Voters Want Change. In Our Poll, They See It in Trump.

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michael barbaro

From the New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today.

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A new poll showing former President Donald Trump leading President Biden in five of six battleground states.

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According to the latest New York Times Siena Polls, among likely voters, Trump is ahead in Wisconsin, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

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Frankly, for the Joe Biden campaign, these numbers are an absolute disaster. The smallest lead is in Arizona for Donald Trump. He’s up 6. Look at this, 9 in Georgia, 13 in Nevada. My goodness gracious. My God. That is a huge lead. No Democrat —

michael barbaro

What the latest Times poll reveals about President Biden’s challenges, Donald Trump’s strengths, and the profound hunger for change among voters that may explain both. We turn, as always, to my colleague, Nate Cohn. It’s Tuesday, May 14.

So, Nate, welcome back.

nate cohn

Michael, thank you. Always good to be here.

michael barbaro

I want to start by asking you to explain something pretty basic, which is why we conduct so many polls on the presidential race. You were just on the show, I think, about a month or so ago when the Times did —

nate cohn

Was it really that recently?

michael barbaro

Yes, its last big presidential poll. What is different about this latest poll? And why are we conducting it so closely on the heels of our last presidential poll?

nate cohn

So one reason is that these are state polls of the battleground states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. And the last poll was a national poll. And as you know, the presidency is decided by the electoral college, not by the national popular vote. And as a result, we do need to drill down into these key swing states to understand the course of the election. And we haven’t conducted any battleground state polls since November. So it’s actually been six months since the last time we looked at these key swing states.

michael barbaro

Got it.

nate cohn

And the second reason we poll so often is because a lot of things change. You know, even since that last national poll, Donald Trump’s trial began. And it was important to us, by the way, to conduct that last national poll before the trial began so that we had a marker of where the race stood heading into it.

And looking back over the longer term, since those last state polls in November, so much has changed not only in American politics, but also with respect to the economy and abroad. The stock market’s up 25 percent since October. RFK’s gotten on the ballot. The primaries have wrapped up. We’ve had six months of conflict in the Middle East. Biden campaign’s spent tens of millions of dollars of ads in these key states. So there’s a lot that’s happened that we want to check in on.

michael barbaro

And you can only measure the impact of changes like that by doing polling very frequently. What about the question of what’s different about this poll than any previous poll?

nate cohn

One thing that’s different about this poll is that we’re focused a lot more on the kind of change the electorate wants for the country in this election. By nature of these two very flawed candidates, we’ve spent a lot of time this year asking about things like Joe Biden’s age or Donald Trump’s alleged criminal conduct.

And we haven’t spent as much time focused on what voters want for the country, whether on the issues or just in terms of their feeling about the direction of the country in general. And after all of those polls showing Donald Trump in the lead, it sort of has raised the question of, well, how much of this is about the personal attributes of the candidates versus their desire to see something different in terms of policy in the White House?

michael barbaro

OK, so with all that in mind, let’s start with the top line findings of this poll, and then let’s turn to this deeper understanding of voters’ desire for change that you sought to better understand through this new poll.

nate cohn

Well, despite all the political and economic changes of the last six months that I was telling you about, Michael, the top line result is kind of the same as it was six months ago. Donald Trump still leads in five of the six states, despite the improving economy, despite tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending by the Biden campaign in the battleground states, despite the end to the primary season, and despite the beginning of the criminal trial of Donald Trump in Manhattan. In the poll, Donald Trump was ahead in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin among likely voters, while Joe Biden only led in one state among likely voters, Michigan.

michael barbaro

OK. This is very important because these are all six states, swing states, that Biden won in 2020, which is in large part why he became president in his last contest against Trump. And you’re saying Trump is ahead of Biden in five of those six states, which seems very, very mathematically consequential.

nate cohn

That’s right. Biden won all six of these states in 2020. He would not have won the presidency if he lost five of the states. And if the election were held today. And if everywhere else stayed the same and these poll results were right, Donald Trump would win a majority of the votes in the electoral college.

You know, it’s worth emphasizing that Joe Biden doesn’t need to win all of these states to win the presidency. He could win if he only won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, provided he won everywhere else that he didn’t poll. That would give him exactly 270 electoral votes. And the poll does show that Joe Biden is still competitive in those three northern battlegrounds.

None of those states are outside of the margin of error. Trump’s lead is at its largest in Pennsylvania, where he’s up by 3 points. But with six months to go, that’s not necessarily a daunting hill to climb. The place where Joe Biden seems to be in bigger trouble is in these more diverse sunbelt states, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, where Trump has a very substantial lead.

And that’s a reflection of something that we’ve already talked about on this show before, which is that Donald Trump is doing very well for a Republican among Black, Hispanic, and young voters. And that’s doing a lot to improve his standing in these relatively diverse states.

michael barbaro

So given that this poll ultimately reinforces our sense that Biden’s re-election path is narrow and that many key groups have become disaffected with him, what have you found on that question of change, how much voters want change, and how important that seems to the question of why Trump is doing better than Biden in so many of these swing states?

nate cohn

Well, we asked voters a series of questions that, at least I thought, was pretty interesting. First, we asked people what kind of change they want. Do they think that the system needs no change, minor change, major change? Or do we just completely need to tear down the system in America today?

Then we asked them what kind of change they thought the candidates would provide using the exact same language. Do you think that Donald Trump would change nothing. Would he yield minor changes, major changes, tear it down, and so on. Ask the same question about Joe Biden. And then finally, we also asked whether they thought the changes that these candidates would provide would be good or bad.

You can imagine, for instance, a liberal who wants major changes and who also thinks Donald Trump would provide major change but doesn’t like the change that Trump would bring. And at the end, we can then stitch all of that together to say, OK, this is what voters want. And this is what they think they get from these two candidates.

And I think what we found was pretty interesting. I mean, at a high level, voters really want major changes. Nearly 70 percent of voters in the poll said that the political and economic system in the US either needs major changes or needs to be torn down entirely. And it’s that extends across parties, and across both Biden, and Trump supporters, and so on.

Obviously, different people have very different ideas of what kind of change the system and the country needs. But they are united on believing that change is needed. What voters thought about the candidates was sometimes quite a bit different than that.

Voters really didn’t think that Joe Biden would bring very much change to the country. More than anything, voters weren’t really convinced anything would change if Joe Biden was president. A full 30 percent said nothing would change. Nearly 40 percent said only minor changes would happen. And even if they think he does provide minor changes, they don’t even think his changes would necessarily be good or bad. They just see him as ineffectual. So Joe Biden is, in the minds of voters, essentially a status quo candidate who isn’t going to shake things up at a time when they’re looking for big changes.

michael barbaro

And you do not want to be the status quo candidate when 70 percent of those polled say they want major or tear it down level of change.

nate cohn

Exactly, and Donald Trump, on the other hand, voters thought would provide major changes or tear it down change. Even many of Joe Biden’s supporters think that Donald Trump would bring major changes. In fact, overall, 70 percent of voters thought Donald Trump would either bring major changes or tear the system down, which is almost exactly what the country said it wanted in the first place. 70 percent of voters want major change. 70 percent say Donald Trump brings major change.

His anti-establishment, outsider, tear it all down pitch aligns relatively well with what the electorate wants. It gets a little more complicated if we drill down into the details, though, of the kind of change voters’ want and the kind of change they think Trump would provide. But they’re pretty split on whether the changes he’d provide would be good or bad. Overall, 43 percent of voters think that Donald Trump would make good changes for the country, compared to 35 percent who think those changes would be bad.

michael barbaro

So in every way, Trump seems to benefit from what this poll finds to be this deep hunger for change in the electorate. I’m curious who, Nate, the poll shows is seeking this change, what kind of voter, and if that voter was with Biden in 2020 when he won all these swing states and became president, but who now see him as insufficient as an agent of change in this moment.

nate cohn

As I just mentioned, the voters who are looking for change span the political spectrum. They span every ideology, every demographic group, and so on. But the group of Biden voters who backed him last time but say they won’t support him again are disproportionately likely to be relatively moderate or conservative young and nonwhite voters.

The ones who identify as liberal are mostly sticking by Joe Biden, or at the very least, are not supporting Donald Trump. So we have a sort of unusual group of voters here, at least unusual in the way we usually think about American politics, young Black, Latino voters who want big changes but don’t think of themselves as liberals, who think of themselves as moderate or even conservative.

There’s not a specific policy program they’re advocating. There’s not a specific aspect of the system that they’re looking to critique. What distinguishes them is that they’re so unhappy with the system that they demand major changes or fundamental changes. And so an ideological that they don’t bring the sort of clear left/right views to the issues that keep voters with Joe Biden.

If they were the sort of person that felt strongly about Medicare for all, they probably really disliked Donald Trump on ideological grounds. So you’re looking for someone who has the same yearning for change, but who does not have that kind of consistent view on the issues that binds them more clearly to the Democratic Party.

michael barbaro

Got it.

nate cohn

And when we asked them in open-ended questioning, what’s the most important issue? Why are you voting for this candidate? Their answers remain sort of typical. There’s not anything that really stands out about them. They still are complaining about the economy and immigration just like everyone else. It’s just that they’re just that much more frustrated with the status quo that they’re willing to defect.

michael barbaro

There’s something very intuitive about Trump’s appeal to a voter like this, because if you’re not especially ideological and you crave deep change, I can’t think of any candidate in our political system in a generation who more embodies the idea of change, much of it pretty radical, than Donald Trump.

nate cohn

I think that’s right. I think if you were looking for another candidate in recent memory, you’d probably have to go back to Barack Obama, at least in the general election, another candidate who famously represented change, change we could believe in.

He was also kind of not necessarily the clearest candidate on ideological grounds. He was a relative moderate on some issues and had appeal to certain kinds of Republicans in the 2008 election. And I think that it’s not a coincidence that there are so many Obama/Trump voters out there.

There is a way in which both of these candidates, despite disagreeing on so much, nonetheless have figured out a way to channel a critique of the status quo, a critique of the establishment, and a desire for change into a political message, even if the content that supports that message is very different. That message in itself has appeal to a certain kind of person.

michael barbaro

And quite relevantly, for our conversation here, Nate, Obama, very famously in electoral terms, created a coalition that was very successful in winning over young Black and Latino voters. And in what we’d have to call a historic change, it is now Trump, a Republican, who seems to be disassembling that coalition that was once this hard-earned prize of the Democratic Party and kind of taking it and making it his own, it looks like, for 2024.

nate cohn

I think that’s such a good point, Michael. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in our poll, the groups that yearn for the most fundamental changes to American society are the classic Obama coalition constituencies of young, Black, and Hispanic voters. And they’re also the groups that Joe Biden is losing the most ground among.

I mean, if we just think about Biden and Obama for a second, the case for Obama to represent change was clear in every respect. Every element of his biography, his personal characteristics represented change. His brand of politics after 35 years of Reagan conservatism represented a clear departure from the status quo.

And now, today, it’s the reverse. Joe Biden represents the sort of demographics of the past. He is an old white male from Scranton. He’s also no longer fundamentally a change candidate. At least four years ago when Donald Trump was president, Joe Biden could represent change when he was challenging Donald Trump in the White House.

At the time, the country was in the depths of the pandemic. There was unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. The economy was doing terribly. So Joe Biden, in arguing for a different approach on the pandemic and for racial conciliation, he could represent a real change from the status quo, even though he wasn’t, in any way, a deeply radical candidate.

Now, those aren’t the issues that voters are focused on. It’s not even obvious what his second term agenda is to me. I mean, he wants to win this election on democracy and abortion. But those are efforts to protect the things that we used to take for granted, not ways to improve the country and bring it to a new progressive frontier.

michael barbaro

Got it. Biden was just enough change in 2020 and nowhere near enough right now for a meaningful number of the voters that you polled in these key swing states.

nate cohn

That’s right. Biden does not represent change. Donald Trump absolutely does represent change.

And while you might expect that the same desire for change would affect other candidates and other races elsewhere on the ballot, that just doesn’t seem to be the case, which tells us that this is almost entirely isolated to the presidential contest.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Nate, before the break, you were describing how this latest New York Times poll of battleground states in the presidential race lets us see how much the question of change and how it advantages Trump and disadvantages Biden is isolated to the presidential race, rather than races elsewhere in these battleground states. So just explain that and tell us precisely what the poll found.

nate cohn

Well, we asked voters how they thought about four races for US Senate in these states, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona. Three of those four states featured Democratic incumbents. And in all four of these states, the Democratic candidate led, sometimes even by a comfortable margin. And even though Donald Trump was ahead in the presidential race.

So here we have these Democratic incumbents weighed down by many of the same problems as Mr. Biden. But it’s only in the presidential race where we see this yielding a breakthrough for the Republicans at this stage.

michael barbaro

Give us an example that really illustrates this.

nate cohn

Yeah, I think ground zero is in Nevada. Of all the states we polled, Nevada was Joe Biden’s worst. It’s the youngest and most diverse of the battleground states. And Donald Trump led by a staggering 12 points among registered voters in this poll. And this is a state that Joe Biden won by 2 points in 2020.

But in the race for US senate, things looked basically normal. The democrat, Jacky Rosen, an incumbent senator, but not someone who has routinely excelled in her previous election contests. She was leading by 2 points. And young and nonwhite voters lined up behind Ms. Rosen in the usual and expected proportions, with her winning among 18 to 29-year-olds and Hispanics by a wide margin, even as Mr. Trump led those groups in the presidential race.

michael barbaro

This becomes, therefore, a very potent way of isolating Biden’s weaknesses because fellow incumbents from the same party, as you said, in pretty much the same position, facing the same headwinds and forces are beating him quite meaningfully in the case of Nevada.

And that makes me wonder, do these Democratic incumbent Senate candidates just do a better job of embodying voters’ desires for change than Biden? Or, in your estimation, is it more complicated than that?

nate cohn

Well, as I just alluded to, many of these Senate Democrats are not political juggernauts. We’re not talking about Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Barack Obama in 2006. We’re talking about relatively generic Democrats who have no special case to be agents for change or no path to being presidential candidates in 2028 or something like that.

So I don’t think it’s that they embody change in some basic way. I think it is instead about voters holding Joe Biden responsible for so many of the problems with the status quo, whether that’s inflation or the border. I also think it’s worth remembering Donald Trump as a variable here.

He’s not some unknown senate challenger. This is someone with a really unique brand for a Republican in a way that is not true for other Republicans, is seen as someone who would shake up the system, who’s against the establishment. He’s also someone who has a demonstrated record of success on the economy in the minds of most voters, which they say is the most important issue. So I would keep Donald Trump as having unique strengths with respect to Biden’s vulnerabilities as being an important factor here as well.

michael barbaro

And this may, of course, also be a measure of the fact that the Republicans challenging these Democratic incumbents just aren’t all that well known and definitely not well known enough to embody any kind of change.

nate cohn

That’s right. And for many of these voters, these Senate races between a reasonably well-known Democrat and an unknown Republican are just sort of opportunities to express your default partisan preferences. When you don’t know anything about anyone and you’re a Democrat, you vote for the Democrat.

So those young Black and Hispanic voters who are defecting from the Democrats to Trump and the presidential race, they’re sticking by their default, normal Democratic partisan political preference in these senate races.

michael barbaro

So here, we have further evidence of Biden’s somewhat unique weakness in this race. And speaking of battleground states and potential risks to President Biden, something else has happened since you last pulled these battleground states in the fall that feels pretty important. You referenced it at the very beginning of our conversation. That is the fact that RFK Jr., Robert F Kennedy Jr. Has gotten himself on the ballot in at least one of these swing states.

And Robert F Kennedy Jr. hails from Democratic royalty. He wanted to run as a Democrat, but ultimately decided to run as an independent. So the assumption has been that he would pose the greatest threat to Biden. I wonder if this latest poll shows that to be the case.

nate cohn

It does not show that to be the case, Michael. It does show him receiving a pretty substantial amount of support. He won 10 percent of the vote when we named RFK on the ballot, which if it were to hold up in the final result, would be the strongest performance by a third party candidate since Ross Perot. But the poll did not find that Kennedy drew disproportionately from Biden voters. In fact, slightly more of Donald Trump’s supporters were likelier to say that they would prefer RFK on the ballot than Biden supporters.

michael barbaro

How do you make sense of that?

nate cohn

Well, there’s a group of voters that voted for Biden in 2020 and lean Democratic that no longer like Joe Biden. We’ve been talking about them for much of the episode, in fact. Many of those voters say that they will vote for Donald Trump this November. But many of those voters who voted for Biden last time and who say that they’ll vote for Trump would actually rather vote for RFK, which makes some sense, right? They voted for Biden last time. How much can they really like Donald Trump?

But as a consequence, the RFK vote is slightly disproportionately coming from people who would prefer Trump in this election, but simultaneously backed Biden quite overwhelmingly in the last election. So we’re talking about a group of voters that Biden really needed to win last time, but that he isn’t winning right now. So in our poll today, he’s not really affecting the race, even though there are people who are pretty important to Biden last time.

michael barbaro

So, Nate, if I’m understanding correctly, and this is admittedly pretty complicated, there’s a group of voters here voted for Biden in 2020, and either way, they’re not going to vote for him again in 2024.

nate cohn

Not in the poll right now.

michael barbaro

Instead, they’re likely to vote for RFK instead of defecting to Trump. Is that good for Biden? Is it better for Biden in a swing state to have a voter who once was with him go to RFK instead of Trump?

nate cohn

So I guess I have two answers here. The first answer is right now, Biden is not doing well enough for RFK to be a problem because Biden is doing so badly among these people who ought to be Democrats that it doesn’t make a difference whether they’re voting for RFK or Trump.

That said, if we can imagine a world in the future where Joe Biden hypothetically mounted a comeback, where ultimately Donald Trump collapsed because he was convicted of federal crimes, in that scenario where Joe Biden was strong enough to win, like he was four years ago, then I think RFK might actually hurt him at that point.

michael barbaro

Fascinating. So I want to turn to another factor that has entered this presidential race, and that is the Israeli military operation in Gaza and America’s support for Israel in this war, especially President Biden’s support for this war, which, as we know from covering it so much on the show, has triggered tremendous amount of left wing activism, especially among young voters who President Biden is struggling to win over. Does the poll reflect the conflict in Gaza as a problem for President Biden?

nate cohn

I think it does, Michael. If we focus again on these voters who have swung against Joe Biden, the people who voted for Joe Biden, the 2020 election, but don’t do so anymore, 13 percent of those voters said the most important issue to them was either foreign policy or something about the war in the Middle East, like they said, Israel, or wars, or Gaza.

And almost none of those voters said that they were more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians in the conflict. Most were sympathizers with Palestinians. 13 percent, that’s a pretty big chunk of the voters who Biden is struggling with. But that’s a much higher proportion than it is among the whole electorate. So most voters don’t seem to care very much about foreign policy or Israel. But those who do are pretty likely to have flipped.

michael barbaro

Got it.

nate cohn

One thing that’s worth noting is that Joe Biden’s challenge on this issue is especially pronounced among voters who were either Muslim or who said they were Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. And nearly all of those who flipped said that the war in the Middle East and foreign policy were most important to their vote.

Now, it’s interesting because I mentioned earlier that this is still a small segment of the electorate. And despite all of those challenges, Joe Biden is still ahead in Michigan. In fact, it’s the only state he leads in, even though it’s the state where these voters represent the largest share of the electorate.

So it’s a great illustration of how we’re talking about something that clearly is affecting a sliver of voters and even a pretty substantial chunk, 13 percent of those who have defected from Joe Biden. And yet even in the single state where Muslim, Middle Eastern, and North African voters represent the largest share of the electorate, it’s still not necessarily enough to singlehandedly determine the outcome.

michael barbaro

So, Nate, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this conversation about this latest New York Times presidential campaign poll. And I just want to conclude by having you, as best you can, draw it all together by giving us your higher level thoughts about the meaning of what you learned from this survey.

nate cohn

I think my high level takeaway is that with six months to go, voters are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country. And they want to do something very different than what they have now. And that’s a really tough spot if you’re an incumbent president who doesn’t represent change.

And you only really have a couple of paths to pull it off. One option is that you have to figure out a way to get Americans to be happy with where the country is going. I know we’re not there yet, but we’re on the way is the general way that you can imagine Joe Biden trying to thread a needle of a country yearning for something different without really believing that Joe Biden can singlehandedly alter the course of American history.

And while we’ve talked a lot about Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities, we haven’t talked very much about Donald Trump’s problems in this poll, and ultimately, the opportunities that may present themselves to Joe Biden as the campaign gets underway. Voters are overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights in the battleground states. They don’t like Donald Trump much either. A majority of voters have an unfavorable view of him. And to the extent that Joe Biden can refocus voters on Donald Trump’s liabilities, get them to feel a little bit better about where the country is going, maybe that still offers a route to a comeback because as we just mentioned, many of these voters are still voting for Democratic Senate candidates. And many of them aren’t even tuned in yet. It’s still a long way to go.

And if you really step back, Donald Trump should arguably be winning this election by a huge amount, given just how unpopular Joe Biden is and given how many young and nonwlhite voters have defected away from the Democratic side. If Nikki Haley was the Republican nominee, this election maybe could have been a landslide. In fact, in our last Times Siena poll of these same states, Nikki Haley was posting double digit leads in Wisconsin.

michael barbaro

Essentially, what you have found in this poll, Nate, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that this is shaping up to be a change election where Donald Trump is the clear change agent. But he’s also such a fundamentally flawed agent of change that the question is going to become do enough voters think he’s willing to re-elect for the change? And are they’re willing to accept all the flaws?

nate cohn

That’s right. And, you know, it’s worth remembering the thing that we always mention as a caveat, but is so, so serious, there are six months to go until the election. The campaign is just heating up. There are conventions, and vice presidential picks, and possibly convictions, and debates still ahead.

We don’t know how that is going to change what the electorate is focused on. But right now, we know that they’re deeply dissatisfied and taking it out on Joe Biden. Whether that’s what they’ll be thinking in six months, we just don’t know. And the Biden campaign will do everything in its power to try and change that. I don’t know what is ultimately going to happen. But I think that it at least sets out the roadmap, the playing field as we enter the heart of the campaign season.

michael barbaro

Well, Nate, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

nate cohn

Thanks for having me, Michael.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. In damning testimony during Donald Trump’s hush money trial, Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, testified that Trump personally directed him to pay off a porn star and personally approved the deceptive reimbursement plan at the center of the criminal case.

Cohen testified that Stormy Daniels’ plan to publicize her account of having sex with Trump was a, quote, “catastrophic threat” to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. As a result, Cohen said, Trump ordered him to silence Daniels. Cohen recalled Trump telling him, quote, “just take care of it.” An order that Cohen said he then carried out.

Today’s episode was produced by Rachelle Bonja, Asthaa Chaturvedi, and Diana Nguyen. It was edited by Liz O Baylen, contains original music by Elisheba Ittoop, Dan Powell, and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

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That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.


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