WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus continues to ravage America, Joe Biden is leading in presidential polls by being a generic alternative to an unpopular President Donald Trump.
He’s ahead in just about every national poll conducted this month, and leads in a batch of new surveys taken mid-April of battleground states that sent Trump to the White House in 2016.
Fox News polls show Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Reuters polls show Biden leading by 3 points in Wisconsin, 6 points in Pennsylvania and 8 points in Michigan. A Quinnipiac poll shows Biden leading by 4 points in Florida.
Nationally, a mid-April NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found Biden leading Trump, 49 percent to 42 percent, even as the Democrat’s message on the coronavirus outbreak, the biggest issue facing the country, failed to break through to large swaths of Americans.
Just 26 percent of registered voters said they trust what Biden has said about the coronavirus crisis while 29 percent said they don't trust him — and a striking 42 percent were unaware or unsure of what he has said. Trump, who has held televised briefings almost every day and touted their high ratings, was trusted by 36 percent of voters and distrusted by 52 percent.
The pandemic “is a double-edged sword for Biden,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a surrogate for the apparent Democratic nominee, arguing that “being a little laid back about it plays to his advantage.”
“It's very difficult to get airtime during a crisis like this, but I’m not entirely sure airtime would be good for Biden,” Rendell told NBC News. “I think Trump is doing so badly — anyone watching those two-hour briefings comes away thinking he’s absolutely crazy, that he’s mean, that he’s petty, that he doesn’t have Americans’ interests at heart.”
A trend across the surveys is that Trump is stranded in the low 40s against Biden, with job approval ratings that are underwater nationally and in the swing states. An approval boost, which presidents tend to get during a crisis, was short-lived for Trump — his numbers have fallen back to the low-to-mid 40s, where they've been for most of his presidency.
The findings indicate that Trump has little room to improve his own popularity, and that his hopes of victory hinge on driving up negative perceptions of Biden. The president has called Biden "Sleepy Joe" and criticized him in others way in an attempt to demotivate Biden's potential supporters ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Biden’s stable and somewhat bland persona benefits him against a president known for stirring the pot and making himself the center of attention, said former Rep. Phil English, R-Pa. who represented an Erie-area district until he was swept out in 2008 during the last economic crisis.
“If he were running against a less polarizing figure in Trump, he’d be in a less strong position,” English said of Biden. “It makes it easier for him to be the challenger and to generalize how he can be a better alternative to Trump, without having to be specific.”
Biden, coasting in part on name recognition as the previous vice president, has relied mostly on emails, policy papers and tweets to convey his message against a ubiquitous president.
He has faced criticism and mockery online from people who believe he’s not visible enough and needs to offer a sharper contrast — a choice between two visions, rather than simply running as "not Trump." But his campaign, which holds a mantra of “Twitter isn’t real life,” doesn’t appear fazed.
Biden's last in-person press event was on March 12, around the time social distancing rules began to shut down mass gatherings. His last public rally was on March 9 in Detroit, joined by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and former rivals Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and where his staff squirted hand sanitizer on attendees as they entered the school gym.
His public events have been sparse; the two most recent were a virtual Earth Day event on April 22 and a virtual town hall with COVID-19 workers on April 15, both hosted from his home in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Biden campaign has prioritized sending texts to supporters not to ask for campaign donations, but to “check in” on them and see how they’re doing as the coronavirus pandemic upends their lives.
In 2016, exit polls showed that Trump won voters who disliked both him and Hillary Clinton. With his own approval ratings stubbornly low, his hopes of securing another four years in the White House may depend on him replicating that against Biden in an election that is now a little more than six months away.
“I pay little attention to April or May polls,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “Nothing — absolutely nothing — has changed Trump’s position in the election. He can count on getting mid-40s come Election Day, barring a catastrophe.”
“The election will be determined at the margins in this polarized era by which party gets their troops out in greater numbers in the 10 or so states that matter, and by the presence or absence of third-party and independent candidates on the November ballot,” he said.