President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden are in a tightly competitive race for the White House in the November general election, with the president gaining ground on his likely challenger over the past month as the coronavirus pandemic convulses the country, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Trump has moved from what was a seven-point deficit in February to a near-tie with Biden today. Among registered voters, Biden is favoured by 49 per cent and Trump by 47 per cent. When the poll measures preferences among all adults, Biden stands at 50 per cent and Trump at 44 per cent.

Trump is more trusted to handle the economy, while Biden is more trusted to deal with healthcare. When voters are asked whom they trust more to confront the coronavirus outbreak, the difference between the two is statistically insignificant.

The general election test of sentiment comes at a moment when the president has hit the highest job approval ratings of his presidency but also at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has upended life in America and put politics mostly on hold for most people. Perhaps even more than at some moments, the poll represents a temporary look at how people feel about the November match-up.

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The poll tests only national sentiment, which would translate into the popular vote, not the state-by-state competition for an electoral college majority.

Biden has not yet secured the 1991 delegates he needs to claim the Democratic nomination and with many primaries now delayed, will not soon be able to add to the 277-delegate lead he currently enjoys over Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden expanded that lead in the March 17 primaries in Arizona, Illinois and Florida, beating Sanders by between 11 and 39 points in those states.

Nonetheless, the new poll finds that Biden maintains a strong lead nationally over his last remaining rival. Among registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Biden is favoured by 55 per cent compared with 39 per cent for Sanders. A month ago, before Biden began his remarkable turnaround in fortunes, Sanders had a 2-to-1 lead on the former vice president in the Post-ABC poll.

Despite the rapid consolidation around Biden among a broader Democratic electorate, the former vice president suffers from an enthusiasm gap when compared with the incumbent president. More than 8 in 10 (86 per cent of) registered voters who currently side with Trump say they are enthusiastic about their support. That compares with 74 per cent of Biden supporters.

US President Donald Trump. Photo / Getty Images
US President Donald Trump. Photo / Getty Images

More telling is the gap in the intensity of that enthusiasm, which can translate into who turns out to vote and who might not. Among registered voters who support Trump, 55 per cent say they are very enthusiastic about backing him while 32 per cent say they are somewhat enthusiastic. Among Biden's supporters, a far smaller 28 per cent say they are very enthusiastic while 46 per cent are somewhat enthusiastic.

Biden's current enthusiasm deficit is potentially worrisome for the challenger and his campaign based on recent presidential contests, although the general election contest is still many months off.

In May 2012, Mitt Romney, now a US senator, had a strong enthusiasm deficit of 25 points against President Barack Obama in Post-ABC polling. In June 2008, John McCain was down 33 points on enthusiasm against Obama. In June 2004 John Kerry faced a 16-point gap on enthusiasm in his campaign to unseat President George W Bush. Romney, McCain and Kerry all managed to narrow that gap by November but ultimately lost their elections.

Earlier in the year, the economy was one of the president's strongest assets in his re-election message, with growth continuing to rise and the stock market setting more records. That was before the coronavirus began to inflict severe damage on economic activity and stocks went into a tailspin, although markets rallied somewhat this past week.

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Nonetheless, the Post-ABC poll finds Trump's approval rating for handling the economy has hit the highest point yet during his three-plus years in office, with 57 per cent of Americans approving - up five points since February - and 38 per cent disapproving. Nearly 4 in 10 "strongly approve" of his efforts on the economy.

The two likely general election candidates were tested against each other on three issues. On who is more trusted to handle the economy, 52 per cent of registered voters named Trump and 42 per cent name Biden. On health care, Biden enjoys a 10-point advantage, 51 per cent to 41 per cent. When asked whom they trust more to handle the coronavirus outbreak, there was no statistical difference between Trump and Biden, with the president named by 47 per cent and the former vice president by 43 per cent.

In a February match-up between Trump and Biden, the former vice president was ahead 52 per cent to 45 per cent among registered voters. The president's gains since come from shifts of several groups, among them 10 points more support among self-identified Democrats, although he had the support of just 2 per cent of this group in February. He also has gained 14 points among white women without college degrees and 16 points among voters in rural areas, groups that helped buttress his electoral college victory in 2016.

If November conforms to recent elections, Democratic support for Trump is likely to shrink a bit from where it is today. The rise in support among white women without college degrees, if it holds, could be especially significant for the president, as there has been erosion among that group over the past two years. Meanwhile, the president is counting on big turnout in rural areas and this poll underscores the value of that to his standing.

The question undergirding all the polling was whether Trump's gains represented something lasting or a minimalist version of the bump generally awarded presidents handling a national crisis.

One issue facing the Democrats is how quickly and harmoniously the nomination contest between Biden and Sanders ends - and whether those currently supporting the senator from Vermont will rally behind Biden's candidacy if he is the nominee. Sanders has said he would support Biden, but the question remains whether he has enough influence with his grassroots backers to persuade virtually all of them to do the same.

Biden's current 79 per cent support among Sanders' supporters is not as high as the 84 per cent support Clinton reached in a November 2016 Post-ABC tracking poll right before Election Day. It is, however, higher than Clinton's 71 per cent support among Sanders' primary voters in a May 2016 Post-ABC poll, before the party convention and fall campaign.

Joe Biden. Photo / Getty Images
Joe Biden. Photo / Getty Images

Sanders has given no indication of when or how he might end his candidacy, despite pressure from some in Democratic circles for him to do so sooner rather than later. In 2016, he took his candidacy against Hillary Clinton all the way to the national convention, causing some heartburn for the Clinton forces.

Last week Sanders indicated he wanted to take part in an April debate, which the Democratic National Committee has yet to schedule. Biden, asked by reporters Wednesday about taking part in another debate, brushed aside the idea and suggested he was aimed at Trump in November.

"I think we've had enough debates," Biden said. "I think we should get on with this."

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by cell and landline telephone from March 22-25 among a random national sample of 1003 adults and 845 registered voters. Results among both groups have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.