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James Pierson Opinion: What’s Behind Biden’s Sliding Poll Numbers?

President Biden’s sliding poll numbers have set off alarm signals among Democrats who are beginning to see that he might lose the 2024 election to Donald Trump. Those polls have also gotten the attention of pundits who have confidently said for three years now that Trump could never again win a national election. The polling results published over the past few months suggest otherwise: Trump is currently the favorite to win next year’s election.

The most recent RealClearPolitics Average has Trump leading Biden by 2.6 percentage points, a switch of about four points since late summer when Biden led 45%-43%, and in a long-running decline of seven points for Biden since he won the 2020 election with 51% percent of the popular vote.

More ominously for Biden, a recent Bloomberg poll showed Trump well ahead (by an average of five points) in the seven swing states of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It appears the most significant factor in recent months is a surge in support for Trump (from 43% to just above 47%), while Biden has essentially remained stuck in neutral.

Joe Biden is an unpopular president, almost as unpopular as any president in the post-war era. According to the RCP Average, just 40% of voters approve of his handling of the job. His ratings have been falling for more than two years since the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Not coincidentally, voters also take a dim view of where the country is heading, with 68% percent saying it is headed in the wrong direction and just 25% in the right direction.

The president’s ratings have gotten steadily worse over the course of this year. More than 60% of voters say Biden “has moved too far to the left” on policies important to them. Voters are also pessimistic about the economy: 47% say things are getting worse while just 22% say they are getting better, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll. These are alarming numbers for an incumbent seeking reelection.

Biden is also underwater on nearly every major issue. According to an early December Wall Street Journal poll, Trump is favored over Biden on the three issues voters say are most important to them: the economy (52%-35%), inflation (51%-30%), and securing the border (54%-24%). Voters also favor Trump over Biden on crime, the Russia/Ukraine war, and even the war between Israel and Hamas. These latter two ratings, on Ukraine and Israel, undoubtedly surprised Biden and his supporters, who assumed that voters would endorse his policies in regard to these conflicts. By contrast, voters favor Biden on just two issues: abortion (44%-33%) and Social Security/Medicare (44%-38%).

Voters in these surveys also question Biden’s fitness to hold office, especially as they look ahead to the prospect of another four-year term. According to a new Harris/Harvard poll, 62% of voters doubt that he is fit to carry out the duties of the presidency, and another 48% think his presidency is getting worse year by year and month by month. Whatever their views on the issues, voters appear to think that Biden is increasingly incapable of addressing them.

Biden is losing support among Hispanics voters, a key constituent group of the Democratic Party. Hispanics have been trending away from Democrats and toward Trump over recent election cycles. Hillary Clinton carried Hispanic voters by 37 points in 2016, but Biden carried them by just 21 points in the 2020 election and lags well behind that margin this year. According to recent polls conducted by Economist/YouGov, Biden led Trump among Hispanic voters by 18 points in August, by eight points in September, by four in October, and by just two points (41%-39%) in December. These voters express strong disapproval of Biden’s performance in office, and even disapprove (51%-33 %) of his policies on immigration. Since Hispanics represent about 15% of all U.S. voters, their move away from Biden and toward Trump accounts in part for Biden’s recent slide in the polls.

Another key constituency turning away from the incumbent president is independent voters. Biden carried independents by nine points in 2020. They were a crucial part of his coalition in the swing states he carried narrowly last time, and an important ingredient in his popular vote majority since independents represent one-third of all voters. As with Hispanic voters, he lags far behind that margin in this year’s surveys. A recent Economist/YouGov poll taken in December gave Trump a six-point margin over Biden (38%-32%), with many of those voters still undecided. Still, this represents a 20-point slide for Biden among independents since the 2020 election.

Biden also faces an “enthusiasm gap” among some previously loyal groups who turned out to support him in 2020 due to their dislike for Donald Trump but are disappointed thus far with his performance in office. This is true, in particular, with young voters and, surprisingly, with African American voters as well.

Some suspect that voters under age 30 who are abandoning the president are disillusioned by his support for Israel in its war with Hamas, his failure to cancel student loans, and an insufficiently aggressive posture in regard to climate change. Biden won those voters in 2020 by a margin of 60% to 36%, but due mostly to their dislike for Donald Trump. Much of that antipathy remains. Recent polls continue to give Biden a lead over Trump among these voters: A Yahoo poll in December gave Biden a 55%-27% lead over Trump, while a more recent Emerson College poll reported a smaller margin: 45%-40%. At the same time, just 35% of those voters approve of his performance in office, according to a poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, a measure of their lack of enthusiasm for his reelection campaign.

To the extent young voters disagree with Biden, they do so for progressive reasons – and are unlikely to vote for Trump. But they could stay home, which would be a blow to the Democrats. According to the same poll, fewer than 50% of young voters say they will “definitely” turn out to vote next year, compared to 57% at this point in the 2020 election cycle. In addition, roughly 10% of these voters say they would vote for Robert Kennedy in a multi-candidate race, which further narrows Biden’s lead over Trump in this group.

Biden seems to be in unlikely trouble among black voters. They are by far the most loyal of all Democratic Party voting groups: Biden carried these voters overwhelmingly in 2020 (92%-8%), which also helped him in the swing states. Trump may never win a significant share of this vote, but a doubling of his 2020 total now seems within the realm of possibility. A recent Economist/YouGov poll has Trump with support from 12% of these voters, with many still on the fence.

Perhaps more ominously for Democrats, a growing share of blacks say they will not vote in a contest between Biden and Trump. In a series of Economist/YouGov polls, the percentage of black adults saying they would not vote at all increased from 7% in August to 11% in December. This, despite Biden going a considerable distance to appeal to those voters by appointing African Americans to prominent positions in his administration and taking their side in controversies over civil rights, crime, and government spending. Biden’s challenge among the black community, then, as with young voters, is in regard to enthusiasm and turnout, and not so much with the direct match-up with Trump.

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Biden’s strategy for the 2024 campaign becomes clearer in view of his sagging poll numbers. Instead of running on his record, which will be difficult to do in view of his overall ratings, he will emphasize Trump’s defects and the dangers a Trump presidency will pose to the constitutional order.

“We may have problems,” his allies are already saying, “but the other guy is far worse.” The various legal prosecutions underway will be woven into this strategy as a means of appealing to independents and those “on the fence.”

A conviction of Trump in a court of law would aid immensely in this strategy. In addition, Democrats will redouble their efforts to mobilize minority voters and young voters, while sharpening their appeal to Hispanics. Democrats will also ride the abortion issue, which worked for them in 2022, and is one of the few issues that cuts in their favor. Democrats understand that a victory for Trump in the presidential race will also mean that Republicans will take control of the Senate while expanding their margins in the House of Representatives – and thereby enable Trump to carry out his threatening agenda.

Trump, on the other hand, if he can side-step the legal challenges, has his own cards to play in the campaign. For one thing, voters know him, and there is nothing new that Democrats can say about him that they have not already said, ad nauseam, for several years.

Voters can also compare the Trump and Biden presidencies – and Biden does not come off well in that comparison. According to a Wall Street Journal poll taken last month, 50% of voters say Trump’s policies helped them, while just 23% said the same about Biden’s policies; indeed, 53% of voters said that Biden’s policies had hurt them in some way. This allows Trump to ask the question Ronald Reagan posed to voters in 1980 during his campaign against Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Many voters will say “no.”

More importantly, Trump does not have to win the popular vote in order to win the election in the Electoral College. The election will be decided in a series of separate races in seven or eight swing states where Trump may have an advantage. If he wins even half of them he is likely to win the election. The national popular vote, measured by these polls, will be somewhat beside the point in determining the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

Democrats will register large margins of 7 or 8 million votes in the populous states of California, New York, and Illinois, as they did in 2016 and 2020, while Republicans will carry their own large states (Texas and Florida) by less than one million votes – giving Democrats a substantial edge in the popular vote that will not translate directly into electoral votes. Any vote beyond 50% in a state is of no use in the Electoral College – and Democrats tend to “waste” more votes than Republicans.

Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton in 2016 by two percentage points, but still won a safe majority in the Electoral College by carrying nearly every swing state. Biden won the popular vote in 2020 by more than four points (51.3%-46.8%), but carried the critical swing states by narrow margins, in the cases of Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, by less than one percentage point. A swing of less than 1% from Biden to Trump in those three states would have given Trump a tie in the Electoral College, so that the election would have been decided in the House of Representatives. In addition, reapportionment following the last census will allocate three additional electoral votes to the states Trump won in 2020 – two more to Texas and one to Florida – and three fewer to the states Biden won. This will make Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes slightly easier to navigate. (Pollsters would do well next year to survey the swing states and mostly ignore the national vote.)

It appears, then, that Biden must win the popular vote by at least three points, and perhaps by as many as four, in view of what happened last time in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, to be assured of winning a majority in the Electoral College. Current polls have Biden running two points behind Trump in the popular vote, but at the same time show that he is behind by at least five points in the swing states. These polls, along with results of past elections, suggest that there is a gap of at least three points (and maybe four) between the national popular vote and the outcomes in those swing states.

Some have said that Trump has a ceiling of 46% or 47% of the popular vote, and has no chance of reaching 50%, which they say he will need to win the election. This is not so: Trump can win the election with 47% percent of the popular vote if he can keep Biden below 50%, perhaps with the assistance of third-party or independent candidates. If Trump stays close to Biden in the popular vote, which current polls suggest he can do, then he is likely to win the game in the Electoral College.

Trump is fully aware of this (many are not), and will campaign accordingly. He is also aware that Biden will not be able to campaign from his home as he did in 2020, lest voters conclude that he is not up to the job; but the attempt to run a vigorous campaign may further expose that weakness. Nor can he allow his vice president to lead the campaign because she is more unpopular and prone to gaffes than he is.

Trump’s rise in the polls sets the stage for an unusual campaign ahead. Democrats may conclude, in view of Biden’s weakness across the board, that a traditional campaign focusing on issues and turnout may not succeed this time around – and that their hopes will rest upon winning the legal campaign against Trump.

This may explain recent moves by the special prosecutor to expedite the case against Trump in order to win a verdict prior to the election. The reversal of fortunes between Biden and Trump also accounts for the revival of charges that Trump, if elected, will prove to be a “dictator,” and so should be disqualified from the ballot. Those cases, and perhaps the election itself, will be decided this year by the Supreme Court.

For these reasons, and others likely to develop, this is bound to be an ugly and unsettling campaign – and one in which the traditional rules of national politics will be cast to the winds.

James Piereson is a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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