Battleground state poll shows Biden with persistent but surmountable leads

As voting gets underway in many states, Joe Biden remains ahead of Donald Trump in three key battleground states - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - according to a poll by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Elections Research Center.

Biden earns support from approximately half of voters, a key threshold that Trump did not reach in any of the three states in 2016. Trump’s support is in the mid-40s, a close reflection of his job approval ratings among respondents, and within striking range of Biden. This represents a slight improvement for Trump compared to the previous ERC poll in August.

The survey reveals the different perspectives of Biden and Trump voters. Biden voters see the coronavirus pandemic as the most important issue facing the country. Trump voters prioritize the economy and rank the virus outbreak behind crime and on par with health care.

Most voters are hearing directly from the campaigns, but Biden supporters are contacted most by electronic means while Trump voters are more likely to receive mailings. Although there are differences across states, Trump voters strongly prefer voting in person while Biden voters favor voting by mail.

These findings are from the third set of 2020 battleground surveys from the Elections Research Center. The poll in Wisconsin is conducted in collaboration with the Wisconsin State Journal. Interviews were conducted between Sept. 10 and Sept. 21.

General Election Matchups

Biden bests Trump in all three states among respondents who are registered to vote. Trump trails by 8 points in Michigan but by only 5 points in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Vote Intention (Registered Voters)

Unlike in August, Biden’s lead actually narrows when limiting the focus to "likely" voters, defined as registered voters who also report that they are "certain" to vote. Biden remains near the 50% mark in all three states, but Trump narrows the gap among this key group of respondents. None of these differences between the candidates is statistically significant.

Vote Intention (Likely Voters)

In the wake of the national party conventions, voters in all three states appear to be making up their minds. Compared to the August survey, more respondents affirmatively select one of the major party candidates rather than saying they were not sure or planned to vote for a minor party candidate.

The survey is part of a panel study in which the same respondents who participated in the prior survey fielded from July 27 to Aug. 6 were reinterviewed in September. Their vote choices between the two waves are extremely stable, with only a handful of respondents shifting between the candidates.

Comparing the previous survey to this one shows that Trump’s slight improvement in the head-to-head contest with Biden is mostly the result of gaining the support of independent voters. This may reflect a small bounce coming out of the Republican convention or Trump’s response to the violence in Kenosha following the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Shifts Among Demographic Groups (Likely Voters)

Reasons for Vote Choices

Biden and Trump voters see the country’s challenges quite differently. Likely voters were given a list of 11 topics and asked which was the "most important issue facing the country." Nearly half of Biden voters selected the pandemic as the top issue. The traditional Democratic issues of health care, climate change, and inequality were named as most important by 12% to 14% of Biden voters.

In contrast, Trump voters named the economy as most important, crime as second, and the coronavirus pandemic much lower at just 13%. Before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump voters were somewhat more likely than Biden voters to see Supreme Court appointments as the most important issue.

Most Important Issue Facing the Country (Likely Voters)

Other Performance Indicators

Approval ratings of all three Democratic governors fell slightly since the August survey, although Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has more strong support than do Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.

Ratings of Trump’s overall performance remain exceptionally stable. About as many respondents "strongly disapprove" of Trump as those who "strongly" or "somewhat" approve of him.

Trump fares somewhat better when it comes to handling of the economy, where he is above water in all three states. There was a slight increase in the percentage of people who are satisfied with his handling of protests, although the majority continues to be dissatisfied.

Other Performance Indicators (Registered Voters)

Campaign Contact

In the unusual 2020 environment, many traditional campaign activities are restricted. Respondents were asked if they had been contacted by a candidate or political organization. People who reported some form of contact were then asked which party had contacted them and by what means (phone, in person, etc.).

Among likely voters, 62% reported some kind of contact. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, a larger share of Biden voters report being contacted than do Trump voters. However, in Wisconsin the pattern is flipped, with Trump voters being more likely to have received campaign contacts.

Campaign Contact Rates (Likely Voters)

Likely voters in all three states tend to report they were contacted by both parties. Among those contacted by only one party, Democrats appear to have been more active in both Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Who Did the Contacting (Likely Voters)

The most common methods of contact among likely voters were email (63%), letter or postcard (62%), text (57%), and phone call (50%), with very few saying they were contacted in person (5%). There are some differences by party that may reflect the age disparities between Biden and Trump voters. Biden voters were more likely to report receiving emails or texts whereas Trump voters were most likely to receive letters or postcards.

How Voters Were Contacted (Likely Voters)

Method of Voting

Among the three states, voting by mail is of greatest interest in Michigan, whereas a clear majority of Pennsylvania registrants plan to vote in person. There are clear partisan differences in the plans to vote by mail, with two-thirds of Democrats leaning toward voting by mail and four out of five Republicans saying they are likely to vote in person.

This is the third of several surveys in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that will be conducted during the 2020 election season by the ERC in partnership with the Wisconsin State Journal for all polling done in Wisconsin.

Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all voted for Democratic presidential candidates going back to the 1980s but flipped to the Republicans in 2016 to help President Donald Trump win the Electoral College.

Surveys of voting age adults were conducted by YouGov under the direction of the ERC. YouGov is a leading marketing and polling firm that conducts surveys for news outlets such as CBS News, the Economist, and the Huffington Post. Interviews were conducted online with respondents selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel. The sample was selected and weighted to reflect the adult population in each state based on gender, age, race, and education.

800 respondents were surveyed in each of the three states. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 4.66% in Michigan, 4.28% in Pennsylvania, and 4.21% in Wisconsin. Among likely voters the margins of error are 4.71% in Michigan, 4.73% in Pennsylvania, and 4.46% in Wisconsin.

  • Matt DeFour, state politics editor, mdefour@madison.com , 608-252-6144

UW-Madison national media relations contact:

  • Veronica Rueckert, rueckert@wisc.edu , 608-262-7288

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