, we just don’t have the ability to examine this group with any level of precision. In real terms, this shift may represent about 3 or 4 million adults across the country. In polling terms, this equates to approximately 15 respondents in a sample of 850).

It is likely that this group had a range of reasons for changing their opinion. For some it was probably movement from soft disapproval to soft approval for a specific thing Trump had done. For others it may be aspirational.

There’s a body of literature about the psychological need to rally around a leader in times of crisis, which is why the bigger research question for a student of public opinion is why that effect isn’t bigger right now rather than finding explanations for the few people who have become more positive toward the president.

Part of the explanation is certainly down to Trump’s inability to project a more inclusive, non-partisan persona as well as a steady hand on how his administration is tackling this situation. Part of the explanation is the failure of opposition leaders to signal to their followers that they should get behind the president (which admittedly is difficult for them to do as Trump’s rhetoric continues to lambast those who don’t show due deference to him).

Basically, the current times are blowing away a lot of the political theories about what typically happens in a time of crisis.  And that, to me, is the more important public opinion story right now.

Should We Reform the Presidential Nomination Process?

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

The process by which the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee has faced increased scrutiny this election cycle, especially after a flop at the Iowa caucuses. One argument has been that the first two states that hold a caucus or primary, Iowa and New Hampshire, do not represent the demographics of the Democratic Party and hold an outsized influence on choosing the party’s nominee.  A majority of Democratic voters (56%) believe that Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary have too much influence over who wins the party’s presidential nomination, according to the Monmouth University Poll. One in four say having these states go first hinders the party’s ability to nominate the best candidate. It may be time to shake up the primary calendar and try something different.

To begin, what are some of the advantages of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first? Candidates with limited funds can stay competitive in small states with less expensive media markets but would not be able to compete against more well-funded candidates in bigger states. Since Iowa and New Hampshire are small states, candidates who are less well known or have fewer supporters are given the opportunity to gain traction and secure a win, something that would not be possible if larger states like California went first.

Candidates turn to different methods of campaigning in these states to establish closeness with the electorate. For example, in small states like New Hampshire, candidates hold small, intimate gatherings with voters like town halls. In bigger states there wouldn’t be an incentive to hold these types of events. Candidates would be more focused on holding large rallies and giving interviews on television. Also, candidates would have little motivation to campaign in a smaller state like New Hampshire if a larger state like Florida (with more delegates to be won) were to vote first.

However, there are some disadvantages to the current system as well. The first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, provide poor representations of the demographics of the Democratic Party. For example, having New Hampshire as the first primary has been criticized because the state’s racial demographics are 90% white, with African Americans only making up 1.7% of the population, Asian Americans 3%, and Hispanic Americans 3.9% according to the US Census Bureau.

The addition of Nevada and South Carolina as early states somewhat offsets the problem regarding the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire. With this, some claim the first four states in the nomination process are somewhat representative of the country. Hispanic Americans account for 29% of Nevada’s population. In South Carolina, African Americans account for 27% of the population and make up an even larger share of the Democratic electorate. The media uses these states to gauge candidates’ support among minority groups. 

 However, if a candidate does not perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are usually compelled to drop out of the race and never have the opportunity to compete in more diverse states. The candidates that perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire get increased media coverage that propels their campaigns. The process is all about gaining momentum leading up to Super Tuesday.

Iowa’s caucus system has been criticized for being noninclusive. It disenfranchises large parts of the state’s population due to its design and procedures. According to the ACLU of Iowa, the physical demands of caucusing in the state, “… makes participation difficult for people who can’t get or afford child care, people living with disabilities or mobility issues, people who lack transportation, and people who work evenings.” According to the Brookings Institute, the current way, “caters to older voters and those for whom politics is a passion.” Voter turnout in Iowa was also lower than expected this year.

What are some possible solutions or reforms that can be made to better the process? There are multiple different options and proposed reforms that can replace or complement what we have now. The Monmouth University Poll shows a majority of Democratic voters (58%) favor a national primary day. A national primary day would make it so that all states hold a presidential primary election on the same day. Proponents of this reform claim that this system would be more efficient, however, opponents argue that it would be very expensive for candidates to compete on a national scale.

Another reform that garnered 15% support in the poll is having a few other states hold their contests on the same days as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This would keep the drawn out process of the current system and calm the criticism surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

According to the Monmouth Poll, one in ten support replacing the current system with grouped primaries. Rotating regional primaries is one reform that The National Association of Secretaries of State has supported. This would group states by their geographical location (making segments) and create the primary schedule according to region. The order of these primary elections according to region would be rotated each election cycle.

Another possible reform is the elimination of caucuses and establishing primaries with ranked-choice voting. Not only does this address the concern over the accessibility of caucuses, but it may also answer the concerns expressed by Democrats over how much influence early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have over the candidate pool. Ranked-choice voting would enable fringe candidates to stay in the race even after Iowa and New Hampshire by allowing people to rank their preferences in a primary vote.

Ranked-choice voting could ensure that nominees have broader support among the electorate. According to FairVote, “The system incentivizes candidates to work together rather than attack one another in the hopes of earning backup choices, and to campaign to a broad swath of voters rather than just their own base.” Nevada used ranked-choice voting in their early voting period which helped increase voter turnout significantly according to FairVote

It might be time to give more consideration to reforming the current presidential nomination system. Criticism over Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s status as the first states to vote on presidential candidates has caused many to reexamine the process. Within our country’s history, the way political parties nominate their presidential nominees has evolved and changed to suit cultural shifts. By weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the current system, we can propose the right reforms.

There’s more to key voter groups for Biden and Sanders than meets the eye

by Patrick Murray

The story of the 2020 primary has been that Joe Biden does well among older voters, moderates, and black voters.  Bernie Sanders counts younger voters, liberals, and Latinos among his key backers.

We have exit poll data from 16 states so far this cycle – nine won by Biden, six won by Sanders, and one yet to be called.  Analysis of key group support across these states reveals that victory is not just a matter of which groups supported each candidate, but by how much.

Biden was backed by just over half of voters aged 45 and older in the states he has won so far, but he only managed to get 3 in 10 of this group’s support in the states won by Sanders. Similarly, Biden won half the vote of moderate and conservative voters where he was victorious, but only one-fourth in the states he lost.

Joe Biden Share of Key 2020 Primary Voter
Groups in States Won by …
Biden Sanders
Age 45 and over 51% 30%
Moderates/Conservatives 50% 27%
Black voters 62% 35%
White voters 38% 22%
Source: NBC News Exit Poll

In the states that landed in Sanders’ column, he won a clear majority of voters under 45 years old. That group’s support dropped to less than half in the states he lost to Biden. In the states Sanders won, he got the backing of 4 in 10 liberals, but only a third of this group in states Biden won.

Bernie Sanders Share of Key 2020 Primary Voter
Groups in States Won by …
  Biden Sanders
Under age 45 44% 56%
Liberals 33% 40%
Latino voters 38% 49%
White voters 26% 30%
Source: NBC News Exit Poll

Biden’s black support has been a key factor in his surging campaign this week. Biden has emerged victorious when he was able to claim the backing of 6 in 10 black voters on average, regardless of the share of the black electorate in any given state. He lost states where his support among black voters was about half that level. When Sanders was able to win about half of the Latino vote, he tended to win the state as well, but he lost states where his Latino support was less than 4 in 10.

While all these demographic groups have been identified as key blocs for the two candidates in pre-election polls over the past year, the way white voters have divided their support has also proven to be a critical factor in Biden’s comeback.  In states he won, Biden tended to claim more than one-third of the white vote. His share of the white vote was about one-fifth in states he lost. The white vote has not been as decisive for Sanders – he has won about the same proportion of this group in states he has won and states he has lost.

The one state that really tested these countervailing racial dynamics is Texas, which has significant numbers of both black and Latino voters. Biden got 58 percent of the black vote in Texas, only a few points shy of his average black share in the states he won.  Sanders won only 39 percent of the Latino vote there, which is on par with the average margin in states he lost. The two candidates split the white vote (30% for Sanders and 28% for Biden), but it was the differential vote shares between black and Latino voters that put Biden over the top. And this linkage between key group vote share and outcome held even though there were many more Latinos than black voters in yesterday’s Democratic electorate in Texas.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to these overall trends. Biden won Massachusetts, for example, despite low support among the small group of black voters in that state. But the overall analysis of the exit polls to date suggests that the threshold of support within each candidate’s key groups may be more critical in determining the outcome than the share each group represents in any given state’s electorate.  We will see if this trend continues in the diverse states up for grabs in the coming weeks.

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Notes: Thank you to the NBC News Decision Desk for access to the exit poll data.

Biden states = AL / MA / MN / NC / OK / SC / TN / TX / VA

Sanders states = CA / CO / IA / NV / NH / VT

Iowa is a Sanders state based on initial preference vote. Maine’s winner is uncertain.

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