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Trump and Biden in near tie as virus spreads, poll finds

Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump.
Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump. Associated Press/file

President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden are in a tightly competitive race for the White House in the November general election, with the president gaining ground on his likely challenger over the past month as the coronavirus pandemic convulses the country, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Trump has moved from what was a seven-point deficit in February to a near tie with Biden today. Among registered voters, Biden is favored by 49 percent and Trump by 47 percent. When the poll measures preferences among all adults, Biden stands at 50 percent and Trump at 44 percent.

Trump is more trusted to handle the economy, while Biden is more trusted to deal with health care. When voters are asked whom they trust more to confront the coronavirus outbreak, the difference between the two is statistically insignificant.

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The general election test of sentiment comes at a moment when the president has hit the highest job approval ratings of his presidency but also at a time when the pandemic has upended life in America and put politics mostly on hold for most people. Perhaps even more than at some moments, the poll represents a temporary look at how people feel about the November matchup.

The poll tests only national sentiment, which would translate into the popular vote, not the state-by-state competition for an electoral college majority.

Biden has not yet secured the 1,991 delegates he needs to claim the Democratic nomination and with many primaries now delayed, will not soon be able to add to the 277-delegate lead he enjoys over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Biden expanded that lead in the March 17 primaries in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida, beating Sanders by between 11 and 39 points in those states.

Nonetheless, the new poll finds that Biden maintains a strong lead nationally over his last remaining rival. Among registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Biden is favored by 55 percent compared with 39 percent for Sanders. A month ago, before Biden began his remarkable turnaround in fortunes, Sanders had a 2-to-1 lead on the former vice president in the Post-ABC poll.

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Despite the rapid consolidation around Biden among a broader Democratic electorate, the former vice president suffers from an enthusiasm gap when contrasted with the incumbent president. More than 8 in 10 (86 percent of) registered voters who side with Trump say they are enthusiastic about their support. That compares with 74 percent of Biden supporters.

More telling is the gap in the intensity of that enthusiasm, which can translate into who turns out to vote and who might not. Among registered voters who support Trump, 55 percent say they are very enthusiastic about backing him while 32 percent say they are somewhat enthusiastic. Among Biden’s supporters, a far smaller 28 percent say they are very enthusiastic while 46 percent are somewhat enthusiastic.

Biden’s current enthusiasm deficit is potentially worrisome for the challenger and his campaign based on recent presidential contests, although the general election contest is still many months off.

In May 2012, Mitt Romney, now a US senator, had a strong enthusiasm deficit of 25 points against then-president Barack Obama in Post-ABC polling. In June 2008, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was down 33 points on enthusiasm against Obama. In June 2004, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, faced a 16-point gap on enthusiasm in his campaign to unseat then-president George W. Bush. Romney, McCain, and Kerry all managed to narrow that gap by November but ultimately lost their elections.

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The current Post-ABC poll finds Trump’s approval rating for handling the economy has hit the highest point yet during his three-plus years in office, with 57 percent of Americans approving — up five points since February — and 38 percent disapproving. Nearly 4 in 10 ‘‘strongly approve’’ of his efforts on the economy.

The two likely general election candidates were tested against each other on three issues. On who is more trusted to handle the economy, 52 percent of registered voters name Trump and 42 percent name Biden. On health care, Biden enjoys a 10-point advantage, 51 percent to 41 percent. When asked whom they trust more to handle the coronavirus outbreak, there was no statistical difference between Trump and Biden, with the president named by 47 percent and the former vice president by 43 percent.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by cell and landline telephone from March 22-25 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults and 845 registered voters. Results among both groups have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.