- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2020

Voters want to see immigrants with criminal records deported, rioters and looters arrested and prosecuted, and border security stiffened, according to a Harvard poll that suggests there is ample room for President Trump to sell his law-and-order message — if he can break through questions about his character.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies/Harris poll have a favorable opinion of police, compared with 51% for the Black Lives Matter movement. Antifa, the left-wing “anti-fascist” movement, has just 14% approval.

About three-fourths want to see the border tightened and want to see illegal immigrants who commit crimes deported rather than protected, as sanctuary cities do.

Each of those stances aligns more closely with Mr. Trump than his election opponent, Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden.

But voters give higher overall approval to Mr. Biden — and they just like him better. He holds likability rating of 6 percentage points in the positive, with 44% saying they find him personally likable and 38% disliking him. Mr. Trump is deeply in negative territory, with a 22-point deficit — just 33% say they like him personally.

“Trump wins the issue vote, Biden wins on character,” the pollsters said, summing up the results of the national survey of 1,314 registered voters, taken Sept. 22-24.

It all works out to a slight edge for Mr. Biden right now. Among likely voters, he holds a 47% to 45% edge over Mr. Trump in the poll. When the undecided voters are pressed on their leanings, Mr. Biden’s lead expands to 52% to 48%.

Those numbers are closer than many other national surveys have shown. Harvard said 21% of voters say they might still change their minds.

Overall, the mood of the country is improving. Most still think the U.S. is on the wrong track, but the gap is narrowing, as is pessimism over the economy.

As for Mr. Trump, his job approval is rising, too.

He is in positive territory on the economy, jobs, fighting terrorism, immigration and foreign affairs, and has even seen his approval on handling the COVID-19 pandemic tick up from 43% in August to 47% now, Harvard said.

But the poll found voters still trust Mr. Biden more on handling the coronavirus crisis, which they rate as the most important issue by far.

Indeed, it’s difficult to make sense of voters’ feelings on the issue.

On the one hand, they expect a second wave of COVID-19 cases, and a slight majority think the rate of infection is increasing, but most still want their states to try to remain open rather than repeat the crippling lockdowns of the spring, the poll found.

Yet 60% said they would support another lockdown if the virus flares up, and two-thirds worry about reopening too soon.

More than three-quarters want to see a national mask mandate, as Mr. Biden has suggested, and a majority want schools to shut down in-person learning this fall.

Voters also want to see another pandemic stimulus bill approved by Congress but are all over the map when it comes to how much money should be spent.

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said the virus is the top issue, and that’s pushing voters to Mr. Biden. If he also is winning on character, he’s in good shape.

“In a presidential race, character counts most. Voters vote for people, not issues,” he said. “The classic example was Ronald Reagan. Americans disagreed with him on many issues, but they supported him because they liked him.”

He said that gives Mr. Biden a clear strategy.

“Joe Biden should continue to push questions about the president’s lack of character,” Mr. Bannon said.

But Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist with close ties to the White House, said Mr. Trump can win by hammering home an issues-based message about his record over the past four years and his plans for the next four.

“From economic stewardship to law and order to tighter border security to no more crippling economic shutdowns — the issues are overwhelmingly on President Trump’s side,” he said. “And rather than trying to out-personality Biden, which there’s nothing wrong with, Trump would be better served by challenging Biden on the issues and reminding voters what he has done and where he wants to go.”

One Harvard finding is that just 18% of voters think taxes should be raised, compared with 40% who want them lowered.

Mr. Biden’s economic plans envision one of the largest tax increases in history, according to the Tax Foundation — though he says the pain would most likely be felt by businesses and the wealthy. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has said he’ll fight for a payroll tax cut, which would benefit all income levels.

Taxes and budget issues have not been a focus of this year’s campaign.

But racial justice and mayhem in some American cities have.

Harvard’s poll found 47% approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of race and policing issues, and 48% approve of his response to the civil disorder.

Yet when asked about the specifics, without Mr. Trump’s name attached, an overwhelming majority seem to like the get-tough approach the president espouses.

Four in five voters say those committing mayhem during protests should face arrest and prosecution, while 20% want they should be “released without much penalty.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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