Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump both recognize the potential political fallouts if protests in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting are seen as peaceful or as violent. Biden benefits if they are seen as the former, while Trump is helped if they are seen as the latter.
Following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police in late May, support for Biden against Trump spiked nationwide. His lead went from 6 points in May to double-digits in June. This occurred as peaceful protests dominated the news, race relations jumped in importance in the voters’ minds and support for the Black Lives Matter movement rose to a majority.
But as the summer has gone on, Biden’s lead has ebbed. His advantage is down to around 8 points nationally and less in the states he likely needs to take if he wants to win the electoral college.
Although Biden will certainly take an 8-point lead nationally, the fact that Biden’s edge has dropped should be at least somewhat concerning to him. It’s occurred even as the coronavirus pandemic, the most important issue of this campaign, has raged out of control for much of the summer. Biden clearly remains more trusted on the issue than Trump, whose approval rating on coronavirus is in the 30s.
One reason Biden’s advantage might have been cut is that the peaceful protests of early summer have faded from the news and the importance of race relations has dropped down on the list of Americans’ most important problems.
Additionally, Americans’ perspective on the protests seem to be changing. The percentage of Americans who see the protests as “mostly legitimate” dipped from 62% in June to 53% in August, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll. Meanwhile, the percentage who believe them mostly people acting unlawfully rose from 28% to 38%.
This has been occurring as support for Black Lives Matter has fallen back and opposition has risen, as noted by FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon.
The shift in the numbers has been seen even more dramatically in the pivotal swing of Wisconsin before the Blake shooting.
The Marquette University Law School poll showed the net favorability rating (favorable - unfavorable) of Black Lives Matter declined from +33 points among likely voters in June to +10 points in August. This matches with the decline of the largely peaceful protests of June fading from the news, as well as attacks on Black Lives Matter from the right.
The net approval rating (approval - disapproval) for the protests fell from +27 points to -1 point during the same time period.
This comes as the protests are seen as mostly peaceful by 49% compared to 40% who see them as mostly violent.
During the same period, the presidential race went from 52% for Biden to 44% for Trump in June to 50% for Biden to 46% for Trump, within the margin of error result, in August. (Biden’s edge in the average is still about 6 points.)
At the same time, Trump’s approval rating on the protests in the Marquette poll remains in the 30s in Wisconsin.
Indeed, the story of the protests has been that voters don’t necessarily like the actions of the protesters, but they really don’t like Trump on the issue either. Biden is still overwhelmingly trusted over Trump when it comes to race relations.
The key for Trump is that he does considerably better on the issue of crime. By an 8-point margin in a recent ABC News/Washington Post national poll, voters say Biden would be worse on “safety from crime” than Trump has been as President. It’s one of the few issues where Biden did not have a substantial advantage over Trump in an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
If the protests are seen as a crime issue, it benefits Trump. If they’re seen more through the lens of race relations, it’s to his detriment. That’s why you don’t really see Trump give any ground to the protesters, and why you see Biden trying to balance praise for the protests with condemnation of those committing violent acts of protests.
The trend has clearly been in the direction Trump wishes to be on how the protests are seen, though the issue is far from a winner for him.
We’ll have to see where the numbers go after the recent events in Kenosha.