WASHINGTON — With President Donald Trump casting himself as the only candidate strong enough to take on China, voters in key battleground states don't share his view of Beijing as an urgent threat to the U.S., a new poll finds. Just 1 in 5 call standing up to China a top security issue influencing their votes.
Terrorism — long top of mind in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — has faded as a predominant concern. It has been usurped by worry about global pandemics, according to a survey by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin of voters in 12 states most likely to determine control of the White House and the Senate.
In March, just 25 percent of likely voters said they prioritized protecting the U.S. from pandemics, but the number has almost doubled, jumping to 45 percent, according to the survey. Only 29 percent in the battleground states listed terrorism as a top concern as they decide their votes in the election, including just 41 percent of Republicans.
"The fact that terrorism's been replaced in this way, at least for this election, by keeping Americans safe from pandemics is a very significant development," said Garin, who conducted the poll for National Security Action, an advocacy group that opposes Trump.
Traditionally, national security has taken a back seat to the economy, health care and other closer-to-home issues as top issues driving voters' decisions.
This year, the usual lines between foreign and domestic policy are blurrier, with a deadly virus spreading without regard to borders and disrupting the global supply chain. Americans' confidence in the integrity of their democracy, shaken once by Russian meddling in 2016, is again in question, as U.S. spy agencies warn that several countries are actively seeking to interfere this year.
Covid-19 and the election's integrity are among the topics Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will be grilled about when they meet in Cleveland for the first presidential debate Tuesday.
In the poll, 6 in 10 voters said Trump has made America less respected globally, while half say his leadership has made the U.S. less safe and increased the likelihood of a war. But Biden fares about the same on those questions, with 49 percent saying he would make America more respected as president and 46 percent saying he would make the U.S. safer.
Still, the findings suggest that Trump's campaign may face difficultly framing the choice and stakes in the election in the way Trump has presented them. In Trump's telling, fault for the pandemic lies squarely with a malevolent China, which he says would "own" America and its jobs if Biden were elected.
Trump has insisted that China — not Russia — poses the biggest threat to the election while rebranding the coronavirus as the "China virus" to shift blame. At the same time, the president and his allies have sought to paint Biden as too weak to stand up to China, pointing to his record on trade policies and his son's business dealings in the country.
"Joe Biden's agenda is made in China. My agenda is made in the USA," Trump told a crowd of thousands at his rally this month in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the battleground states included in the poll.
But the survey found that most voters, asked about their preferred approaches to China, favor a middle ground that's neither confrontational nor acquiescent. Sixty percent agree that the U.S. should "maintain a constructive relationship with China and resolve our differences diplomatically." That's compared to 40 percent who said the U.S. should be "aggressive in confronting China on trade and security issues, even at the risk of a more hostile relationship."
"What people know about Trump and China is the trade war, but they don't view that as a success," Garin said in an interview.
Still, voters in battleground states split largely along partisan lines over China, with a majority of Republicans favoring the aggressive approach and a majority of Democrats favoring the "constructive" one.
Voters were about evenly split on some of Trump's other national security policies, with 50 percent saying Trump's increased military spending is a fairly or very convincing reason to re-elect him and the same percentage saying that of his trade deals. Asked about his handling of the coronavirus, 59 percent disapproved, including 71 percent of voters who listed Covid-19 as their top issue.
Overall, the poll finds Biden with a 5-point lead over Trump, besting him by 49 percent to 44 percent in the battleground states — similar to the advantage Biden has had in other recent polls in the battleground states.
Consistent with other recent polls, Trump makes up for some of Biden's 13-point edge among women by carrying 50 percent of men, compared to just 46 percent of men who said they're voting for Biden.
The online poll of 1,228 likely voters was conducted Sept. 4-11. It included voters in three states that are fiercely contested in the presidential race — Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — as well as voters in nine states that are battlegrounds for both the White House and the race for control of the Senate: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.