Why Biden Just Can’t Shake Trump in the Polls
The core four dynamics shaping 2024 Like so many bands of wind and rain, hurricane-strength squalls of bad news have battered former President Donald Trump all year. Since April, hes been indicted four times, on 91 separate felony charges, compared with zero counts for all of his White House predecessors. Trump often likes to claim that anything associated with him is the most spectacular, even when its not, but when it comes to accumulating criminal charges, hes the undisputed champ of former presidents. President Joe Biden, by contrast, has been basking in mostly good news. Over recent months, inflation has mostly moderated, job growth has remained steady, and the stock market has recovered briskly. Seemingly every week, Biden cuts a ribbon for an ambitious infrastructure project or new clean-energy plant made possible by a trio of sweeping laws he signed during his first two years. The chaos predicted at the southern border when Biden ended Title 42, the pandemic-era Trump policy, never materialized. Crime rates are declining in many major cities. And yet national polls, as well as surveys in the key swing states, consistently show Biden and Trump locked in a dead heat when voters are asked about a possible 2024 rematch between them. It is a sad reality that the race could be this close given Trumps position, but it is. And I think its very clear that Trump can win this race if the election was tomorrow, the Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann told me. Political operatives and scientists agree on one key reason Biden and Trump remain so closely paired in a potential rematch: In our polarized political era, far fewer voters than in the past are open to switching sides for any reason. But more than structural calcification, as three political scientists called this phenomenon in a recent book on the 2020 election titled The Bitter End , explains the standoff in this summers polls between Biden and Trump. The two men are pinioned so close together also because they are caught between the four forces that have most powerfully reshaped the electoral landscape since they first met, in the November 2020 presidential election. Two of these dynamics are benefiting Democrats; two are bolstering Republicans. Combined, these four factors appear to be largely offsetting each other, preventing either man from establishing a meaningful advantage as they proceed toward their seemingly inevitable rematch. Read: What the polls might be getting wrong about Trump Look, anybody who thinks this is not going to be very competitive ... they are not paying attention to American politics, Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has become a prominent critic of Trump, told me. Its going to be close. Its going to be close for the next 20 years. What are the biggest factors benefiting Democrats since Election Day in 2020? The first is Trumps efforts to overturn his loss in that election and his continued claim that he was the victim of massive fraud. Polls show that after Trumps sustained campaign to subvert the 2020 result, culminating in the January 6 insurrection, many Americans view the former president as a threat to U.S. democracy. In an early-August CBS/YouGov national poll , just over half of Americans agreed that Trump tried to stay in office after the 2020 election through illegal and unconstitutional activities. Other voters who do not see Trump as an aspiring authoritarian appear exhausted by the controversy and contention that he constantly stirs. For them, January 6 may not have been proof that Trump wants to shred the Constitution, but it is a symbol of the turmoil that returning him to the White House might unleash. There are people who may like his agenda but do not want to go back to the chaos, John Anzalone, a pollster for Biden, told me. The other big change in the electoral environment since 2020 that benefits Democrats is the decision by the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court last year to rescind the constitutional right to abortion. Polls have repeatedly found that three-fifths or more of Americans opposed that ruling and prefer to keep abortion legal in all or most circumstances. The broad backlash to the Supreme Courts decision overturning Roe v. Wade hasnt been a silver bullet for Democrats in campaigns . But in swing states such as Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, widespread support for legal abortion was a major factor in Democratic gubernatorial victories last year. As Madrid notes, the decision overturning Roe has reinforced the movement of college-educated white women toward Democrats, which has been evident since Trump became the GOPs defining figure. While country-club women always chafed at some conservative social policies, Madrid told me, before Trump the party could still hold a respectable share of them by reminding them that they benefited from Republican economic policies. But since Trump stamped his imprint on the GOP, Madrid added, now they are more concerned about the social stigma about being associated with a party that is overturning Roe , supporting Confederate monuments, and attacking gay marriage. Though less dramatically, the same dynamic has weakened the GOPs position with college-educated white men in the Trump years. On the other side of the ledger are two factors that have weakened Biden and bolstered Trump since 2020. The most powerful is discontent over inflation. For most Americans, polls show, higher prices in the past few years have overshadowed the consistent job growth and accelerating pace of new plant openings that Biden is now touting under the label Bidenomics. Stanley B. Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has worked for political parties around the world, says that sustained inflation, like the U.S. has experienced since 2021, is especially corrosive for the party in power. Ive watched it in Greece; Ive watched it in the U.K.: The longer the inflationary period goes on, the more frustrated people are, the more negative they are about the economy, the more they are in trouble financially, he told me. Many politicians, he said, fail to understand how long it takes for voters to feel that they have restored their financial stability after a period of inflation, a mistake he worries the Biden White House is repeating now. As Greenberg put it, You dont catch up because for one or two months your wages have gone up above the rate of increase for prices. Ben Tulchin, who served as the lead pollster for Senator Bernie Sanderss two presidential bids, told me that inflation exacerbates some of Bidens longest-standing electoral problems. Biden, he notes, has always struggled to connect with younger voters and Latinos, and because many in both groups have limited incomes, they are especially frustrated with and squeezed by higher prices. In focus groups hes conducted this year, Tulchin told me, even many younger voters who revile the former presidents values will say the economy seemed to be better under Trump. Madrid says preference for Republicans on the economy is the central factor driving younger Latino men toward the GOP, a shift thats helping the party counter the Democratic drift among college-educated white women. Polls reinforce Bidens vulnerability on this front. In an ABC/Washington Post national survey this spring, Americans preferred Trump by an 18-percentage-point margin when asked whether he or Biden managed the economy better. Younger adults preferred Trump over Biden on that question 2-to-1. To Jim McLaughlin, a Trump pollster for 2024, those views largely explain how Trump is still standing after his multiple indictments. Its not hard to figure out why Donald Trump is as popular as he is: People actually thought he did a good job as president, McLaughlin told me. He offered an unusual analogy to explain the thought process he believes voters are employing to evaluate Trumps repeated indictments. He contends that Americans are responding much as they did when House Republicans impeached then-President Bill Clinton over his affair with an intern while the economy was booming in the late 1990s. You and I have seen this movie before, McLaughlin said, arguing that while most Americans may have disapproved of Clinton personally, they supported him during impeachment because they thought the trains were running on time. They thought he was doing a good job. The other big change weakening Democrats is that Biden is older now. In polls , as many as three-fourths of Americans have said they believe Biden is too old to serve effectively as president. (Far fewer Americans express that concern about Trump, though hes only three years younger than Biden.) Images of Biden walking stiffly, or clips of him intermittently mangling his sentences, which he was prone to do even when younger, leave many Democratic strategists in a perpetual state of anxiety, fearful that the president is one slip, physical or verbal, from political disaster. Other factors have also changed the landscape since Biden and Trump faced off. Bidens mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan dented one of his key strengths in 2020a reputation for foreign-policy expertise. (Since then, Bidens effective marshaling of Western support for Ukraine may have mended some of that damage.) Conversely, a shift that should advantage Democrats is that white voters without a college degree, the foundation of the modern GOP coalition, are continuing to shrink as a share of the electorate, while Generation Z, whose members have mostly backed Democrats, is rapidly growing. From the October 2023 issue: The final days Theres also a chance that new dynamics will break this equilibrium before November 2024. If Republicans nominate anyone other than Trump, that would create fresh opportunities and challenges for each side. A recession, though it seems less likely than it did earlier this year, could be devastating for Biden. And if a jury convicts Trump on any of the charges against him before the election, Democrats are cautiously optimistic that that could influence voters more than the indictments have. (McLaughlin counters that even with a conviction, independents might still prefer Trump, because many of them consider the charges politically motivated and also because hes viewed as better on the economy than Biden.) Yet many on both sides believe the most likely scenario is that the two parties remain mired in a form of trench warfare that leaves the White House within reach for either. A historically large number of states appear safely locked down for each party, leaving the result to be decided by a small group of swing states. That inner circle of the most competitive states would consist of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin; the wider group would add Michigan and Pennsylvania, which lean blue, and North Carolina, which tilts red. Democrats generally ran well in these swing states in 2022 (except North Carolina), generating optimism among most party strategists that despite all of Bidens difficulties, he retains the advantage over any Republican in reaching 270 Electoral College votes. But these few purple states are likely to be decided by small margins, creating an overall situation that many Democrats find unnervingly precarious given the magnitude of both Trumps vulnerabilities and the threat he has presented to American democracy. Amid these competing considerations, all signs suggest that Biden and Trump would begin a prospective rematch considerably diminished from their first encounter, like boxers reentering the ring long after their prime. In a second Biden-Trump bout, the result may turn less on which candidate is stronger than on whose weaknesses are unacceptable to more voters in the states that will decide the outcome.