Former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as Democrats’ top choice for the presidential nomination in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, but with only bare majority support within his party and a massive enthusiasm gap in a November matchup against President Donald Trump.
Indeed, strong enthusiasm for Biden among his supporters – at just 24% – is the lowest on record for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years of ABC/Post polls. More than twice as many of Trump’s supporters are highly enthusiastic about supporting him, 53%.
Trump’s still-strong rating on the economy is another challenge for Biden. So is this: Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who prefer Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the nomination, 15% say they’d back Trump over Biden in the fall.
In the nomination contest, 51% of leaned Democrats now prefer Biden vs. 42% for Sanders. That’s a vast 34-point gain for Biden since mid-February, with other candidates having left the race and endorsed him. Sanders gained 10%age points.
Yet even as he’s advanced in his party, Biden’s slipped against Trump in a November matchup. The two are locked into essentially a dead heat among registered voters, 49-47%, Biden-Trump, after a slight Biden lead, 52-45%, in February.
Biden does better vs. Trump among all adults (Democrats are less apt to be registered), 50-44%. That’s a slight lead, but it was more solidly significant in February, 52-44%.
Perhaps the Democrats’ biggest risk is under the surface, in Trump’s big advantage in backers who are “very” enthusiastic about supporting him. Strong enthusiasm for a candidate can help boost turnout on Election Day, a must-have particularly for Democrats, who rely more on motivating less-frequent voters to come to the polls.
While trailing Trump by 29 points in high-level enthusiasm, Biden makes up some of the difference with those who are “somewhat” enthusiastic. But he still trails Trump by 12 points in the combined measure, 74 vs. 86%.
There’s déjà vu in these results: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself in largely the same position four years ago. She, too, had a slim lead among Democrats for the nomination and ran essentially evenly with Trump among registered voters. And she lagged in enthusiasm, with a low of 32% very enthusiastic in September 2016. Biden is 8 points under that mark now.
Bad as Biden’s enthusiasm score is, we’ve seen worse: As few as 17% of former Republican presidential nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s supporters were very enthusiastic about his candidacy in 2008, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney saw 23% in 2012. The poor omen for Biden is that Clinton, McCain and Romney all lost.
As noted, Trump is aided in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, by his ratings on the economy. Despite deep economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis, 57% of Americans approve of his handling of the economy, a new high in ABC/Post data. And Trump leads Biden in trust to handle the economy, 50-42%. (As reported Friday, 48% also approve of Trump’s handling of the job generally, another career high.)
Trump and Biden are even in trust to handle the coronavirus outbreak, 45-43%. Biden comes back to lead by 13 points in trust to handle health care more generally, 52-39%.
The clearing of the Democratic field hasn’t led to much change in the profiles of Biden and Sanders supporters, but there’s a magnitude shift for Biden. Seniors and black voters have been good for him in the past, but with significant shares interested in other candidates. They’ve coalesced: Eighty-three percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning seniors prefer Biden over Sanders, up 63 points from February; two-thirds of blacks say the same, a 34-point increase.
Eighty percent of Sanders backers say they’ll vote for Biden against Trump; as noted, 15% say they’d back Trump. (This is familiar: Twenty percent of Sanders supporters said they’d vote for Trump in spring 2016.) For context, 15% of Sanders supporters is 6% of all leaned Democrats, and Trump won 8% of Democrats in 2016. Still, Biden wants all the in-party support he can muster.
Further, among Sanders supporters who say they’d vote for Biden in November, a mere 9% are very enthusiastic about doing so. More, but still only 49%, are “somewhat” enthusiastic.
Even among those who support Biden for the nomination, his very enthusiastic support against Trump is just 39% (with an additional 50% somewhat enthusiastic). That’s dwarfed by strong enthusiasm for Trump among his supporters, including a peak of 81% among strong conservatives and broad majorities of Republicans, seniors and rural residents.
On the issues, men favor Trump over Biden to handle the economy by an 18-point margin, 56-38, while women split between the two. Nearly all Republicans, three-quarters of conservatives, and 72% of white men who don’t have college degrees – core Trump groups – also pick him on the economy, but here they’re joined by 20% of liberals and a third of racial and ethnic minorities.
It’s essentially flipped with health care, with Biden leading Trump by a slight 8 points among men and 16 points among women. Outside the Democratic core, most seniors, 12% of Republicans, 28% of conservatives and three in 10 non-college whites pick Biden on health care.
Differences in trust to handle the coronavirus outbreak reflect customary partisan divides. Majorities of whites, conservatives and rural residents pick Trump on this issue; most racial and ethnic minorities, college graduates, urbanites and liberals go with Biden.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone March 22-25, 2020, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-24-37%, Democrats-Republicans-independents.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling and data collection by Abt Associates of Rockville, Md. See details on the survey’s methodology here.
Christine Filer and Gary Langer contributed to this report.