Presidential Candidates Have No Message Yet

April 23, 2020
USA Elections

As we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted our latest voting intention poll, we took the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to our respondents and find out their thoughts on the main candidates in the running. In particular, we asked respondents to identify the most compelling reason to vote and not to vote for Joseph Biden and for Donald Trump. Our results tell us that neither candidate, so far, has found a particularly compelling pitch as to why they specifically should be president for the next four years.

Joseph R. Biden (Democrat)

As the candidate looking to unseat the incumbent, Joe Biden has already passed through a preliminary trial of voters in the Democratic Primaries. However, his successful primary campaign seemed supported not particularly by a set of ideas but rather by who Joe Biden was not: a risky upstart like Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, or former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. And, unlike other centrists Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, the former Vice President was a recognizable figure for the majority of the public. Biden therefore presented himself as the ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’ option to beat Donald Trump more than he presented himself as a candidate with a certain vision for the country.

Looking ahead towards the election in November, a quarter of respondents to our poll cited ‘that he is not Donald Trump’ as the most compelling reason to vote for Joseph Biden. Another quarter of respondents, most of whom are intending to vote for Donald Trump in November, gave no compelling reason. Next, at 14%, was ‘his lengthy political experience,’ and third among the given reasons was ‘his association with former President Barack Obama’ at 8%.

What this chart makes clear is that there is no defining pitch for Joe Biden. Among those planning on voting for him in November, 43% said ‘that he is not Donald Trump’ is the foremost compelling reason to vote for him. In other words, it is in opposition to Trump, rather than in support of Biden, that they will vote for Biden. While opposition to Trump is no doubt strong among certain segments of the US population, such a platform may not be quite persuasive enough. At the end of the day, people also need something to vote for.

As a natural follow-up to our question, we also asked respondents for the most compelling reason not to vote for Joe Biden. Here, 23% of respondents, almost all of whom say they are voting for Biden in November, cited no compelling reason. Then, at 17%, is his age-related health issues, followed by his association with President Barack Obama and his positions on healthcare and other important domestic issues both at 10%. Interestingly, his son Hunter Biden’s dealings with multinational firms, a subject that indirectly instigated the third ever impeachment of a sitting president in the history of the United States, registered at only 7%.

Most notably, nearly a fifth of those who are planning to vote for Biden in November raised his age-related health issues as the reason not to vote for him. This weakness has been highlighted by opposition candidates repeatedly (although with mixed success given their own ages). The Trump campaign has particularly pinpointed this vulnerability, calling contradictions or reversals in policy positions as examples of his ‘forgetfulness’ and showing clips of him stuttering or rambling incoherently. Whereas Hillary Clinton was quite effectively labelled ‘Crooked Hillary’ such that Donald Trump would say only ‘crooked’ and people knew whom he was referring to, ‘Sleepy Joe’ seems to be the catchy moniker for this election’s Democratic candidate.

In some respects, we suspect a lack of confidence among those planning to vote for Biden in November. After asking respondents for the most compelling reasons to vote and not to vote for each candidate, we asked them to agree or disagree with a statement saying that, in the best interests of the country, Biden should be replaced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. More of those planning to vote for Biden agreed than disagreed with this statement!

Such numbers may, in part, be due to the rising popularity of the New York Governor in the chaos of the coronavirus crisis. Giving daily press conferences, the Governor rivals the President in media coverage. Suggestive of this rise in popularity for Cuomo, a strong majority of respondents agreed that, of the many candidates who ran for the Democratic nomination, Biden has been the candidate who will perform best against Donald Trump in November.

Whereas 36% of those planning to vote for the former Vice President in November jumped at the idea of replacing him with Andrew Cuomo, only 12% of that same group disagreed with this statement. That 24% difference may suggest that many had lacked confidence in all the contenders who populated the Democratic field, which did not include Andrew Cuomo.

Joseph Biden, therefore, may have been reluctantly, not enthusiastically, chosen as the Democratic nominee. Similar feelings had been expressed about the last Democratic nominee four years ago, who also held similar leads over Donald Trump in the polls at this point of the race. The difference this time, however, may be that the Republican candidate is now the incumbent who, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, has lost his main selling point.

Donald J. Trump (Republican)

If you had asked anyone just three months ago why someone would vote for Donald Trump in this election, they would have said, in a heartbeat, the economy. At that moment in time, the Trump Administration was overseeing, it seemed, a strong, thriving economy. Unemployment was at its lowest numbers in decades. The stock market was reaching all-time highs. In a poll conducted in Arizona in early February, we found a significant share of respondents expecting Donald Trump to win in November. They could have been forgiven for thinking so. After all, presidents usually are re-elected when the times are good.

Now, the times are no longer so good. More than 20 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last few weeks. Thousands upon thousands have died, and trillions of dollars have now been added to the Federal Debt in an attempt to prevent the collapse of the American economy. Therefore, when we asked respondents what the most compelling reason to vote for Trump in November, we were not surprised to find only 20% citing his handling of the economy.

For those intending to vote for Trump in November, this percentage rises to 40%. However, beyond ‘his handling of the economy,’ no other reason stands out. Now that the economy is no longer a key selling point, the President will have to find a new platform to stand on.

A plurality of respondents, almost all of whom say they are voting for Biden in November, gave no compelling reason to vote for Trump. More to the point, among the group of respondents intending to vote for Biden, only 29% could give any reason at all to vote for Donald Trump. This is strong opposition. By contrast, a third of those voting for Trump could give a reason to vote for Biden.

Thinking about compelling reasons not to vote for Trump, nearly a quarter of respondents cited ‘his overall style’ and 13% cited his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Some on the Trump campaign may have been hoping that a well-executed crisis response can boost support for the President. Yet, such support does not seem forthcoming. With his daily press conferences, the President has given front stage to scientists Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx in an attempt to show that he is taking this crisis seriously and following the scientific advice given to him. If anything, this strategy has somewhat backfired for the President. Instead, the public widely approves of Dr. Fauci’s handling of the crisis but, so far, does not seem to tie Dr. Fauci’s performance to the President’s overall handling of the crisis.

Whereas 44% approve of the President’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (split almost entirely among partisan lines), two-thirds of respondents expressed approval for Dr. Fauci’s handling of the crisis.

In fact, when asked whether they thought Donald Trump has always followed the advice given by Dr. Anthony Fauci, a majority of respondents to our poll said no, contradicting what Dr. Fauci himself has stated in interviews and in the daily press conferences.

At a time when the nation needs to put partisan differences aside to address this crisis, the President has the misfortune of being a highly divisive figure. Without that divisiveness and disruptiveness, he likely would not have won in 2016. His promise of disruption was a powerful selling point for many. Now, it is working against him as Americans feeling insecure look for stability and reliability. Whether he can either demonstrate a sense of reliability or successfully appeal to the American public that a disruptor is still needed in the White House remains to be seen.

In the meantime, however, the incumbent lacks a platform and so does his opponent.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.