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Latest On Presidential Race: Televised Town Halls And Poll Results

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump and Joe Biden are competing tonight for eyeballs. The candidates were supposed to have a debate. Instead, they are speaking at two different town hall forums on two different TV networks at the same time. For President Trump, there's pressure to persuade some voters to his side that's underscored by a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out today showing Biden jumping to a double-digit lead nationally. NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us now.

Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so we have been seeing the president slide in other polls since the first debate, since his illness. What did our poll find here?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's very similar to other national polls. Biden is now up 54-43. That's the highest Biden has gotten in our poll since it began tracking the race in February. Trump notably has gotten - has not gotten above 44% in any of those polls, and the president is running out of time, frankly, to turn things around.

The thing that stands out in this poll is Biden now is actually narrowly winning white voters by a 51- to 47% margin. Trump won white voters by 20 points in 2016. If Biden were to get that high, it would be the highest recorded for any Democrat, even since Jimmy Carter. And that could indicate a very big blue wave building up and down the ballot. That's, you know, big, of course, because Trump is still within striking distance in key swing states, and those will decide the Electoral College. We don't know how things are going to go over the next couple of weeks, but white voters are something to watch for why Biden can do well in those places.

CHANG: But can we just remember for a moment what happened in 2016? I mean, Hillary Clinton was up by - what? - about 10 points at this point in the race. I guess what I'm wondering is, how much should we be reading into this lead Biden has in the polls right now?

MONTANARO: Sure. Well, you know the phrase, I'll believe it when I see it. Well...

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: I see it, but I'll believe it when it happens.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Anything can happen here. And when you talk to Democrats, they're not satisfied with the polls. Many aren't even looking at them. And they want this election not to be close, so they're doing everything they can to make that happen. You know, Clinton certainly had a significant lead at this point, not quite this wide. But that race tightened significantly in the final couple weeks, we have to remember. So that's something to watch.

But there are really a few reasons why 2020 is not 2016. First, there's been far less volatility in the polls this time around. There are far fewer undecided voters. Our poll shows just 5% of people are persuadable, meaning people undecided or who could say they, you know - they might change their minds. Third parties don't seem to be playing as much of a factor. And frankly, surveys and our reporting are telling us that Biden is just better-liked than Hillary Clinton overall.

CHANG: OK, well, I want to turn to some news today. A staffer for vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris tested positive for the coronavirus. So did a member of the flight crew from the plane she flew on last week. What more do we know about all this?

MONTANARO: Well, these are two people Kamala Harris traveled with a week ago, tested negative around that trip. They tested positive last night. The campaign says Harris herself has had multiple tests this week including today, and all were negative. Out of an abundance of caution, they canceled her events for the next four days. She was supposed to be in North Carolina today, where early voting is underway. You know, what's really notable is the politics here, how the campaign's trying to put out a lot of information and showing a big difference between how they're handling this and how the Trump campaign is handling it. And believe me; that is for political reasons in doing that.

CHANG: OK. So the town halls tonight - Joe Biden on ABC, Donald Trump on NBC - they're going head to head, basically. I'm not sure which one I'm going to watch tonight. What are you going to be doing?

MONTANARO: I don't know - probably toggle back and forth and record them.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: But, you know, who else is really going to do that? I mean, this is all...

CHANG: I know.

MONTANARO: ...Very strange. We've never seen this kind of thing before where a debate's canceled, the networks jump in to basically book the candidates and then hold events at the exact same time. So people are going to have to make this choice on who they tune into. I really wonder how that's going to play out, especially considering so few people are undecided. Whose minds is this really going to change?

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: And like I said, our poll found so few undecided. More than 17 million people have already voted.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.