The political world was sent atwitter when the New York Times and Siena College released a series of polls from key swing states showing former President Donald Trump with a comfortable lead over President Joe Biden. The widely regarded poll confirmed what many others have shown so far this cycle — not only can Trump beat Biden, but at this point, and it is still early, he has to be counted as having at least even odds of victory.
Leading Democrats found themselves in a panic. David Axelrod, the operative who can be regarded as point man for former President Barack Obama, strongly implied Biden should rethink his reelection campaign. “Only [Biden] can make this decision,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “If he continues to run, he will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. What he needs to decide is whether that is wise; whether it’s in HIS best interest or the country’s?” Donna Brazile was more sanguine about Biden’s prospects but still dubbed the numbers a “wake-up call.” Democratic strategists described the situation to NBC News as a “five-alarm fire.”
Biden was in 2020 thought to be a winner, the Democrat best positioned to beat Trump. Any alternative, then as now, was bound to be to Biden’s left. Now Biden’s electoral viability, his particular acumen for defeating Trump, and even his centrism are all in question to varying degrees.
Some of this Democratic furor undoubtedly eased after the party won elections on Nov. 9 in Kentucky and Virginia while prevailing on an abortion ballot initiative, among other victories. But Biden’s electoral shortcomings are not a new phenomenon.
The polling evidence is pretty overwhelming by now. The RealClearPolitics average of polls has Trump with a 1.4-point lead over Biden in a national head-to-head contest. The two have traded a lead in those polls all cycle. This itself is extraordinary. In the 2019-20 campaign, RealClearPolitics had Trump in the lead in just four polls during the entire cycle. Trump polled a little better against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, but he never led in the RealClearPolitics average for more than a few days. This time around, he has led Biden for most of this year.
It is important to note that these are national polls. If the last two elections are any indication, Trump will probably do better in the all-important state contests than the nationwide popular vote. In 2020, he lost the nationwide popular vote by 7 million, but a shift of approximately 20,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin would have won him the presidency through the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote decisively in 2016, too, but won a fairly comfortable Electoral College victory. Democrats have built massive vote sinks in deep blue states such as California and New York, where the party wins overwhelmingly, but those extra votes do not buy extra Electoral College votes.
How could this possibly be, pundits were asking themselves earlier this month. Trump is supposedly beyond the pale, but here he is with a lead! The reality is that Biden is and has been a deeply unpopular president. RealClearPolitics has his job approval at just 41%, with his disapproval at 56%. He’s been “underwater” in his approval (more disapprovers than approvers) since the summer of 2021, shortly after he scuttled out of Afghanistan, which then instantly fell to the Taliban. The polling average also finds his approval on specific policies lower than his overall approval, including the economy (38%), foreign policy (38%), inflation (34%), and crime (36%). His job approval is slightly better on handling Ukraine, but not much (42%). And like his overall job approval, he has been deeply unpopular on all these for some time.
It is also worth noting that voters do not think much of Biden personally. His favorable rating is just 40% in the same polling average, slightly lower than his overall job approval. This is unlike Obama’s time in office. For much of his tenure, a majority of people disapproved of the job Obama was doing, sometimes by a large margin. But his favorable ratings were always relatively strong. People liked Obama. Biden? Not so much.
A CNN/SSRS poll from late October demonstrates just how low an opinion voters have of Biden as a person. A majority disagrees that Biden “cares about people like you” (55%), “is honest and trustworthy” (58%), “will unite the country” (60%), and “has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president” (74%). Part of this is probably due to his low job approval — persistent inflation gives the impression that Biden does not care about average people. But his terrible numbers on “honest and trustworthy” probably indicate the damage done to his reputation by his family’s shady international business dealings. As for the “stamina and sharpness” question, voters have eyes and ears. They see him every day. They can tell he is not what he once was. He is tottering.
When a national Democrat’s job approval drops much below 45%, it means he or she is hemorrhaging supporters from the party itself, not just among swing voters. Sure enough, poll after poll shows Biden with weaknesses among his core constituencies. Trump does relatively well, for a Republican, among young voters and nonwhite voters, both of whom tend to be strong Democratic constituencies. Those voters will likely return to Biden come Election Day next year. But that does not mean Biden’s problem with them goes away. If the president’s overall job approval remains mired under 45%, the bigger concern for Democrats might be generating the kind of turnout he will need from these groups. His problems are not just with a handful of constituencies within the party. Polls find that an overwhelming majority of Democrats would rather Biden not run for reelection, even those who approve of him.
Biden was widely seen in 2020 as a transitional figure who would eventually give way to a younger, more progressive generation. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he said at a 2020 rally with future Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) alongside him. Now some Democrats appear eager to speed up the transition.
Why is the president’s standing so weak? One could make the case that some things are moving in the right direction. The unemployment rate remains near historic lows, inflation is down even though not defeated, and the Commerce Department reported a robust increase in economic growth last quarter. The long-expected recession has not come — most Wall Street economists, as well as the Federal Reserve, are predicting the “soft landing” from inflation. The president and his team have tried to label this ostensible comeback the result of “Bidenomics.”
But dig a little deeper into the numbers, and one can see why people remain frustrated. The inflation rate is not like the unemployment rate. When the unemployment rate decreases, that means a smaller percentage of workers are without jobs. When the inflation rate decreases, it does not mean prices have fallen, only that their rate of increase has slowed. Prices for goods and services are still rising, just not as quickly as they were a year ago. It must be remembered that the lower increases are coming off the backs of large jumps in prices, so it makes sense that consumers would still be reeling. Moreover, the sharp increase in interest rates has made it harder to get the credit needed to buy a car or a home — little wonder why young voters, those looking to start out in life, are so unhappy with Biden.
A good metric to understand why the average voter is feeling bad about the economy is a measure known as real disposable income per capita. A statistic put together by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, this tracks the inflation-adjusted money that the average person has available to spend after taxes. In February 2021, Biden’s first full month in office, it was $50,020. Last month, it was $49,904. Long periods of decline and stagnation with this metric are rare. The last time this number was so flat for so long was during the 2008-09 financial crisis, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. When respondents tell pollsters they feel they’re treading water, they are not exaggerating.
As for the rest of the issues of the day, one does not have to do any digging at all. The southern border is a mess. Crime in the cities is rampant. Both sides hate each other more and more. Biden promised to save the soul of the nation, but under his administration, the actual life of the nation has gotten worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year that life expectancy is down to its lowest point in 25 years. No president is wholly responsible for that, but it is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the country. And Biden is not making it better.
The next general election is in a year, which leaves a lot of time for intervening events to change voters’ trajectory. Democrats generally did well in the 2023 off-year elections. Still, the last president who went into a general election year with this depth and length of political weakness was Trump. Therein lies Biden’s advantage. Assuming the state of the union does not improve, that might be his only advantage.
Trump remains deeply unpopular, but the voters who decide presidential elections are, at their core, pragmatic. A Trump-Biden rematch is a battle in essence between two incumbents, with two track records to compare. Trump’s behavior in office was boorish, and he turned politics into a circus. But inflation was low, the border was secure, and crime did not seem to be something that local authorities were actively encouraging.
Yet the polls assume Trump’s political weaknesses will not worsen. If they do, the election could be quite different. Those New York Times-Siena College polls that augured so much doom for the Democrats had a bright spot for them, too. Respondents were asked to reconsider their vote choices if Trump were to be convicted of the many indictments for which he will stand trial. In that case, what looked like an Electoral College rout for Trump turns into a repeat of 2020 — Biden wins all the key swing states. Of course, that is a hypothetical ballot question. If Trump is actually convicted, he will argue vigorously that he’s been set up, and polls do indeed suggest that voters are dubious of these charges.
Regardless, voters do not want either Biden or Trump to run in 2024. They are desperate for a change. Even Trump’s large lead in national Republican primary polls is not all that impressive when he is conceived of as a de facto incumbent. And in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states where Republican voters are actively engaged, he is under 50% support on average.
Perhaps that points to the greatest wild card for 2024. There is a demand for an alternative to Trump and Biden. When given a three-way ballot test between Trump, Biden, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a significant minority selected Kennedy. Will the market provide such a candidate? Serious third-party challenges are rare but not unheard of. Ross Perot, a gadfly billionaire with no political experience, won an astonishing 19% of the vote in 1992, a year when the country was unhappy with Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. The main impediment to a third-party challenge is that the political market is not truly free. Republicans and Democrats, acting through state governments, control ballot access. And with the two parties set to nominate historically weak candidates, they have an incentive to make sure it is hard to get on the ballot.
All in all, the 2024 election remains remarkably unclear. A year ago, Democrats were confident that Biden could defeat Trump. But now, if one had to bet the farm, the safer choice is probably Trump, although it is a close call either way. Voters are deeply, profoundly unhappy, even angry. They are looking to take out their wrath on one side or the other. In circumstances like that, it is usually the safer bet not to be the incumbent.
Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting scholar at Grove City College.