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NYT/Siena College poll finds debate hurt Trump in two swing states

In the poll of likely voters, by 37-21 they said Biden won the debate; 48% said they were less likely to support Trump after the debate, compared to 31 percent who said the same about Biden. 

President Donald Trump speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate on September 29.
President Donald Trump speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate on September 29.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Of course, new poll numbers are flying thick and fast, mostly showing Joe Biden’s lead growing slightly to moderately, especially in key swing states. 

In general, they show Biden with large leads, ranging from high single digits to a few reaching double digits, nationally, and edging upward over recent days. There’s also a small, presumably insignificant and temporary, uptick in Donald Trump’s approval rating, perhaps out of sympathy over his illness with COVID-19.

But, as I’ve often noted, while Trump’s approvers are stalwart, they are too few to win him a second term. And Trump trails in most of the swing states. 

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One of the most amazing things about the Trump phenomenon is the astounding stability of his base. He once famously bragged that he could shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue, and not lose any support. And that’s roughly backed up by the polling during his entire term, if we focus on his approval ratings, and if we stipulate that Trump, who deserves some blame for the number of COVID deaths, has not, apparently, shot anyone on Fifth Avenue. 

Those ratings are bad, quite bad, generally mired in the very low 40s, but they never go up or down by much. I’ve watched them obsessively for more than three years and have been astonished at their stability given Trump’s horrendous performance as both a president and, especially, a human being. It seems that the members of Trump’s hard-core 40 percent will never change their view (and I’ll defend to the death their right to give their vote to whoever they think will make the best president). 

But even the ridiculous vagaries of Electoral College math are not enough to win with 40 percent of the popular vote in a year without a significant third party or independent candidacy. (Bill Clinton won in 1992 with 43 percent, the year Ross Perot got 19 percent.)

 (An aside to the previous remark about Trump’s horrendous performance: His supporters might dispute the part about his performance as president, especially on the economy. But that argument requires them to ignore that his atrocious performance in the management of the COVID pandemic wiped out all those good quarters of economic growth and more, while his terrible performance as a human being continues to test new lows, including his not only obnoxious but politically damaging performance in the first debate.)

But, no matter how hard you torture the ability of the Electoral College to undermine the popular vote, Trump can’t win without getting his share of the I-don’t-like-either-of-them vote. Many in this category are less focused on policy than on humanity. Unfortunately for Trump, his opponent, Joe Biden, is hard to portray as obnoxious or radical. Biden has led in the polls throughout, by a margin generally large enough to overcome the vagaries of the Electoral College, and the polls currently show him leading in a huge portion of the so-called swing states, which are the only states that matter under the above mentioned Electoral College vagaries.

So, one gathers, Trump decided to spend the first debate acting like a gorilla fighting for primacy, presumably trying to turn the election into a question of who-is-the-alpha-male. In some ways, that might have worked with his base, many of whom seem to love the alpha-male routine. But hardly anyone else. 

All of which is meant to lead up to some poll numbers published Monday by the New York Times, based on the Times’ ongoing polling partnership with Siena College, of post-debate reactions in two of the biggest swing states, Pennsylvania and Florida. Both are “in play” (although Biden has led in Pennsylvania for a while, and Florida has only recently joined the list of swing states, since Trump led there by quite a bit for quite a while). Trump needs to win them both. Biden has other paths to victory. 

But Trump’s primate strategy seems to have done him considerably more harm than good. According to the above-referenced Times Siena poll of likely voters in those two states combined: 

  • By 37-21, the likely voters said Biden won the debate.
  • 65 percent said they disapproved of Trump’s “conduct” during the debate, compared to 37 percent who said that about Biden’s.
  • And, 48 percent said they were less likely to support Trump after the debate, compared to 31 percent who said the same about Biden. 

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They’re just poll numbers. Technically, it’s just a reaction to one debate, although it’s reasonable to assume they mostly reflect underlying feelings about Trump and Biden more generally.

There’s a debate scheduled for Oct. 15. Given Trump’s health, I don’t know if that will occur. When told that some new rules might be imposed to cut down on Trump’s ability to destroy the debate by refusing to be quiet when it was Biden’s turn to talk, Trump has, so far at least, refused to accede to any such rule changes.

Apparently, there is no right in the Constitution (this isn’t really in the Constitution) that Trump values more than his right to do his dominant male primate routine at all times and places. If I had to guess, his brain tells him, contrary to what polls suggest, that constant demonstrations of an out-of-control testosterone rush is what the country really wants to see when deciding whom to trust with the nuclear launch codes for the next four years.

In case that last reference seems unkind, I would remind all that early in his term Trump complained that he didn’t see the point of having nuclear weapons if you could never use them (Trump reportedly wanted to build more of them). It was this remark, according to many sources, that caused retired Gen. James Mattis to refer to Trump as a “moron,” shortly before Mattis resigned his position as Trump’s first secretary of defense.)