For many voters this fall — enough to potentially decide the race, according to all recent polling — the question will apparently be: Which presidential candidate whom you dislike do you dislike less?
As you probably know, more Americans disapprove of Donald Trump than approve of him, and that’s been true pretty much every day since he glided down the magic escalator in Trump Tower or since he bragged at the Republican Convention, “I alone can fix it.”
I will lay you 10-1 odds that on Election Day this November, Trump will have an upside down approval number, and you would be a sucker to take that bet.
Both ‘under water’
But guess who else has an upside down approval rating? Joe Biden. His approval numbers are better than Trump’s, but still “under water.”
The median American voter is in a foul mood toward politicians and has been for some time.
That’s sad. But it’s based on the fact that both Trump and Biden have not only approval numbers below 50 percent, but disapproval numbers that are higher than their approval numbers. Again, that’s sad. And it didn’t used to be like this. When I was a kid, my liberal parents voted enthusiastically for Adlai Stevenson, but they still Liked Ike.
Still, once we get over being sad at the high and rising level of sourness, it leads to the conclusion that this race will, in some real sense (like the previous one), be decided by the question: Whom-do-you-dislike-less?
And, based on recent polling, that’s currently a huge factor in Joe Biden’s favor.
I borrow this analysis from a recent segment by MSNBC’s political number cruncher Steve Kornacki.
(I should repeat, as usual, that no current polling can really tell us what will happen in November. It’s a snapshot of the moment it was taken, and (also as usual) a blurry snapshot considering that every poll includes a significant margin for error. But in this case, the margin isn’t nearly big enough to cover the gap.
Polling in 2016
In the MSNBC segment (which I’ll link to below), Kornacki goes over the facts from 2016 versus the current polling, according to which, on Election Day 2016:
In NBC exit polling, voters who had an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump outnumbered those with a favorable view by a very impressive 60-38 percent margin. But the majority also had an unfavorable impression of Hillary Clinton — by a smaller but quite significant 54-44 percent. You could assume that, even if Clinton were under water, she should have won because she was under less water than Trump — and bear in mind she did get the most votes overall.
But it also means that a fairly huge number of voters told pollsters they didn’t like either of the major party nominees. And those who said they didn’t like either major party nominee voted this way:
For Trump: 47 percent.
For Clinton: 30 percent.
For a third-party candidate or for no one: the remaining 23 percent.
Of the total electorate (not just the ones who didn’t like either major party nominee) 94 percent of all voters voted for either Trump or Clinton.
But here’s the key: Of the large, unprecedented, 18 percent portion of voters who disliked both major party nominees but held their nose and voted for the one they disliked less, they broke for Trump by a 17 percentage point margin.
And, Kornacki said, this disliked-both-but-voted-for-Trump portion was even bigger in the three key swing states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that won him the electoral votes he needed.
Recent NBC polling
Now flash forward to the most recent NBC polling. Sadly, we find that (as of the time of this recent NBC poll) neither of the major party nominees has a favorable approval rating. But Biden’s negative gap is a more manageable 44 percent approval/54 percent disapproval, 10 points “under water” compared to Trump’s 38 approval/60 percent disapproval, a staggering 22 points under water, which is also much worse than his ratings when he faced Clinton.
But here’s the clincher, and forgive me for taking so long to get to it: The poll on which Kornacki based his segment found that:
When that large segment of the sample who said they had an unfavorable opinion of both Trump and Biden were asked for whom they would vote, they broke for Biden by 60-10 percent, with the rest either saying they would vote for a third-party candidate, wouldn’t vote for anyone for president, or didn’t know.
I wish I were more excited about Biden. I’m sad that our system has produced a choice of two candidates for whom so many can’t feel enthusiastic about voting for either. I assume Team Trump, which has no way to drive up Trump’s favorable, will go all out to drive up Biden’s unfavorable. And a complicated poll question six months before the election isn’t the slightest bit bankable.
But if I were Trump or his managers, I would find that last fact about the poll result – the fact that voters who don’t like either Trump or Biden dislike Biden less — very daunting.