How worried should Democrats be about Joe Biden’s lackluster polls against Donald Trump?

WASHINGTON – Talk to about any Democratic voter these days, and they’re already nervous about 2024.

At some point the conversation usually turns to this: How can Donald Trump – a twice-impeached, four-times indicted former president who tried to overturn the 2020 election and is campaigning on retribution – be tied, or even leading, Joe Biden in the 2024 election?

A slew of recent head-to-head polls in a hypothetical Biden-Trump rematch show the incumbent struggling against his Republican predecessor 13 months away from the presidential election in November 2024. Despite his well-documented legal troubles and increasingly violent rhetoric, Trump – for now – appears to be running away with the Republican nomination. And he’s running neck-and-neck with Biden.

Trump leads Biden by 1.1 percentage points nationally, 45.2%-44.1%, in Real Clear Politics’ average of polls. Just as concerning for Biden are polls showing voters remain concerned about his job performance, handling of the economy, his age and even whether he should run again.

What recent Biden-Trump polls say

  • The latest: A Morning Consult poll this week found Biden and Trump tied at 43% among general election voters. Trump leads Biden 45%-42%, according to a poll last week from The Messenger/HarrisX. An NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist University poll has Biden leading Trump 49%-47%.
  • The outlier: A highly scrutinized poll from the Washington Post/ABC, taken Sept. 15-20, found Trump leading Biden by 10 percentage points, 52%-42%, a margin so outside the range of other poll’s findings that it is widely being discredited as an outlier.
  • Remember: Republicans hold an advantage with the Electoral College – which, of course, elects the president rather than the popular vote – because Democratic votes are more concentrated in cities. That means even in national polls in which Biden leads Trump, the margin isn’t necessarily large enough for a Biden victory.
  • Recent history: Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by 1.9 percentage points in the popular vote but lost the Electoral College 304 to 227. Biden defeated Trump by 4.5 percentage points in the popular vote in his 306-232 victory in the Electoral College.

Time for Democrats to panic or close as expected?

Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster, downplayed cause for concern for Biden and Democrats, arguing the polls reflect what should have been clear already: the country is deeply polarized and the 2024 election will be close even with Trump as the Republican nominee.

“I have no idea why any Democrat, or anybody in the country, would think that any poll would be any different than life and reality,” Pollock said. “And life and reality right now is that we have an incredibly divided country that we know the election is going to be close no matter what.”

He said anyone who thought that Trump’s legal issues would mean an easy race for Biden and Democrats are “just living in fantasy land.”

But pollster Frank Luntz said Democrats are right to panic.

“On a 0 to 10 scale, it’s an 11,” Luntz said. “With Donald Trump indicted so many times and in such legal trouble, for Joe Biden to be only tied, and in some polls trailing, is a shock to the system and they should be thankful that polling exists.”

Luntz, who conducts regular focus groups with Republican primary voters, called Trump’s polling against Biden “a nuclear red light flashing,” arguing any other candidate with his same legal troubles would be out of the race.

“It says that voters are willing to forgive Trump for everything and it says voters are not willing to forgive Biden for anything,” Luntz said. “What they cannot change, and will be getting increasingly worse, is the issue of Joe Biden’s age.”

A deeper look at Biden and the polls

  • Age concerns: Polling shows voters remain concerned about reelecting an 80-year-old president who would be 86 at the end of a second term. They have fewer age concerns with the 77-year-old Trump. A Monmouth University poll released Monday found 76% of voters believe Biden is too old to effectively serve a second term, compared to 48% who said the same about Trump.
  • The economy: Biden has for months touted an economic rebound and his “Bidenomics” economic agenda. But a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll last month found 70% of Americans believe the economy is getting worse. More Americans said they trust Trump than Biden to improve the economy by a 47%-36% margin.
  • Non-white voters: Biden is lagging behind his 2020 performance with two Democratic strongholds: Black and Latino voters. Biden won more than 70% of non-white voters in 2020. But this week’s NPR/PBS News/Marist University poll has Biden with support from 53% of non-white voters. Biden won 92% of Black voters in 2020 but leads 66%-16% among Black voters in a Yahoo News/YouGov survey last month. He won 69% of Latino voters in 2020, but now leads Hispanic voters 46%-39%, the same poll found.
  • Enthusiasm struggles:Biden faces lagging enthusiasm with his base. A CNN poll last month found just 33% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think Biden should run for reelection, compared to 67% who believe he should not.
  • Independents: Biden is trailing independent voters, according to most polls. Trump leads Biden 50%-42% among independent voters in the recent Marist University Poll, and 38%-37% in the HarrisX poll. Biden carried independent voters by a 52%-43% margin against Trump in 2020, far outpacing Trump especially among independent voters in college-educated suburbs.

How the Biden campaign is confronting the polls

Biden, whose approval rating remains at around 40%, has started to zero in on Trump as the likely Republican nominee, telling supporters at a New York fundraiser in September that “it looks like he is destined to be the nominee again.”

Biden is campaigning on a domestic manufacturing boom under his presidency that Trump promised but never delivered, among other legislative achievementsIn a speech last week in Arizona, Biden worked to make democracy another centerpiece of his 2024 campaign, warning of “MAGA extremists” led by Trump who disregard the Constitution and democratic norms.

Biden campaign advisers say it is too early for an accurate snapshot of a hypothetical matchup against Trump, arguing the race will crystalize for votes as a clear contrast between the “chaos” of Trump versus Biden’s record of accomplishments as the election gets closer.

To counter the polls, the Biden campaign is pointing to a string of 2023 special elections – including off-year state legislative and mayoral races – in which Democrats outperformed Republicans by about 10 percentage points over historic trends.

“The best predictor of voting behavior is voting behavior,” one Biden campaign adviser said.

Biden allies also believe the fight over abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade will motivate voters in 2024. Abortion-rights advocates have won all seven statewide elections with abortion on the ballot since the court’s decision including in red states such as Kansas and Ohio.

The Biden campaign says it is confident about reassembling its winning 2020 coalition, especially with the polarizing Trump as another motivating factor for Democrats if he’s the Republican nominee.

Still, David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said Americans’ concerns about the economy and inflation could be a “deal breaker” and provide a path for Trump if the economy doesn’t improve. That reality, coupled with the fact that Biden’s approval rating remains in the low 40s, should be a “flashing red light” for Democrats, he said.

“It’s a neck-and-neck race right now,” Paleologos said. “And it speaks to President Biden’s weakness right now in terms of the confidence of people in his leadership.”

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