Why polls can’t tell you if Biden beats Trump again

President Biden has had a tough couple of weeks in polls, deepening the anxiety among his fellow Democrats about his age, political liabilities and the prospect that he could lose a rematch with former President Trump.

Biden’s allies pooh-pooh the grim talk. Presidents Clinton and Obama both had miserable polls in the fall of their third years and bounced back to win reelection, they note. Polls a year out from an election have little if any ability to predict the outcome, they add.

On both counts, they’re right — up to a point.

Obama’s standing at this point in his tenure wasn’t very different from Biden’s today and caused a level of Democratic anxiety that, in hindsight, sounds very familiar. Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, went so far as to commission a poll to see if Obama would do better if he dumped his vice president, Biden, and replaced him with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a sure-fire winner, some believed back then.

History never entirely repeats itself, however. Biden faces problems his predecessors did not. His age is one. Societywide trauma lingering from the COVID-19 pandemic is another.

Whether Biden can overcome those problems isn’t knowable. But we can know how his campaign intends to try. The strategy is already visible in his campaign speeches. It has a lot to do with getting voters to focus on Trump.

The election landscape one year out

The last two presidential elections were close: In 2016, Trump won an electoral college majority by carrying three key states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — by just under 80,000 votes. In 2020, Biden won his three closest states — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin— by 44,000.

Maybe 2024 will be different, but it’s a safer bet to assume next year will be close, as well. Those same five states, plus Nevada, will be the main arenas for competition.

It’s also a safe bet that few people who voted for Trump or Biden in 2020 will change their minds. Out of 158 million who voted, some will switch sides, but switching is rare. What’s far more likely to decide the election is who turns out and who stays home.

That’s where Biden’s vulnerability lies. Recent polls have shown a consistent pattern of Democratic groups souring on Biden’s presidency. That includes younger voters, Latino voters and younger Black voters, especially younger Black men.

Discontent on the left over Biden’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas has also created weakness among progressive voters.

Our most recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies/Los Angeles Times poll of California voters illustrated that pattern, which also shows up in polls of swing states: 1 in 4 voters who said they cast ballots for Biden in 2020 now give him a negative job approval rating, the poll found. Latino voters, who were evenly split on Biden’s job performance in a previous poll in May, now disapprove of his work by 14 points, 55% to 41%.

That doesn’t mean that young voters or voters of color are ready to turn to Trump. The Berkeley IGS poll showed no sign of an increase in Trump support. It does mean that some significant share of those voters could decide to sit the election out.

Biden’s goal

A reelection campaign has three main goals: Boost the incumbent’s approval rating; get voters to focus on the challenger’s flaws; and win over some share of the voters who express mild disapproval.

The classic example of achieving the first goal was President Reagan’s “Morning in America” reelection campaign. In January 1983, Reagan’s approval stood at 35% in Gallup’s polling. By election day 1984, it had risen to 61%.

But Reagan’s campaign had a strong breeze to fly on — the economy began growing quickly at the start of 1982, coming out of a sharp recession. More than a year of growth with low inflation had already occurred before the campaign began.

Biden’s White House has tried to point to good economic news: Administration officials have spent the last year going across the country to tout historic lows in unemployment, new investments in roads, bridges, rail lines and other infrastructure and efforts to boost renewable energy, all under the label of Bidenomics.

But real wages for most Americans have only recently started to rise, memories of the high inflation of 2022 remain fresh, and the Bidenomics campaign hasn’t accomplished much. A poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University found that just 37% of voters approved of Biden’s handling of the economy; 59% disapproved.

If inflation continues to moderate and growth persists, the economy could look better to voters next year. But Biden faces an additional force pulling down his approval, polling analyst Natalie Jackson argues.

“There’s a big reason that the relationships between Americans’ economic attitudes, macroeconomic conditions, and political outcomes don’t look like they used to: It’s the pandemic, stupid,” Jackson wrote this week. Americans have tried to put the pandemic behind us, and discussion of it has largely fallen out of public discourse, but we remain “a society traumatized” by the vast social upheaval it caused, she wrote.

The impact can be seen in higher stress levels that Americans report, greater levels of negativity and lower levels of trust. It would be unusual if those factors weren’t also having an effect on politics.

A choice, not a referendum

But low levels of approval might not turn into votes against the incumbent. Voters who intensely dislike Biden almost surely will vote against him, but a crucial share of disapproval isn’t that strong. In Quinnipiac’s poll, for example, about 1 in 8 independent voters said they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden’s job performance.

In the 2022 midterm elections, roughly 10% of voters said they “somewhat disapproved” of Biden’s work, and Democrats narrowly won a majority of their votes, according to network exit polls. Winning that group in a midterm was unusual, but doing so again may be necessary for Biden.

That will require getting voters to focus on the opponent, much as Obama succeeded in getting voters in 2012 to focus on the downsides of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

Trump, of course, has huge negatives available to exploit — and that’s even before the criminal trials that probably will dominate much of the election year.

At a Veterans Day campaign event in New Hampshire, the former president held forth for an hour and 45 minutes, referring to his opponents as “vermin” whom he vowed to “root out,” calling himself a “proud election denier” and promising to “begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if reelected. Notably, although much of what Trump said was ad libbed, those lines each appeared to be part of the prepared remarks he read off a TelePrompter.

Biden focused on those comments during a campaign speech he gave Tuesday at a fundraiser in San Francisco.

“Our very democracy is at stake because the same man who proclaimed himself to be a ‘proud election denier’ … is running on a platform to end democracy as we know it, and he’s not even hiding the ball,” Biden said. Trump’s remark about vermin, he added, “echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s.”

Throughout Trump’s political career, he’s done best when news coverage focused on his opponent, as it did on Clinton during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. He loves the spotlight, but tends to repel voters when he’s in it. For Biden, keeping the attention focused on Trump may provide a fruitful path toward recovery. Whether that will work is not something a poll taken today can predict.

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The Biden-Xi summit

Biden and Xi, meeting in Silicon Valley, promise to work to avoid U.S.-China conflict

Breaking a yearlong silence between them, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met Wednesday in Silicon Valley and vowed to reduce tensions in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Among other things, they agreed to resume military communications and impede the flow of deadly fentanyl from China, Courtney Subramanian, Tracy Wilkinson, Laurel Rosenhall and Kevin Rector reported.

In San Francisco, Asian Americans have mixed feelings about Biden meeting with Chinese President Xi

Along the lantern-lined streets of Chinatown, lion dancers, food vendors and thousands of people celebrated Asian culture ahead of the arrival of world leaders in San Francisco. A large red-and-yellow banner displayed a warm greeting: “Welcome Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders.” But earlier that Friday, student activists dropped a banner on the nearby conference center with a different message: “Dictator Xi Jinping, Your Time Is Up! Free Tibet!” Queenie Wong reported.

The latest from the campaign trail

Florida Democrats’ lesson for California: Don’t take anyone’s support for granted

Florida has Democrats worried. Though the state’s Cuban Americans have historically been more conservative than Latinos in the rest of the nation, Florida used to be a swing state, with Democrats counting on support from these voters to compete here. Then Trump won the state twice, and Gov. Ron DeSantis dominated in his 2022 reelection bid, getting 62% of the Latino vote in Miami-Dade County and becoming the first Republican to win the area in 20 years. The 2022 results worried Democratic strategists. If their support could fall off so dramatically here, could it happen in Arizona, Nevada, or even parts of California? Seema Mehta and Faith Pinho reported.

The latest from court

Former Fox News staffer says he was fired for challenging Jan. 6 and election fraud reporting

Fox News is facing another lawsuit related to its reporting during the aftermath of the 2020 election. Jason Donner, a former reporter and producer in the network’s Washington bureau, has filed a wrongful termination suit, claiming he was fired in retaliation for calling out misinformation, Stephen Battaglio reported.

The latest from Washington

News Analysis: Mike Johnson just did the same thing that cost Kevin McCarthy his job

On Tuesday afternoon, Speaker Mike Johnson became the latest GOP House leader to require Democratic help to keep Washington running. In a 336-95 vote, the House approved legislation that will delay a government shutdown until next year. Democrats provided more than half of the votes for the plan, which just 127 Republicans supported, Erin Logan reported.

Kevin McCarthy foe accuses former speaker of ‘sucker punch’ elbow in Capitol hallway

Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett accused former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), whom he helped oust from the post last month, of elbowing him in a Capitol Hill hallway on Tuesday. “You just don’t expect a guy who was at one time three steps away from the White House to hit you with a sucker punch in the hallway,” Burchett said later, Logan reported.

Supreme Court’s ‘not new’ ethics code largely codifies existing judiciary rules

The Supreme Court issued a code of conduct for itself for the first time, but it acknowledged the rules are “not new” and simply restate the principles it says its justices have long followed. The announcement said the justices hoped the code would “dispel this misunderstanding” that they “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.” But this modest effort is unlikely to end the controversy created by Justice Clarence Thomas and his free luxury vacations, paid for by Texas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow, David Savage reported.

The latest from California

‘Show up’ and campaign in Spanish: Rural Latino voters feel ignored by Senate candidates

Many Latino voters in rural California believe politicians overlook them. Francisco Rios has always voted since becoming a citizen in 1998. He had heard Sen. Dianne Feinstein died, but had no idea who was running for her former seat even though one of the candidates, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, had just swung through town, Benjamin Oreskes reported. Candidates need to show up, campaign in Spanish and hone a message that focuses on opportunity for people who came to this country seeking a better life, Rios and others said.

Why Hollywood political donations are due to spike

Hollywood political donations, sharply stymied by this year’s drawn-out entertainment industry strikes, are expected to surge now that the Screen Actors Guild has reached a tentative deal with the studios, Mehta and Julia Wick reported.

California’s population of unauthorized immigrants has dropped, report says

The California population of immigrants lacking lawful status decreased by 150,000 between 2017 and 2021, but the state continues to have the highest number — 1.9 million — of unauthorized residents among the states, Andrea Castillo reported.

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