WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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 percent of Americans approve of how Trump is handling the outbreak.
“Clearly it has been mishandled,” said Don Smith, 77, of Kannapolis, N.C. Smith, is an independent who plans to vote for Biden in November. Smith said he had been particularly troubled by what he saw 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 probably 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 was “more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.” No way, the president said, declaring the opposite was true.
After the public rebuke and a private phone call with Trump, Redfield tried to backtrack from some of his statements, saying the questions in the congressional hearing had been 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 percent, 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 percent of Republicans, though a somewhat lower percentage of GOP voters — 75 percent — back his handling of the pandemic.
Despite Trump’s unfailingly optimistic words about the pandemic, the majority of Americans — 69 percent — say they are still at least somewhat worried that they or their family members may be 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 percent of Republicans.
Still, those findings show the risks for Trump in downplaying the virus in the campaign’s final weeks, given how many Americans — including many in his own party — view COVID-19 as a continuing threat.
Biden has vowed to prioritize the views of public health officials if he wins, going so far as to say he would be willing to in effect shut down states again if that were the recommendation from medical advisers. The former vice president also regularly wears a mask and has largely limited his campaign travel to small, socially distanced events.
During an event on Wednesday, Biden warned Americans that the country could be heading for a “very dangerous autumn,” citing models showing cases could spike again later this year.
As Americans also weigh their options in upcoming congressional elections, few have high praise for the legislative branch. Just 5 percent say they are highly confident in Congress, while 47 percent have some confidence; 48 percent say they are not confident.
Lawmakers have spent months wrangling over how to proceed over another coronavirus relief package that could help small businesses, schools and state and local governments. But Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on the specifics and the overall price tag, and it appears likely they could depart Washington for a preelection recess without authorizing any more money.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,108 adults was conducted Sept. 11-14 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.