Trump trails Biden by 7 points in final Free Press poll as Michigan race narrows

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
·10 min read

Two days before the most anticipated presidential election in recent history, President Donald Trump appears to need another last-minute come-from-behind surge to win Michigan with a new Free Press poll showing him 7 percentage points behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The poll of 600 likely voters in Tuesday's election, done by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for the Free Press and its outstate media partners, shows Biden, the former vice president, with the support of 48% of those surveyed. That's the same as in the firm's previous three statewide polls going back through September.

Trump, meanwhile, has seen his level of support inch up from the last poll by 2 percentage points to 41%, suggesting there may be a narrowing of the race as both candidates blitz the state with campaign events and ads in an all-out effort to win. Biden and former President Barack Obama were in Flint and Detroit on Saturday; Trump, after visiting Waterford on Friday, was headed to Washington Township in Macomb County on Sunday, and to Traverse City and Grand Rapids on Monday as part of an aggressive last day of campaigning.

Michigan, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, helped propel Trump to an Electoral College victory and the White House in 2016 as he became the first Republican to win all of those states together since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"People are starting to finally wake up," said Dave Demopoulos, a 42-year-old truck driver and Trump supporter in Mount Clemens, who said he is confident Trump will win again. "We can't just trust what the media is telling us."

Four years ago, Trump – who had trailed Clinton by as many as 10 points in early October in polls done for the Free Press – closed that gap to 4 points the weekend before the election. That was equal to that survey's margin of error, which is the same as this one's.

Trump ended up defeating Clinton by 10,704 votes in Michigan, or about two-tenths of 1%, in what was the closest win he had that year.

Given the larger lead for Biden in this poll and others, as well as the consistent lead Biden has held over Trump in the state all year, a win by Trump in the state would validate his and his supporters' insistence that the polls have been wrong all along. It would also prove the resilience of an unorthodox president whose favorability ratings have lagged throughout his first term in office, and who has served during a pandemic that has left the economy shaken and more than 230,000 Americans dead.

No one is eager to count him out, given the experience of 2016.

In fact, while Biden leads Trump 48%-41% in this most recent survey, just 44% believe Biden will win, compared with 42% who think the president will again take the state. That includes 10% of Biden's own supporters.

"I'm not sure it's not a reaction to the way Trump came back in 2016," said EPIC-MRA's pollster, Bernie Porn. "There's the belief he may be able to do it again."

"I think it's entirely possible that it is tightening up a little bit," Porn said. "But not enough that I think Biden's prospects of winning Michigan are significantly diminished."

Some surprises hidden in the findings

The survey – which involved a random sample of likely voters contacted between last Sunday and Wednesday – was also largely in line with other independent polls of Michigan released in the last week. They include a New York Times/Siena College poll that had Biden up 49%-41% and an ABC News/Washington Post poll that had Biden up 51%-44%.

EPIC-MRA's previous poll for the Free Press, done in early October, was almost identical. But in the latest poll, Trump picked up 2 percentage points from what had been 8% undecided. That comes at a time when he and other Republicans have attacked Biden as corrupt, making still-unproven accusations that he was linked to business deals involving his son Hunter in Ukraine and China.

Third-party support in this poll stayed at 5%, and the level of those who said they were undecided dipped to 6%. If more undecideds move to Trump, it would further narrow the race.

Whether that's enough to win –as Biden continues to hammer at Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic at a time when Michigan and other Midwestern states are seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations – is another question. More than 2.3 million absentee ballots have also already been returned, meaning the outcome may be less changeable because of developing circumstances.

A surprisingly high number – 42% – of those voters who watched the second and final presidential debate on Oct. 22 considered him the winner. Other pollsters found higher marks for Biden nationally. In this survey, 38% thought Biden won, 8% considered it a tie and 10% said neither won.

More: Trump vs. Biden: Here's how every region of the state plays its part in the race

More: Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on remaking Michigan manufacturing. Did he deliver?

Trump also held what appeared to be leads in northern Michigan and in and around Saginaw Bay and the Thumb, key regions that turned out for him four years ago. He continued to trail, 51%-35% in metro Detroit and 54%-36% in the counties immediately outside Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. In west and central Michigan, regions vital for Trump to won, the race was a statistical tie, according the poll.

Trump, however, continued to build on levels of support he needs if he is going to win Michigan again: Among men, for instance, he was leading Biden 47%-41%, up from 45%-43% last month. And among white voters overall, Trump had a slight lead, 46%-44%, compared with Biden's 46%-43% lead among white voters a month ago.

"He’s fulfilled pretty much every promise," Demopoulos said. "Pretty much everything he said he was going to do, he's done it. (Prior to COVID-19) the economy was booming, unemployment was way down – I want that to continue."

It may not be enough to change the trend

What remains problematic for Trump is that those levels of support may not be enough to overcome Biden's lead, unless they continue to grow quickly.

According to exit polls of Michigan voters taken in 2016, Trump beat Clinton among men 55%-41%, a wide margin that he needed to make up for a 53%-42% deficit among women voters overall in that election. The polls have continued to show Trump lagging with female voters by the same margins and if he can't somehow find more support among women – or make up that deficit with men – he will lose.

The same goes for white voters in Michigan, who supported Trump 57%-36% according to exit polls in 2016. And while he continues to build on his lead over Biden among whites without college degrees, up from 51%-38% last month to 54%-39% in the new poll, that's still well below the 62%-31% he won from that bloc in 2016.

And he's hurting among white voters with college degrees

Four years ago, he won among that group 51%-43%. But Biden has had a clear lead among them in recent polls, winning the bloc 52%-35% in the new poll, though as with any subgroup in the poll, the margin of error would be larger than the plus or minus 4 percentage points for the overall sample.

Biden building edge among Blacks, older voters

Meanwhile, Biden appeared to be making up ground among Black voters. Where previous polls had shown lower levels of support than had been expected for the Democratic nominee, with 72% support and 15% undecided a month ago, this latest poll showed a much-more settled voting bloc. Biden led among African Americans 86% to 5% for Trump, with 6% backing a third-party candidate and 3% undecided.

In Canton, 53-year-old Angela Byrd, an African American ex-soldier, said while she has reservations about Biden because of his age — he's 77, compared to Trump, who is 74 — there was still no question who she was supporting.

"He (Trump) is a liar and he hasn't done anything for poor people or Black people or people of color," she said.

Significantly, Biden also continued to lead 56%-39% among voters over the age of 65 –a key voting bloc Trump won 51%-47% four years ago. And while Trump had an edge with voters 50-64, leading 47%-40%, Biden had a much larger edge, 53%-30%, with voters under the age of 35. The two were essentially tied among voters 35-49, with Biden having a 44%-43% edge.

Questions about both candidates

But there seem to be plenty of doubts about both Trump and Biden on the part of voters.

For instance, in a series of questions asked of voters, 49% agreed with Trump's charge that Biden, a former vice president and U.S. senator from Delaware, has accomplished little in more than four decades in Washington, including 11% of Biden's own supporters.

Forty-four percent disagreed with the statement.

On another question, 50% agreed that Biden would allow the Democratic Party to pursue policies that are too liberal, compared with 41% who disagreed. And 45% agreed that Biden doesn't have "the physical or mental health to be able to handle the difficult job of being president," compared with 49% who disagreed with that statement.

It was just as bad or worse for the president, however.

Nearly two-thirds, 62%, said Trump "doesn't have the temperament to be commander-in-chief, including 17% of his own supporters, compared with 36% who disagreed. A clear majority, 57%, also agreed with the statement, "Instead of uniting the country, Donald Trump will divide it," compared with just 39% who disagreed.

And Trump scored even worse on the question of whether he has the physical or mental health to be president with 48% agreeing he doesn't and 48% saying he does.

Voters also have more trust in Biden on handling the COVID-19 virus, with 54% of respondents disagreeing with the statement, often made by Trump, that the former vice president would go too far in responding to the threat, compared with 39% who agreed.

But 54% agreed that Trump "will seriously hurt the health of Americans by not going far enough in his response to the coronavirus," compared with 42% who disagreed.

Finally, voters were asked about Trump's visit to Muskegon two weeks ago and comments he made there about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom he criticized as having closed down the state in response to COVID-19, even though many of the restrictions had already been lifted.

When the crowd began chanting "lock her up," Trump said, "lock 'em all up." He also said he “guessed” that she had been threatened by a group of militia-linked men accused of plotting to kidnap her.

Asked whether they thought Trump's comments were appropriate, 68% said they were not — including nearly a third, 32%, of Trump's own supporters in the election.

Follow Todd Spangler on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Trump trails Biden by 7 in Michigan in final Free Press poll of 2020