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According to a pair of new Yahoo News/YouGov polls conducted immediately before and after President Trump disclosed his COVID-19 diagnosis, Joe Biden improved his lead in the 2020 election with his more composed performance in last Tuesday’s debate. He has maintained that same lead as a spate of new coronavirus cases started to surface in and around the White House, further undermining voters’ confidence in the president’s handling of the pandemic.
The first survey, conducted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 2, found Biden ahead by 8 points (48 percent to 40 percent) after leading Trump by 5 points (45 percent to 40 percent) in the previous Yahoo News/YouGov poll. The debate, held Sept. 29 in Cleveland, may have made the difference.
Among registered voters who watched the raucous clash, 46 percent said Biden won; only 28 percent said the same of Trump. The president’s hectoring performance — a clear majority of debate watchers (59 percent) rated it as “poor,” compared to only 32 percent for Biden — was followed by a collapse in his support among likely independent voters. Before the debate, these independents narrowly preferred Trump (44 percent) over Biden (43 percent). After the debate, they preferred Biden (44 percent) over Trump (29 percent) — meaning the president effectively lost 15 points among independents overnight.
The second Yahoo News/YouGov survey, conducted from Oct. 2 to Oct. 3, found no significant change in Biden’s lead over the president as the cluster of COVID-19 cases among top Republicans started to expand. Nor did it find an outpouring of sympathy for the stricken president or his party.
In fact, a majority of registered voters blame Trump’s infection on his own actions and attitude. A full 59 percent say the president has “underestimated the risks of COVID-19”; just 21 percent say he has “behaved appropriately.” By a 59 percent to 20 percent margin, registered voters say he has not been wearing a mask and social distancing appropriately. By a 61 percent to 23 percent margin, they say Trump’s level of mask-wearing and social distancing has been “too little” as opposed to “about right.” And by a 64 percent to 15 percent margin, they don’t think the president should have attended a New Jersey fundraiser and mingled with top GOP donors Thursday after learning that a top aide, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for COVID-19.
Likewise, just 15 percent of registered voters say it was appropriate for the Trump family to refuse "to wear masks for the entirety of [last week’s debate], in violation of rules at the venue; 67 percent say it was inappropriate. And a mere 19 percent say it was appropriate for White House staffers to go maskless "around President Trump"; 69 percent say that behavior was inappropriate. According to a recent New York Times report, Trump at times told staffers who wore masks in meetings to “get that thing off,” and “everyone” at the White House knew he “viewed masks as a sign of weakness.”
Overall, a majority of registered voters (51 percent) say that Trump could have avoided contracting COVID-19 if he had “practiced greater social distancing and worn a face mask, as recommended by the CDC.” Only 18 percent said he couldn’t have avoided it.
By comparison, majorities of registered voters say both Biden (55 percent) and Democrats in general (53 percent) have behaved appropriately in response to the pandemic. Less than a quarter say Biden and his party have overreacted. By a 15-point margin — 47 percent to 32 percent — voters say the coronavirus situation would have been better with Biden as president rather than worse. Biden holds a 9-point edge over Trump among likely voters (48 percent to 39 percent) on the question of who would do a better job handling the pandemic going forward.
How Trump’s illness develops — and how it affects the 2020 campaign — remains to be seen. The second Yahoo News/YouGov poll was conducted before the president’s doctors and aides gave conflicting and confusing statements about his condition Saturday. But the public was already primed to distrust any information released by Trump or the White House regarding the president’s “health and treatment for COVID-19,” with a majority (52 percent) of registered voters saying they do not trust Trump and a plurality (49 percent) saying they do not trust the White House.
In a troubling sign for the president, independents say by a 30-point margin (56 percent to 26 percent) that they don’t trust Trump to be candid about his health. If that credibility gap grows in the days ahead, it could further weaken Trump’s standing in the election.
The campaign trail may no longer see the sort of large, in-person rallies Trump insisted on staging in the weeks leading up to his illness. Just 28 percent of registered voters say it was appropriate for Trump "to hold crowded campaign rallies during the pandemic"; 60 percent say it was inappropriate. A majority (52 percent) say Trump should suspend in-person rallies for the rest of the campaign; just 28 percent say he should not.
The fallout from Trump’s infection could also affect the rapid confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that Republicans have been intent on holding before the election. The Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted just before Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis showed more registered voters in favor of confirming Barrett’s nomination (46 percent) than rejecting it (37 percent). But that margin has narrowed to 42 percent confirm versus 39 percent reject in the aftermath of Trump’s infection, with support for confirming Barrett’s nomination falling from 89 percent to 80 percent among Republican-leaning voters.
This may reflect new developments — namely, the expanding cluster of COVID-19 cases around the president. Asked whether “in-person confirmation hearings on [Barrett’s nomination should be delayed” now that “at least one senator on the Judiciary Committee has since tested positive for COVID-19,” registered voters narrowly said yes (42 percent to 40 percent). In recent days, two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, tested positive, along with an additional Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, not on the committee.
Yet assuming Trump recovers, registered voters seem to want other campaign events to proceed as planned. A large majority (71 percent) say Biden should continue to campaign while the president is quarantined. Just 13 percent want to delay the election itself "if one or both of the presidential candidates becomes too sick from COVID-19 to campaign”; 69 percent oppose a delay. Just 14 percent want to cancel the Wednesday, Oct. 7 vice presidential debate in Utah. And even with Trump hospitalized, only somewhat more (31 percent) say the next presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, should be canceled; 42 percent say the show should go on.
If the second debate between Trump and Biden does happen, the president could be well-served to shift his approach. Nearly two-thirds of registered voters (63 percent) said they watched some of the first debate, and both sides thought it was a train wreck, with 65 percent characterizing the event as “chaotic” and 56 percent calling it “embarrassing.” Asked which candidate was responsible for making the debate chaotic, 59 percent said Trump (versus just 13 percent who said Biden); asked who made the debate embarrassing, 53 percent said Trump (versus just 21 percent who said Biden).
By a staggering 72 percent to 12 percent margin, debate watchers said that Trump interrupted Biden more than the opposite — and nearly half of viewers said the spectacle made them think worse of Trump (49 percent) rather than better (14 percent). Meanwhile, a plurality of voters said the debate made them think better of Biden (38 percent) rather than worse (26 percent). Sixty-seven percent said that, in future debates, the moderator should be able to cut off a candidate’s microphone when his time is up. Only 23 percent rejected this idea, which has been floated as a possible rule change.
The poll also asked voters to consider what might happen if Trump and/or Biden were to “become incapacitated for health reasons.” In that scenario, nearly two thirds of Republicans (65 percent) say they would want Vice President Mike Pence at the top of the ticket. (The Republican National Committee would select Trump’s replacement.) The next closest choices are Ted Cruz at 7 percent and Mitt Romney at 4 percent.
Among Democrats, support for Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris as a replacement is slightly lower (50 percent) than Republican support for Pence, mainly because many Democrats (20 percent) would prefer Biden’s main rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to lead the party in case of emergency.
If Pence were to replace Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, Biden’s lead would shrink slightly among all registered voters (47 percent to 41 percent). If voters were forced to choose between Harris and Pence, the Democrats’ advantage would be even narrower (46 percent to 45 percent).
One point of bipartisan agreement is that Trump won’t change his approach to the pandemic because of his infection. By a 54 to 12 percent margin, voters predict that he won’t change, although more Republicans (17 percent) expect an epiphany than Democrats (11 percent) or independents (8 percent).
Similarly, Republicans (11 percent) are more inclined than registered voters overall (7 percent) to say the president’s diagnosis was “a wake-up call for me about how serious the risk is.” Reported mask use among Republicans is up 9 points from the earlier survey, with 67 percent now saying they cover their faces “always” or “most of the time.” Overall, however, most registered voters (56 percent) say they were “already taking the risk much more seriously than President Trump was.”
The first Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,505 U.S. registered voters interviewed online from Oct. 1 to 2. The second Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,202 U.S. registered voters interviewed online from Oct. 2 to 3. Both samples were weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 presidential vote, registration status, geographic region and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S registered voters. The margin of error for the Oct. 1-2 sample is approximately 4.2 percent; the margin of error for the Oct. 2-3 sample is 4.6 percent.
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