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Thursday, June 1, 2023

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An early look at Biden’s 2024 prospects

With Donald J. Trump indicted, Ron DeSantis faltering in the polls, and Democrats still reeling from their strong midterms, some may see President Biden’s re-election as almost certain things.

But with Biden announcing his re-election bid on Tuesday, it’s worth noting how the vote turns out in early 2024: The race looks close.

Almost every recent survey points to a tight presidential race. So far this year, Biden leads Trump by an average of 1.4 percentage points. Mr. DeSantis even leads Mr. Biden by less than a point.

Now, to be clear: I don’t think you should be spending a lot of money on general election polls just yet. But at this early stage, no one should have great confidence in the outcome of the general election. If there is any case of early confidence, it should be reflected in early polls. If Mr. Trump is doomed, why hasn’t he been defeated in the polls?

At least, Mr. Biden appears to have done his job. His job approval and favorability ratings remain stuck in the low 40s. That makes him much weaker than in 2020, when polls showed voters generally favoring him. Or to put it another way: while the 2020 election is being decided by voters who like Mr. Biden and not Mr. Trump, it looks today that the 2024 election may be decided by voters who don’t like either candidate.

Why is Mr. Biden doing so badly? The reasons for his sluggish ratings have been debated since ratings plummeted in August 2021. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus, a stalled legislative agenda and the onset of inflation have all been cited as possible theories. Today, all those explanations seem to be receding — the pro-Ukraine-versus-Russia storyline has taken over Afghanistan; welcome.

At this stage, three basic possibilities remain. One is that the overall political environment remains unfavorable, presumably because of persistent inflation and partisan polarization. If so, any president will have low approval ratings in these woes and will struggle until voters feel their economic situation is improving.

Another possibility is that Biden’s early missteps have done unusual and lasting damage to perceptions of his leadership, possibly related to his age (80). If true, he may not easily restore the country’s confidence as long as he doesn’t look like the character.

A final possibility is that the conditions for a rebound in Mr Biden’s approval ratings may already be in place. It’s not the first time: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and even Mr. Trump (before coronavirus) saw their approval ratings fall from lows in the mid-40s in the two years leading up to re-election has risen. In that case, Mr. Biden’s approval ratings would improve as a significant segment of the electorate would oppose alternatives rather than judge him in isolation. His re-election campaign would provide a stronger and more dynamic justification for his performance, perhaps against a backdrop of low unemployment and fading inflation.

Historically, the third possibility seems more likely. Mr. Biden’s age should not be discounted as a legitimate factor, but he won regardless of age last time, and incumbent presidents usually get re-elected. The large number of voters who dislike Mr. Trump and once liked Mr. Biden creates upside. Of course, the direction of the economy will be a key variable, but at least for now, low unemployment and slowly fading inflation appear to provide Mr Biden with enough ammunition to make his case. Still, his approval ratings today are so low that they could improve significantly without ensuring his reelection.

As Mr. Biden tries to shake up the coalition that will carry him to the White House in 2020, three constituencies appear to be increasingly important: young voters, nonwhite voters and perhaps low-income voters. In recent surveys, Mr. Biden has performed poorly among those groups. Overall, he’s likely to trail by at least 10 points among those groups in 2020, which helps explain why early general election polls show a close contest.

Mr. Biden has shown weakness in all of these groups many times before, so it’s no surprise that he’s struggling again with support in the low 40s. Still, they made clear the challenges ahead of his campaign: his age, his financial situation and his inability to win over voters on issues like abortion or democratic principles. In Tuesday’s announcement video, Biden focused almost exclusively on rights, liberty, democracy and abortion. He probably needs a way to talk to people who care more about materialistic, economical things than abstract liberal values.

The final wild card is the Electoral College. Even if Mr. Biden does narrowly win the national vote, Mr. Trump could, as he did in 2016, assemble a winning coalition in the battleground states for the presidency.

In 2020, Biden won the national vote by 4.4 points, but narrowly won Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin by less than 1 point. To win, he needs one of three.

Right now, the Electoral College may not be as supportive of Mr. Trump relative to the national vote as it was in 2020. In the midterm elections, the gap between the popular vote in the U.S. House of Representatives and the hypothetical Electoral College based on House votes largely evaporated, down from nearly 4 percentage points in 2020. That may simply be the result of unusually poor box office results for Republican candidates in many of the most contested states, but there are legitimate reasons it may also reflect underlying electoral trends.

For example, the renewed importance of abortion may help Democrats most in relatively white, secular areas, which tends to help them more in the northern battlegrounds than elsewhere. “Democracy” may also work well on the battlefield, since it is in these states that the Stop Theft movement is threatening to overturn the results of the last election. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s relative weakness among nonwhite voters, which are disproportionately concentrated in noncontested states, could hurt him more in states like California or Illinois than Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. votes.

Given the idiosyncratic and partial nature of last year’s midterm results, it would be wrong to believe that the Republican Electoral College advantage is coming to an end. If that advantage persists, Biden’s slim lead in national polls today won’t be enough to secure his re-election.

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