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The Democratic Presidential Candidates Are Becoming Less Popular

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Being well-liked matters for presidential candidates: Generally speaking, they need to be at least somewhat popular to win.

To that effect, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University each released a poll this week that asked voters whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of leading Democratic presidential candidates and President Trump, but what each pollster found was pretty different.

The Quinnipiac poll found that Trump received the worst marks overall — a net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of -17. This figure is 10 percentage points below the lowest-rated Democratic contender, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and 14 points worse than former Vice President Joe Biden, whose net favorability rating was -3. The Monmouth poll, on the other hand, put Trump’s net favorability at -6, which made him more popular than any of the Democratic front-runners, with the exception of Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg was actually the most well-liked candidate in both polls, but his standing is more in flux considering far fewer respondents knew enough about him to have an opinion, compared with those who said the same about Trump, Biden, Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Democratic primary, according to the early states

So what’s going on? We know that many of 2020 front-runners aren’t as popular as previous presidential contenders (at least at this point in the cycle), but among the general electorate, is Trump really as popular as many of the leading Democratic presidential contenders? To answer this question, we looked at all the national polls we could find since January (over 150 of them) that asked about how well-liked Trump and these candidates are. And as you can see in the chart below, despite one or two recent good polls for Trump, Trump remains really unpopular — far more than any of the leading Democratic presidential candidates.

But Democrats’ net favorability ratings have taken a hit. As you can see in the chart above, even though Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg are nowhere near as unpopular as Trump, their net favorability ratings have trended downward recently. This isn’t totally surprising, though, as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley noted a few weeks ago: Many presidential candidates’ net favorability ratings have been negative or close to zero since at least 2008, a sign, perhaps, of the polarized times we live in.

Of course, there is still time for public perception to change (in either direction) between now and November. But if the polls are any indication, opinions of the Democratic candidates seem much more likely to shift than opinions of Trump. That might be because people’s opinions of the Democratic candidates aren’t nearly as entrenched. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told me that if you look at the breakdown of “somewhat” and “very” favorable opinions for Trump and the Democratic candidates, “opinion about Trump is significantly more deeply held than opinion about any of the Democratic candidates right now.” The same is true if you look at the breakdown of “somewhat” and “very” unfavorable opinions for Trump and the Democratic candidates — Trump is much more actively disliked.

Opinions are pretty set on Trump, but more flexible on Dems

Share of respondents who said they had a “very” or “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable opinion of President Trump and the four Democratic front-runners, according to an average of polls from Oct. 11 to Dec 11, 2019

Favorable Unfavorable
Candidate Very Somewhat Difference Very Somewhat Difference
Donald Trump 30.3 11.5 +18.8 47.8 9.5 +38.2
Joe Biden 19.4 24.9 -5.4 31.8 15.4 16.4
Bernie Sanders 20.7 23.1 -2.4 34.6 13.4 21.3
Elizabeth Warren 21.1 20.7 0.4 34.4 10.5 23.9
Pete Buttigieg 14.1 20.3 -6.2 23.3 12.4 10.9

Source: Polls

So though Trump may be less popular than his prospective Democratic opponents overall, he has a pretty high level of enthusiastic support — 32 percent of respondents said they had a “very” favorable opinion of him in an average of the last two months of polls. No Democratic contender has earned marks as high.

This isn’t all that surprising considering Democrats still haven’t settled on their nominee. Once they pick someone to take on Trump, this could all change, too, and the eventual Democratic nominee could end up even more unpopular than Trump — or maybe with an even more loyal fan base. We can’t know at this point, but it does seem as if there is more opportunity for Democratic candidates to move public opinion — in either direction — than there is for Trump.

Other polling bites

  • While we’re on the subject of favorability ratings, the Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls mentioned above also had net favorability ratings for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the most recent Democratic contender to enter the 2020 race. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, the results weren’t very good. The Monmouth poll put his net approval among registered voters at -28 and the Quinnipiac poll at -19, making these the lowest marks that any one candidate received in both polls, including Trump. Ouch!
  • House Democrats and the Trump administration reached a deal on Tuesday to sign the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade deal that updates the current North American Free Trade Agreement. According to a YouGov/Economist poll, 43 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the deal, 17 percent have an unfavorable view and 40 percent are not sure. The Senate is expected to vote on the deal in 2020.
  • 56 percent of Mexicans say the U.S. poses the greatest threat to their country in the future, while 27 percent cite the U.S. as Mexico’s most dependable ally (around 5 percent said both concurrently), according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
  • Three in four Americans plan to have a Christmas tree in their home this year, according to a poll conducted by YouGov, but only 15 percent say they will buy a real tree. Thirty-eight percent plan to use an artificial tree they already own, while 11 percent plan to buy an artificial tree.
  • Morning Consult collected surveys of nearly 375,000 adults and found that Fox News is the most-watched cable news outlet in the U.S. in more than two-thirds of the country’s congressional districts (respondents were asked whether they watched CNN, Fox News or MSNBC). On average, 33 percent of adults say they watch the network at least once a week, followed by 28 percent who say they watch CNN and 20 percent who watch MSNBC.
  • FairVote partnered with YouGov to release a poll of the South Carolina Democratic primary that simulates the primary under a ranked-choice voting system. The way it works is that voters rank the candidates by preference (with the ability to rank up to 10 of the 18 candidates or just the five candidates with the highest polling averages). The candidate with the fewest votes is then eliminated and his or her votes redistributed to each voters’ next choice. This process is repeated until one candidate (the winner) is left. In case of this simulation, Biden both started out in the lead and gained even more ground as candidates dropped out.
  • People in Croatia go to the polls later this month to elect a new president. Incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who was first elected in 2015, is running for a second five-year term. According to Politico’s polling tracker, Grabar-Kitarović leads the field with about 29 percent of the vote, but needs a majority (51 percent) to win. If that doesn’t happen, the election will go to a runoff in January.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.3 points). At this time last week, 41.8 percent approved and 53.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.5 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.6 percentage points (47.2 percent to 40.6 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 5.7 points (46.8 percent to 41.1 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.6 points (46.7 percent to 41.1 percent).

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.