If the Trump campaign had an articulable victory strategy (beyond trying to toss out legitimate ballots) it would go something like this: President Trump is down in the polls, but he might still be able to narrow margins enough to win the electoral college through a mix of schemes and messages aimed at depressing turnout among young voters, swing voters, and voters who genuinely dislike both candidates.
This is the basic thinking behind everything from trying to lard up ballots with “third-party” candidates, to orchestrating political investigations and prosecutions, to interfering with the vaccine-authorization process, to lying about—well, everything.
For the plan to work, though, Trump needs the voters and potential voters who are the targets of the strategy to be persuadable—to have some level of trust that whatever October surprises he manufactures are real and provide persuasive reasons to vote for him, or against Joe Biden, or not vote at all.
The good news is, even harder-to-reach voters appear wise to Trump, and show little indication that the things he might do to affect turnout in his favor will have the effect he hopes.
Vote Save America
In conjunction with our polling partners at Change Research, we surveyed 3098 new and/or irregular voters across six swing states to better understand how this crucial but often-caricatured subset of the electorate thinks about the race with just seven weeks until the election. Our findings contain generally good news for Biden, and bad news for Trump, but if anything should give the Trump campaign pause, it’s just how badly his poor character and governing failures have undermined his own ability to convince voters outside his base of anything. Trump is the epicenter of American politics, and can whip up controversies out of nothing, but the electorate polarizes around everything he says and does, and he consistently finds himself on the losing end of the partisan divide.
Our top-line findings are generally consistent with what more standard national and statewide polling shows: a healthy lead for Joe Biden, high levels of enthusiasm for Trump among his committed supporters, but intense distaste for Trump personally, and disapproval of how he’s done the job of president, among over half the population.
Yet despite matching the profile of people whom elites tend to think of as hard to reach, tuned out of the news, under-informed about Trump and his conduct as president, these voters are just like regular voters in two key ways: they see Trump for what he is and they’re riled up to get him out of office, no matter what shenanigans he engages in over the next 47 days.
Given how badly Trump trails Biden among these voters, the worst finding for him is that, after three-and-a-half years, there just isn’t a lot of give left. Eighty-seven percent of respondents say they will definitely vote or have already voted, and only seven percent claim to be undecided. That might not matter if Trump could reach them with new appeals that would make them think of him or the race differently, but the findings suggest he can’t.
We tested several pro-Trump/anti-Biden, and pro-Biden/anti-Trump messages to see which if any have the potential to change the race at the margins. None of the pro-Trump/anti-Biden appeals break Trump out of the low 40s, suggesting the only people buying what he sells are already committed supporters of his. When these voters hear one of the Trump campaign’s most consistent messages—“Joe Biden would shut down the entire country just as we’re making progress fighting the China virus. Donald Trump wants to allow all schools and businesses to open and says that he’ll approve a vaccine in record time”—only 41 percent of them considered it a very, or somewhat, convincing reason to vote for Trump, while 59 percent find it unconvincing. His best message—“Joe Biden is proposing a $4 trillion tax hike that would kill jobs and collapse the economy. Donald Trump says he already built the greatest economy in history during his first term, and will do it again in his second term so that we have full employment, soaring incomes, and record prosperity”—is unconvincing to 54 percent of these voters.
This general disinclination to believe Trump campaign messaging has filtered down to basically everything that touches on national politics. He has managed through relentless propaganda to convince a majority of voters that “looting, rioting, and crime in American cities” is a big problem, but only 43 percent of respondents approve or strongly approve of the job he’s done addressing crime, and respondents say Biden would do a better job at lowering crime rates than Trump by a 44-39 margin. Trump has made clear he intends to announce the approval or authorization of (and take credit for) a coronavirus vaccine in October, whether or not the FDA has approved any of the many vaccines currently undergoing trials, but if anything his repeated public interference in public health processes, his promotion of dangerous and unproven therapies, and his pattern of lying to the public about coronavirus have all but assured this gambit will backfire.
Only 17 percent of respondents say they would take a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available to them, compared to 45 who will wait for wider confirmation that it’s effective. And only 30 percent of those 17 percent say they would rush to take a vaccine “even if it has not passed all of the safety procedures that new treatments normally go through” which is essentially what Trump seems geared up to announce. The poll didn’t explicitly test whether voters would reward Trump for announcing a vaccine prematurely, but the widespread skepticism of using a premature vaccine suggests they will not, and that misleading the public about a vaccine’s readiness may even backfire.
The moral of this survey should be familiar to everyone who’s heard the tale of the boy who cried wolf. Except what’s coming for Trump in November isn’t the Deep State or the Fake News Media or Black Lives Matter or Antifa or any wolf. It’s the tens of millions of people he’s spent his entire presidency trying to deceive. If they vote as promised, he will lose.