2020 election polls: White voters swept Trump to power in 2016. Now they’re the reason he is facing defeat

Michael Salfino
Trump's base is deserting him according to the latest polls (AFP via Getty Images)
Trump's base is deserting him according to the latest polls (AFP via Getty Images)

It’s fair to say that no presidential candidate has gone in more for the white voter than Donald Trump. His candidacy was born out the birther movement against President Obama’s citizenship. He’s downplayed America’s history of slavery, threatened 10 years in prison for vandalizing Confederate monuments, attacked America’s Black Lives Matter movement and even refused to quickly disavow white supremacists.

But here’s the irony: His biggest problem in his quest for reelection, if the best of the recent polls are to be believed, is a historic collapse in winning the support of the white voter.

FiveThirtyEight grades all the pollsters. Just looking at ones graded A/B or better going back until October 10, President Trump is ahead with the white voters by an average margin of 3.8 points over the Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. If that margin was to hold in the actual vote on November 3, it would be the narrowest advantage for the Republican candidate for president since Bill Clinton in both is his successful elections of 1992 and 1996, when he trailed the GOP candidate for president in both cycles by just two points. And it’s just 26 per cent of the average margin in this racial demographic going back 44 years.

In 2016, Trump won white voters by 20 points, according to the exit polls, 57-37. That was actually an identical margin to what Mitt Romney captured in 2012 (59-39). Though Trump won two points less of the overall vote than Romney did, he was able to gain an electoral college victory due to the strength of third parties, something not expected to be a factor this cycle.

Trump’s decline with white voters was very much in evidence in the 2018 midterms, which swept the Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi into power in the House of Representatives. The Democrats halved Trump’s advantage with white voters to just 10 points despite Trump spending the final weeks of that campaign trying to gin up support by talking frequently about migrant “caravans” making their way illegally into the United States. The decline with white voters, which made up 72 per cent of the electorate, resulted in the biggest popular vote margin nationally for the Democrats since Watergate in 1974, ultimately climbing to 8.6 points.

The white vote is expected to be less consequential to the outcome of the election than ever before, though it’s still forecast to make up two-thirds of the electorate. This is down from 89 per cent of the voters being white according to exit polls in 1976, a figure that’s gradually declined all the way down to 70 per cent in 2016.

The white vote is not a monolith. Trump has always fared better among white voters without college degrees. In 2016, Trump won them by 36 points (64-28). Then they made up 44 per cent of the total electorate. However that pie is now shrinking; the percentage of registered voters who fall into that category is down four points, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution and NPR. And Trump’s share of this shrinking demographic has also declined 13 points to just 59-37, according to the most recent Siena College/New York Times poll.

“Trump clearly needs to get back to his 2016 numbers (among blue-collar whites) to have any chance of winning,” David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report recently told The Washington Post.