Late on election night 2016, it was Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that put Donald Trump over the top and into the White House, thanks to late-deciding voters who went his way, and big margins among people who wanted change.
Today, the vast majority of voters in these two states say things in the U.S. are going badly. They think Joe Biden would do a better job of handling coronavirus by significant margins, washing out any edge Mr. Trump has on the economy. And looking back now, relatively few voters in these states say the Trump presidency has been going as they expected — more say it’s gone worse than gone better.
And so Biden leads both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin today by six points in each. He’s cutting into Mr. Trump’s margins with the White, non-college voters who’ve been a key part of the Trump base. He’s leading among independents — a group that went for Mr. Trump last time — and even peeling off a few Republicans who think things in the U.S. aren’t going well.
But voters in these states have changed their minds before, and the outcome is anything but certain. For one, Biden’s forthcoming vice presidential pick has the potential to move things, as nearly half of his voters say it’s important to them.
The president gets negative marks for handling the coronavirus outbreak in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as in the other battleground states we’ve polled so far. While most parents in each think schools should not fully reopen, most don’t think the president is doing all he can to fight the outbreak.
Biden leads on being seen as better able to handle the virus.
Two-thirds dislike how the president handles himself personally, and he’s losing them by more than four to one.
And Biden is seen by more as understanding of their needs and concerns.
Among both candidates’ supporters, most say their support is very strong, and they express enthusiasm about voting this year. Those who didn’t vote in 2016 are more likely to now support Biden than Mr. Trump. Each state’s race would be closer without these new voters.
Economy vs. COVID
Here, as in other states, it’s not the economy so much as it’s the coronavirus: views on the pandemic are more strongly connected with vote than economic views are. Biden is winning three in four voters who are very concerned about getting coronavirus; Mr. Trump is winning nine in 10 voters who are not at all concerned. The issue for the president is that more voters are very concerned about the virus than not.
Those who say Wisconsin’s outbreak is a crisis are voting for Biden in even larger numbers than those who say the economy is very bad. The small group who think the outbreak is not much of a problem back Mr. Trump in larger numbers than voters who say the state’s economy is good.
In fact, among Wisconsin voters who say Mr. Trump would do a better job than Biden in handling the economy, 87% currently support Mr. Trump. That may seem like a lot, but the 13% he’s missing out on is important, given that the race is competitive and his campaign stresses handling the economy. By contrast, Biden is winning 98% of voters who say he’d do better than Mr. Trump on the economy.
Biden’s running mate
Biden is expected to announce his running mate soon, and it could have an impact on the race, since about half of those voting for him or thinking about doing so say the choice is important. It appears to be a bit more important to those who are less strong in their support of him than it is to the most committed part of his base. Of those not voting for but who say they could consider him, seven in 10 say the vice presidential pick is important.
Bidenthat he won’t be going to Milwaukee to receive the Democratic nomination, and his backers agree that he shouldn’t be holding public campaign events there. Nearly nine in 10 Biden supporters in Wisconsin say it’s too risky for him to hold events in their state because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump voters, who are less concerned about the coronavirus, feel quite differently about their candidate campaigning in public. In both states, about two-thirds of Mr. Trump’s supporters say their candidate should be holding public events.
In Wisconsin, the more enthusiastic Trump voters are about voting this November, the more likely they are to want Mr. Trump to hold campaign events: eight in 10 Trump voters who are very enthusiastic about voting want him to hold events. For Biden, that’s not the case. Most of his supporters, regardless of their enthusiasm level about voting, don’t think he should be holding events.
The bulk of each candidates’ backers think their candidate is campaigning the right amount at the moment.
Rating the president
In these two states that flipped to Republicans for years ago, how do people feel looking back on Mr. Trump’s presidency — is it going better or worse than they expected, or about as they thought it would?
We find striking polarization in these evaluations, as most voters land at either extreme of the scale. Few say it’s going about as they expected. In Pennsylvania, nearly half of voters say it’s going worse than expected, including 34% who say it’s going much worse. At the other end, 35% say it’s going better than expected, including 23% who say much better. Only 20% say it’s going about as expected.
For those saying it’s going better, it’s all about the economy in both states: nine in 10 of these voters cite his handling of the economy as a major factor that made it better. In Pennsylvania, the second most common factor cited, at six in 10, is the way Mr. Trump talks and communicates.
And therein we find another example of polarization. When we asked voters who said it’s going worse than expected why they felt that way, their top factors included the same item: the way he talks and communicates. The way he’s handled coronavirus and race relations are also cited by about nine in 10.
As the president continues to raise concerns about mail-in voting and Democrats raise concerns about the Postal Service, Pennsylvanians by three to one, and Wisconsinites by four to one, think it should be easier, rather than harder, to vote by mail. But the president’s voters may be getting his message: Republicans are generally opposed to making it easier to vote by mail and instead prefer keeping the system as it is. (These states have absentee voting with no excuse required.)
What may really impact the way ballots are tabulated is that Democrats are far more likely to say they’d prefer to vote by mail than Republicans are.
If — and it’s a big if — people follow through with their preference, the in-person vote count will be older, more conservative and Republican and have more non-college voters; the mail count in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be younger, and have more Democrats. It might take longer to count the latter, and we could see large shifts in the vote as returns come in.
A closer look at the horse race
Biden is doing better in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania than Democrats did in 2016 with White men and White women. In Pennsylvania, he’s doing better than Hillary Clinton among White voters with a college degree — he leads by double digits.
In Wisconsin, Biden is doing better among White voters without college degrees than Clinton did, cutting into Mr. Trump’s lead with them and trailing Mr. Trump by 10 points, whereas Mr. Trump won them by 28 points in 2016.
In both states, independent voters are breaking for Biden. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost among independent voters in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Although a majority of Republicans think things are going badly in America, they are the least likely partisan group to feel this way, as about four in 10 of them in each state say things are going at least somewhat well.
And while there isn’t a lot of crossover voting in this very partisan race, this view seems related to whatever small edge Biden does gain from it. In Wisconsin, 8% of Republicans are voting for him, with just 2% of Democrats going to Mr. Trump. And it is Republicans who say things are going badly where Biden is getting some of this crossover support: 10% in Pennsylvania and 14% in Wisconsin are voting for Biden.
Few in these states want schools to reopen as normal. In Pennsylvania, most parents of school-age children do not favor schools returning to normal full classrooms, instead wanting to stay closed or have limited reopenings at best, and three-quarters of them say the Trump administration is pressuring schools to reopen.
In Pennsylvania, fracking is a divisive issue. Pennsylvania voters are evenly split on support or opposition to it, largely along party lines. Republicans are widely in favor and Democrats are largely opposed. The two candidates run nearly even on who would do a better job on oil and gas exploration, including fracking: 45% say Mr. Trump will and 42% say Biden, also closely tied to partisanship.
And there’s a classic old poll question of which candidate you’d rather have dinner or a drink with. Given the circumstances of the outbreak and social distancing, we asked it differently this week: which candidate would you rather have a video conference with? The breakdown cuts closely with the vote. But 19% in Pennsylvania said neither one, including a third of independents.
These surveys were conducted on behalf of CBS News by YouGov between August 4-7 2020. They are based on representative samples of 1,009 registered voters in Wisconsin and 1,225 in Pennsylvania. Margins of error for registered voters: Wisconsin +/- 3.7 points, Pennsylvania +/- 3.7 points.