At this point, even Donald Trump knows he’s losing. Those around him have reportedly come to realize that his disastrous polling could make him a one-term president. Much of that polling shift has occurred in the last three weeks, reflecting a “performance evaluation,” as UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck put it to me, on Trump’s handling of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the shaky economy. And according to a new analysis of polling data and interviews with voters in key states, much of it has come at the hands of independent voters. The movement is significant—enough to make the Washington Post opinion section gush that Trump looks “down and out” and Democrats are “heavy favorites.” Yet the very nature of independent voters, many of whom pay little attention until the eve of the election, makes it unwise to put much stock in the idea that 2020 is Biden’s to lose.
In 2016, Trump was elected in part because enough independent voters were willing to take a flier on a candidate who promised to undermine a political order that had not served them well. Trump’s advantage among independents, while only four points, was enough to carry him to victory. Independents comprise the largest segment of the voting-age population: 40% according to a June Gallup poll. Some self-identified independents are closet partisans, but many are true swing voters, or low-information voters without much ideological loyalty. It is these less-loyal voters who have moved away from Trump in large numbers. In the latest Morning Consult tracking poll, independents favored Biden by 8.5 points.
The reasons for this are not particularly mysterious. Over the last three months, Trump’s favorability ratings among independents have tanked across key measures such as the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his response to the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, and even his management of the economy. More than his Twitter outrages or race baiting, it’s his lack of effectiveness that’s turning off some independents. Rick Mirabito, a county commissioner in Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania, told me that the “euphoria of people who thought he would get things done has passed.” Todd Franko, a former top editor at the now shuttered Youngstown Vindicator, reported similar reactions not to the fantasy of Trump but to the reality of him: “people haven’t given up on the idea of experimenting, but this one didn’t work.” For the better part of three years, independents have stuck with Trump, willing to take “commerce over conscious,” as Franko put it to me. That deal has made a certain amount of sense to many independents, who tend to be more transactional and less ideological when it comes to politics, but it has looked increasingly less fruitful in recent months. Given the shaky nature of the Trump coalition, if he can’t reclaim ground with independents, it’s hard to see a path to victory for him.
Yet it is far too early to call it for Biden. There’s the normal caution: four months to go in an extraordinarily volatile year. But more importantly, independents are a difficult breed to predict. Many are independents because they care little about politics and may not decide their vote until November. As David Brady, a political scientist at Stanford, noted to me, it is an ironic aspect of American politics that our elections are often decided by the voters with the least interest in the candidates and the least knowledge of the issues. Given the ubiquity of Trump’s coverage and the familiarity of a challenger first elected to the Senate almost a half century ago, it would seem that it would be difficult to find a voter without a settled view. And yet a full 30% of independents reported to Morning Consult that they were undecided. Late deciders broke heavily for Trump in 2016, including those in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida who decided in the week before the election. The existence of a mass of undecideds this time around is likely to confound any bold prediction of an early Biden knockout.