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2020

PollerCoaster 2020: How To Win Michigan

To: Interested Parties
From: Dan Pfeiffer, Co-Host Pod Save America
RE: Michigan Poll – It’s all about the economy


As part of our PollerCoaster series, Crooked Media partnered with Change Research to survey the battleground state of Michigan. We polled 3,070 likely voters, including an oversample of the most persuadable voters. The poll was conducted May 11-17.

There is a lot of good news for Joe Biden in this poll. There are also some big warning signs and a very clear strategic imperative—win the battle over the economy.

State of the Race

The poll found Joe Biden leading Donald Trump 49-46 in a two-way race with five percent undecided. We were in the field before Independent Representative Justin Amash decided not to run for President. Even with Amash in the race, Biden still led 47-44 with Amash garnering four percent. This is a positive sign for Biden. The limited impact of a well-known, local third-party candidate suggests that in order to win, Trump is going to have to do better than the 47.6 percent he won Michigan with in 2016. Biden has also successfully consolidated the Democratic Party. He has the support of 87 percent of those who voted for Bernie Sanders this year, which is better than the 82 percent of Bernie voters who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.. That’s better than Clinton fared in 2016, when 18 percent of 2020 Bernie voters voted for either Trump, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein. 

Trump’s struggles are driven by several factors:

    • In 2016, Trump won white non-college women by 19 points, in this poll he is winning them by only 12.
    • Partisan bystanders—those who are either a) hostile to both parties, b) don’t have strong feelings about either party, or c) are independents who don’t lean toward either party—favor Biden 46-36, after having split 36-36 between Clinton and Trump in 2016 (19 percent did not vote, eight percent supported third party candidates). 
    • Biden is winning handily, 56-15, with those who feel unfavorable about both candidates.
    • Biden also leads among all groups who didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton:

      • 46-38 among Johnson voters
      • 64-9 among Stein voters
      • 46-39 among those who did not vote in 2016

Trump’s personal favorability is eight points under water. Only 43 percent of Michigan voters approve of the way Trump is handling the pandemic and Biden is trusted more on nearly every single issue. Yet, Trump is within three points of Biden, and his approval rating in Michigan (48/52) is much higher than his FiveThirtyEight national average (43.7/52.4). Put another way, Trump is losing by three in a state that Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor, won by 10 points less than two years ago.

The poll offers a very clear answer as to why Trump can win—his strength on the economy. And if Trump wins in Michigan, he will win the White House.

Trump’s Persistent Economic Strength

Dating back to the early days of his presidency, Trump’s economic approval rating has exceeded his overall approval. In addition to not screwing up Barack Obama’s economy (until recently), Trump’s business background gives him an aura of economic credibility among a segment of voters much larger than the MAGA hat wearing set. By five points, voters trust Trump over Biden to manage the economic recovery. Among independents, Trump’s lead is 19 points, and with “swing voters” that lead balloons to 33 points.

Trump’s persistent strength on the economy—even in the face of double digit unemployment—is the only reason he still has a shot at re-election. The good news for Biden is that Trump is incredibly vulnerable on the issue.

Below are some strategic recommendations on how Biden, Democratic candidates, and the rest of us can prosecute the economic case against Trump.

1. Make Trump’s COVID Response About Who He is Fighting For: After a very brief period where voters of both parties expressed support for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, reality has set in—45 percent now approve, and only 22 percent of undecided voters approve. Still, voters have not yet connected the failure of Trump’s response with the economic devastation that has followed. For example, even though just 22 percent of undecided voters approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, they trust Trump over Biden to manage the economic recovery by a margin of 47-42 percent. If voters continue to treat the pandemic and the economy as separate issues, Trump has the opportunity to minimize the political damage for his massive failures.

Democrats need a sustained message campaign that focuses on how Trump has helped corporations and special interests during the pandemic. We tested several messages by asking poll respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements from Trump and Biden. A few show promise in persuading key segments of voters, and there was one clear winner for Biden:

“Joe Biden says that Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic is more focused on helping big corporations and wealthy investors than small businesses and American families. The Trump administration has given hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to huge corporations and professional sports teams while thousands of family-owned businesses got shut out.”

Fifty-three percent of undecideds and 48 percent of Independents agreed with this message. There is a huge opportunity to shine a spotlight on the big companies that benefited from the Payroll Protection Program, while tens of thousands of small businesses got shut out. Specific, evocative, localized examples always work better than big numbers. One could envision a series of ads featuring local Michigan business owners that were unable to get government assistance while big companies with ties to the Trump administration received millions.

Additionally, the Republican proposal to shield employers from legal liability if workers get sick or die from COVID-19 is wildly unpopular. Overall Michigan voters oppose the policy 55 to 37. One in five Republicans oppose the liability protections and opposition is much stronger than support: only 16 percent strongly support it, while 42 percent are strongly opposed. Democrats from Biden on down should use liability protection to hammer Republicans every single day for putting corporations before workers. 

Defining who Trump fights for and who his policies help is an incredibly urgent strategic imperative. Despite Trump passing a massive corporate tax cut and making it easier for corporations to pollute air, water, and food, he and Biden are currently tied on the question of who would do a better job “fighting for people like you.” The candidate who wins on that question will likely win the election.

2. Neutralize the China Issue: Our poll makes it very clear that the intense focus on China from Trump, Republican Super PACs, and Fox News is about more than reflexive, Republican racism. Trump’s strongest message in this poll is his China message:

Donald Trump says China lied about the severity of the virus and allowed it to spread around the world. He took bold action by banning travel from the country in January, while Joe Biden called him “xenophobic.”

This exact message is currently being featured in tens of millions of dollars in television and digital ads in several battleground states. It needs to be countered as soon as possible in paid and earned media. 

The poll found a couple of strong responses to Trump’s attack. Fifty percent of undecided voters agree with a message that undermines Trump’s tough on China talk with new, specific information:

Joe Biden says Donald Trump took the Chinese President’s word over American intelligence officials, who warned the President in January that China was lying about the virus. Trump still praised China 15 times, sent them medical equipment, and instituted a travel ban that still allowed 40,000 people to travel from China to the U.S.

Another possible strategy for Democrats is to focus on the close financial ties between the Trump family and the Chinese government. Forty-three percent of undecided voters agree with a message about Ivanka Trump profiting off the Chinese government: 

Joe Biden says that Donald Trump has been corrupted by China. On the very day Ivanka Trump dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping, she was granted multiple Chinese trademarks that allowed her to earn millions in the country.

There may be some concern about raising the issue of Ivanka’s very sketchy business ties, because of the Republican obsession with Hunter Biden’s business dealings with China. However, our poll found that a message about Hunter Biden performed relatively poorly, which suggests that target voters are much more willing to believe that Trump and his family are corrupt than Biden and his family.

Trump’s focus on China is about stoking xenophobic sentiment, pushing his America First economic message, and shifting blame for his failed response to the pandemic. He can’t be allowed to get away with it and he won’t, if Democrats punch back at Trump with fact-based arguments.

3. Beware of Growing Concerns about Debt: One of the most surprising results was a growing concern about the national debt. Seventy percent of voters said they were either very or somewhat very concerned about the national debt, including one-in-three Democrats. If this result is validated in future polling, Democrats should not adopt the language of austerity. It would be a bad political mistake and a fatal governing error. Instead, they should go on offense in the following ways:

    • Remind voters that Trump increased the deficit by trillions in order to give a giant tax cut to corporations and the wealthy. Even in good economic times, the Trump tax scam is one of the greatest political mistakes in American history. The consequences of that error are exponentially graver in the middle of an economic depression.
    • Compare and contrast plans for dealing with the deficit. Trump has explicitly and repeatedly promised to cut Medicare and Social Security while refusing to ask the wealthy and corporations to pay more in taxes. Joe Biden and the Democrats will protect Medicare and Social Security while repealing the most egregious parts of Trump’s tax scam.
    • Remember that voters often don’t distinguish between government spending and deficits, even though the spending on programs like foreign aid comprise a tiny fraction of the federal budget and are inconsequential to the national debt. In this environment, the irresponsible spending and everyday grift of the Trump administration could carry more weight with voters. Some examples to highlight:

      • The millions in taxpayer dollars that were funneled into Trump’s pocket through his hotels and resorts.
      • The half a billion dollars being spent on paint—yes, paint—for Trump’s border wall.

As we enter the summer, Biden is well positioned to win in Michigan and nationally, but the race is by no means over. If Democrats can execute an aggressive, disciplined message about Trump’s responsibility for the economic mess and how he is focused on helping corporations and the rich, while the middle- and working-class fend for themselves, they can put the race away. There is a lot of road to travel and unexpected events to come, but the path to victory is very clear.