Survey: Trump faces deep pessimism as election nears

Julie Pace

Washington — Less than seven weeks before Election Day, most Americans are deeply pessimistic about the direction of the country and skeptical of President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 7 in 10 Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, according to a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It’s an assessment that poses a challenge for Trump as he urges voters to stay the course and reward him with four more years in office instead of handing the reins of government to Democrat Joe Biden.

President Donald Trump.

Trump’s argument to voters hinges in part on persuading Americans that the pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S., is receding. Yet just 39% of Americans approve of how Trump is handling the outbreak.

“Clearly it has been mishandled,” said Don Smith, 77, of Kannapolis, North Carolina. Smith, an independent who plans to vote for Biden in November, said he’s been particularly troubled by what he sees as Trump’s efforts to sideline public health experts and scientists.

Most Americans have more favorable views of health officials than of the Republican president as they have throughout the pandemic. Seventy-eight percent say they have some or great confidence in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency at the forefront of crafting recommendations for how Americans can best protect themselves from the highly contagious coronavirus.

Yet the White House has repeatedly sought to assert more control over the CDC. And on Wednesday, Trump publicly undercut CDC Director Robert Redfield on two crucial matters: the likely timeline for vaccine availability, and the effectiveness of wearing face masks.

Redfield told lawmakers that a vaccine — if approved, and none has been to this point — would likely not be widely available to Americans until at least the middle of next year. Trump disputed that, saying a vaccine could begin to be rolled out as soon as next month — just ahead of the presidential election — and be broadly available soon after.

Trump was also at odds with Redfield over masks, which the president says he supports but rarely wears. Redfield told lawmakers that wearing a mask is “more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.” No way, the president said, declaring the opposite was true.

Following the public rebuke and a private call with Trump, Redfield tried to backtrack from some of his statements, saying the questions in the congressional hearing were unclear.

Through his words and actions, Trump has increasingly been trying to convey the impression that the nation is moving past the pandemic. He’s regularly traveling around the country for campaign events, speaking to tightly packed crowds. Though he largely held outdoor events through the summer, he headlined two large indoor events over the weekend. Public health officials say transmission rates are higher indoors versus outdoors.

Trump says of the pandemic: “I really believe we’re rounding the corner, and I believe that strongly.”

Overall, Trump’s approval rating sits at 43%, well within the narrow range it has been throughout his first term, and slightly higher than it was earlier in the summer. The president is propped up by support from 86% of Republicans, though a somewhat lower percentage of GOP voters — 75% — back his handling of the pandemic.

Despite Trump’s unfailingly optimistic words about the pandemic, the majority of Americans — 69% — say they are still at least somewhat worried about themselves or their family members being infected with the virus. That number is lower than it was in July, when infection rates in several states were spiking.

Assessments of the state of the pandemic are sharply split along partisan lines, reflecting the ways that it has become tied up in the nation’s deep partisan divisions. Eighty-three percent of Democrats say they are at least somewhat concerned about the virus, compared with 55% of Republicans.