NBC News/WSJ poll: 2020 race will be uphill for Trump, but he has strong party loyalty

NBC News/WSJ poll finds President Trump facing headwinds on Russia investigation and border wall but bolstered by strong GOP support and a good economy.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at Minuteman Aviation Hangar on Oct. 18, 2018, in Missoula, Montana.Carolyn Kaster / AP

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By Mark Murray

WASHINGTON — A year and a half before the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump faces formidable obstacles in his bid for re-election, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Just four in 10 voters say they would re-elect him next year; 58 percent don’t think he’s been honest and truthful regarding the Russia probe; and 60 percent disapprove of his recent national emergency declaration to build a border wall.

But Democrats who want to defeat Trump have hurdles of their own. The president's job rating remains stable with nearly 90 percent of Republicans approving of his job. And a majority of Americans remain confident in the economy, believing that there won’t be a recession in the next year.

Add it up, and 2020 is shaping up to be yet another close presidential race, say the Democratic and Republican pollsters who conducted the NBC/WSJ survey.

“It’s a 45-55 against the president at this stage of the game,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster, added, “As long as these economic numbers look like this, that always keeps an incumbent president in the race.

And Fred Yang, another Democratic pollster, argues that the contours of the race will change once there’s an official Democratic opponent to Trump.

“Another lesson we painfully learned from 2016 is that elections are a choice between candidates and not a referendum on one candidate,” he said.

The NBC/WSJ poll — conducted Sunday Feb. 24 to Wednesday Feb. 27 — comes amid another turbulent week in Trump’s presidency, highlighted by the congressional testimony by his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s, failed nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea, and the Democratic-led House of Representatives voting to reverse Trump’s emergency declaration on the border.

Still, attitudes about the president remainsteady, with 46 percent of Americans approving of Trump’s job performance — up three points from January, although that’s well within the poll’s margin of error.

The top groups approving of Trump: Republicans (88 percent), rural residents (60 percent), whites without college degrees (60 percent), men (54 percent) and whites overall (54 percent).

The top groups disapproving: African Americans (88 percent), Latinos (64 percent), women (61 percent), those ages 18-34 (57 percent), whites with college degrees (55 percent) and independents (51 percent).

Forty-one percent of registered voters say they will “definitely” or “probably” vote for Trump in 2020, versus 48 percent who say they will “definitely” or “probably” vote for the Democratic candidate.

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Those numbers for Trump are worse than what Barack Obama faced at this same point in time in the 2012 cycle, when 45 percent said they’d vote for him, while 40 percent would vote for the Republican opponent.

But they’re on par with Bill Clinton’s numbers in January 1995, when 38 percent said they’d vote for Clinton, versus 42 percent who said they’d pick the generic Republican candidate.

Both Obama and Clinton won their re-election contests.

The most popular (and unpopular) presidential characteristics

The NBC/WSJ poll also tested 11 different presidential characteristics.

The most popular: An African American (a combined 87 percent of all voters say they are “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with that characteristic), a white man (86 percent), a woman (84 percent), and someone who is gay or lesbian (68 percent — up from 43 percent in 2006).

The least popular: A Muslim (49 percent are enthusiastic or comfortable — up from 32 percent in 2015), someone over the age of75 (37 percent) and a socialist (25 percent).

And regarding socialism, just 18 percent of all Americans say they view the term positively, versus 50 percent who see it in a negative light.

The numbers for capitalism are almost the exact opposite: 50 percent positive, 19 percent negative.

Democratic voters pick boldness over pragmatism

With the first Democratic presidential contests taking place a year from now, 55 percent of Democratic primary voters say they prefer a nominee who proposes policies that could bring major change (despite their cost and difficulty passing into law), as opposed to 42 percent who say they would rather support someone whose policies might bring less change (but cost less and might be easier to pass).

What’s more, 56 percent of Democratic primary voters say they want a candidate whose issue positions conform to their views, while 40 percent say they prefer someone who gives the party the best chance to defeat Trump in 2020.

“I think we’re getting early signals from Democratic primary voters that they are looking for bigger change and someone who agrees with them on policy,” said McInturff, the Republican pollster.

Also when it comes to the 2020 election, a minority of all Americans — 38 percent — say the two-party system is seriously broken and the country needs a third party. But that’s the highest percentage on this question dating back to 1995.

And when it comes to the Republican Party, 37 percent of GOP primary voters say they’d like to see another Republican challenge Trump for the party’s presidential nomination, while 59 percent say they’re opposed.

Nearly 60 percent say Trump hasn’t been honest on the Russia probe

Only 37 percent of all Americans say they believe President Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, while 58 percent say they disagree.

There’s a considerable contrast by party: 75 percent of Republican respondents say they believe Trump has been honest and truthful, versus 27 percent of independents and 6 percent of Democrats.

Forty-eight percent of all respondents say special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russia matter has given them more doubts about Trump’s presidency, compared with 47 percent who say it’s given them no more doubts.

And two-thirds of Americans — 66 percent — say they want Mueller’s findings to be released to the public.

Optimism and pessimism about the economy

As for views on the economy, 53 percent of Americans say they believe the United States won’t be in a recession in the next 12 months, compared with 33 percent who disagree.

But when asked about their own economic situation, 59 percent say 2019 will be a year to hold back and save because harder times are ahead, while 34 percent think it will be a time of expansion and opportunity.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Sunday Feb. 24 to Wednesday Feb. 27 of 900 adults – nearly half by cell phone – and the overall margin of error is plus-minus 3.3 percentage points.

The survey also measured 720 registered voters (plus-minus 3.7 percentage points), 247 Democratic primary voters (plus-minus 6.3 percentage points) and 210 Republican primary voters (plus-minus 6.8 percentage points).