What wealthy independents, a key swing vote, think about Trump, Covid-19 and the economy

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U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a protective face shield during a tour of the Ford Rawsonville Components Plant that is manufacturing ventilators, masks and other medical supplies during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Ypsilanti, Michigan, U.S., May 21, 2020.

Leah Millis | REUTERS

Independents voters, a key swing voting bloc for the 2020 presidential election, are beginning to show signs that the coronavirus and economic deterioration are weighing on their outlook.  

Millionaires who identify as political independents are closer to the outlook of wealthy Democrats than wealthy Republicans on several key issues, according to the Spring 2020 CNBC Millionaire Survey. On issues including President Trump’s response to the coronavirus and the economic outlook, Independents are closer to the views of liberals than conservatives. 

A little under half of Independents (46%) who responded to the Spring 2020 CNBC Millionaire Survey rate President Trump’s handling of economy as Excellent or Good, versus 86% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats. Twenty-one percent of Independents rate it as “Terrible,” versus 2% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats. Those numbers put Independents where they should be — right in the middle between the two parties. But the 17% of Independents who rate Trump’s handling of the economy as ”Poor” shows a negative lean tilting toward Democrats — 21% of Democrats rated Trump’s handling of the economy as “Poor” versus 4% of Republicans.

On the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Independents the survey funds these swing voters even more negative, with a combined 57% rating Trump’s handling of the crisis as poor (10%) or terrible (47%), versus only 15% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats.

“This survey did find that there were times Independents were more often than not looking more like Democrats,” said Tom Wynn, director of research at Spectrem Group, which conducted the Millionaire Survey for CNBC. “So much of politics is driven by the economy,” he said. But Wynn added that the survey did not find a widespread political realignment, with Independents revealing their expected middle position between the two major parties on many issues. With the recent rebound and in the stock market and five months until the election, “anything can happen,” he said. 

There was a higher response from Republicans and Democrats than Independents in the Spring 2020 survey compared to previous surveys, however, Wynn said there was a statistically significant percentage of each political identification group among respondents who took the survey. 

The economy is a key 2020 election issue

The economy is a key issue for Independent voters, with the CNBC survey finding 48% citing the economy as a top issue they will vote on in 2020. But the roughly one-third of Independents who already lean Democratic can be seen in the Millionaire Survey results, as well, with 33% of Independents saying the voting Trump out of office is their single-biggest motivation to vote in 2020.

“Independents are tricky … Independents are important,” said Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll. He said of the roughly one-third of Americans who are Independents, it is 9-10% who do not lean towards one of the two major parties, and those “true” Independents tend to pay less attention to news, and react to events more slowly than partisans, but they are ultimately moveable in their voting preferences. 

He said the CNBC Millionaire Survey findings indicated a slightly higher disapproval of Trump among Independents, and more ambivalence over his handling of the economy. However, he pointed to how long it took Independents to be moved by the impeachment headlines versus partisans as a reason to caution it is still too soon to draw any conclusions related to Independent vote sentiment and Trump’s handling of the economy during the pandemic. “Independents are responding to events, clearly, but a little more slowly,” Franklin said.

Marquette’s recent polling of Wisconsin voters shows that economic views have turned sharply negative, and Independents have started to turn more negative and move more than the overall population, but voters’ evaluation of Trump’s handling of the economy have only moved a little overall. “It’s obviously an open question as to whether it will change going forward,” Franklin said.

Given that the sharply partisan divide among Republicans and Democrats detailed in multiple surveys show that the majority of them have already decided on their votes, the fact that Independents have moved from being pretty positive to pretty negative on the economy is a reminder of why these voters will matter in November. Franklin was hesitant to make any comparison to past election cycles or point to any group as swinging an election, but said it is far to note than in 2008 Independents did move much closer to Democrats as the financial crisis deepened. But he added that even Republican approval ratings for President Bush were low, and that is not the case now for Trump. 

“Always see Independents in between, but when there is a prolonged and unmistakable economic crisis, you’ll see independents move in the direction of negativity more, and thus in ’07 and ’08 they converged closer to where Democrats were,” the Marquette pollster said. “Right now, they have not had enough time to fully absorb the economic crisis and how long it will last.”

Pollsters caution that Independents are a diverse group that range in ideology from Tea Party to progressive, and it’s too soon to know how they may swing in Trump’s reelection bid.   

According to SurveyMonkey data, independents as a group are more liberal than Republicans and more conservative than Democrats; individually, they can be more extreme than people of either party — a group of Independents could very well include Bernie Sanders supports, Tea Partiers, Libertarians, Green Party supporters, and non-voters. As a group, they don’t “break” any one way. 

Independents always have less approval for Trump than Republicans, but more than Democrats, according to national surveys that SurveyMonkey has conducted for CNBC and others. In its May consumer confidence survey for The New York Times, it found 91% of Republicans, 41% of Independents, and 11% of Democrats saying they approve of the job Trump is doing as president. However, just 62% of Independents taking the survey were registered to vote, much lower than for either of the two major parties’ voters. 

Democrats can’t win on Trump negativity alone

Change Research’s Senior Pollster, Nancy Zdunkewicz, who is also the senior pollster for CNBC’s States of Play battleground polling, said everyone has moved on the economy, and in general, Independents are more likely to respond to events like Democrats, though not as pessimistic. “They tend to be more positive on the economy, but not the blind view of the economy when we look at Republican numbers,” Zdunkewicz said.

She said it is too soon for any Democrat to take for granted a shift in Independent views that will carry through to November. “The Trump strategy is, ‘I can win over enough of these people by looking at the economy and so that has to more be more concerning for him now,” she said.

However, the Change Research pollster said that when talking about the economy, the meaning shifts by voter from a focus on the president’s handling of it to broader ideas, such as the fight for higher wages or helping the middle class. She said Democrats did not win the mid-term elections by running against Trump’s handling of the economy, but by focusing on issues where they saw the opportunity to lead, such as health care. Her firm’s recent polling of Independents in swing states does show the economic impact of the coronavirus being a top issue, along with health-care costs. For Republicans, the two top issues are immigration and the economy; for Democrats it is health care and the economy.

The CNBC Millionaire Survey does find that while the wealthy have not seen widespread economy impacts as a result of Covid-19, they have been financial and job consequences. Roughly 1 in 5 say they have had to give money to an adult child (22%) or other family member (21%), while 13% of millionaires have lost a job. Another 7% said they have had to fire or furlough a worker.

Zdunkewicz said true Independents will only vote for Democratic candidates if the candidates lead with better alternatives. ”I could have someone say they disapprove of the way Trump is handling the economy and yet give him an advantage over Biden,” she said. “I don’t think this will necessarily be a referendum  on how Trump failed to do things that would have made our economic crisis less severe, but rather, a more forward-looking conversation about who can rebuild.”

She said Trump’s record will be invoked, and the GOP prioritization of corporations, but added, “The burden is on Democrats to win over these voters and say ‘We have a better plan for small businesses and the middle class.’ … independents are more skeptical overall, but just because Independents don’t think Trump has done a good job on the economy or see the economy in a bad place, that does not mean they’ve been convinced Democrats will do better,” Zdunkewicz said.

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