Biden’s the favorite for reelection despite bad polls. How come?
Sometime soon, perhaps as early as next week, President Biden will officially announce what’s been clear for months: He’s running for reelection.
Only slightly more than 4 in 10 Americans approve of the job he’s doing — a number that basically hasn’t changed since early September — yet there’s strong reason to think he’s currently favored to win a second term.
That might seem like a contradiction: How can he be the favorite when a majority of the public thinks he’s not doing a good job? The answers tell us a couple of important things about American politics today.
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‘Judge me against the alternative’
Biden and his tight team of top advisors, most of whom he’s relied on for years — Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti — have repeatedly pushed back the timing for a formal campaign announcement, content to allow the unflattering media spotlight to focus on former President Trump and the divisions within the Republican Party.
The president, however, has left no doubt about his intentions, telling Al Roker of NBC News at a recent White House event that “I plan on running,” although “we’re not prepared to announce it yet.” He followed that up by telling reporters on his recent trip to Ireland that he planned to make the announcement, “relatively soon.”
Tuesday would mark the fourth anniversary of Biden announcing his 2020 campaign. That’s generated speculation that the formal declaration could come then.
Whatever the precise timing, some key steps already have been taken, including the decision to hold the party’s August 2024 convention in Chicago and the rejiggering of the Democratic primary calendar to deemphasize Iowa and New Hampshire, where Biden has never done well, and put more stress on South Carolina, which catapulted him to the nomination last time.
That primary calendar would favor Biden if he had a serious opponent for the nomination. He doesn’t.
That’s one reason Biden remains the favorite: Presidents who have lost reelection bids mostly faced serious nomination challenge. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and, decades earlier, William Howard Taft, all fit that category.
Trump, of course, did not have a nomination challenge. Like President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, he lost during an extraordinary national trauma that many voters thought he worsened.
Biden has neither liability. Republicans hope voters will blame him for the inflation that has coursed through the economy in the last year, but that appears now to be abating. The White House can reasonably hope that by 2024, voters will feel more positive about the economy than they do today.
Instead of having to fight an internal challenge, Biden has had the luxury of being able to build his public schedule around themes he clearly hopes to campaign on — 12.6 million new jobs created since he took office (a record, at least in raw numbers), the lowest unemployment level in half a century, a large share of new jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree, investments in upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and rebuilding America’s alliances, especially the coalition backing Ukraine in its war with Russia.
So far, however, a crucial swath of the public seems unconvinced.
In addition to relatively low levels of job approval, a recent CNN poll found just one-third of Americans said Biden deserved reelection. Large shares of Democrats and independents said he did not.
State-by-state polling by Morning Consult has found Biden’s net approval rating in negative territory in 40 states, including most of the battlegrounds he would need to win to get a second term.
Almost half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 45%, said the party would have a better chance of winning the White House in 2024 with someone other than Biden as the nominee, according to an NPR/Marist poll taken in February.
A similar share of Democrats, 44%, said in a recent Monmouth University poll that they would like Biden to step aside and allow someone else to run, although there was no agreement on an alternative candidate. Just 25% said they wanted Biden to run again, and 30% said they had no preference.
With such unfavorable numbers, why are Biden and his team seemingly in so little hurry to get a campaign up and running?
To start, Biden’s overall job approval rating, 43%, is not out of line with other presidents who won a second term. At this point in their first terms, Presidents Obama and Clinton each had 45% approval, President Reagan stood at 41%.
Each of those three saw their job approval numbers rise as the election drew closer — likely proof that voters agree with the sentiment of one of Biden’s signature lines: “Don’t judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the alternative.”
Ultimately, that’s the argument many Democrats believe will carry the day for Biden.
“MAGA has been litigated in three elections now, and it hasn’t worked,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Republicans have struggled in the battleground states” in 2018, 2020 and 2022, he said. “It’s going to be an uphill climb for them.”
Over the last several months, Trump has notably improved his standing against the rest of the Republican field. The indictment that New York Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg secured last month has only consolidated that trend, strengthening the former president among GOP primary voters.
The polls that find voters sour on Biden also show that many of the voters who disapprove of the president have deeper negative feelings toward Trump.
In the Monmouth poll, for example, liberals and Democrats younger than 50 were especially keen to see Biden step aside — those are groups that deeply dislike the former president.
Similarly, the state-by-state Morning Consult surveys found that Biden’s low ratings in several battleground states stemmed in part from significant numbers of Democrats disapproving of his job performance. If defections persist among swing-state Democrats, Biden will be in deep trouble. But so long as Trump remains the GOP frontrunner, his ability to unify Democrats and independents in opposition gives Biden a cushion.
Unfortunately for the GOP, they can’t simply solve that problem by picking a different nominee. If Trump loses the primaries, there’s a good chance whoever beats him will share his positions. There’s also a good chance a Trump defeat would leave the GOP badly divided.
But while Biden remains the favorite, favorites don’t always win — just ask the Dodgers.
Biden remains vulnerable on several fronts, most notably his age.
The CNN poll found a notable slice of Americans — just over 1 in 10 — who approved of Biden’s job performance but didn’t want him to run again. That group overwhelmingly questioned his capacity for the job — 70% said he lacked the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively, and 62% said he did not inspire confidence.
Similar concerns about stamina dogged Biden throughout the 2020 campaign. In the reelection bid, they’re both an opportunity and a risk.
If the campaign goes relatively smoothly — with the by-now-expected Biden gaffes, but no signs of major illness or other disability — the president likely will benefit. Any major problem, however, could solidify voter doubts.
The longer Biden is out on the campaign trail, the greater the chance of a damaging stumble. No wonder the White House seems in no hurry to get started.
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