Biden loses to Trump in a new poll. Does that pass the smell test?

President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden during Thursday's debate.

(Associated Press)

Biden loses to Trump in a new poll. Does that pass the smell test?

Opinion piece, Elections 2024

Seth Masker

November 7, 2023

The New York Times and Siena College recently released the results of a presidential match-up poll for six 2024 battleground states, with Donald Trump leading President Biden in five of them. How concerned should Biden’s supporters be about this?

There are a few things to keep in mind. First, a poll is a snapshot of what things look like

now

no prediction of how they will appear on Election Day, which will take place a full year from now.

That’s important, but why is Trump now ahead of Biden? After all, Trump does not face 91 criminal charges pending against him, along with legal challenges among the 14th.

a

Amendment that questions his ability to run for re-election? Didn’t he lose the last election and, in his wake, launch a violent attempt to overthrow it? And isn’t Biden presiding over a growing economy and falling inflation with historically low unemployment? Doesn’t he have many legislative achievements to point to? Didn’t he lead Democrats through two solid elections in 2020 and 2022?

The answer to all these questions is yes. But none of these guarantees

S

that voters will reward Biden or punish Trump. Indeed, what was seen recalls two key rules of American political campaigning.

The first rule is that voters have a very short memory. A number of studies show that voters reward incumbents for economic growth or punish them for recessions based on what has happened in the past six months, sometimes even more recently. Voters don’t really judge presidents on whether they are better off now than they were four years ago; the horizon is much closer than that. It’s not that voters don’t remember Trump’s presidency or the violent way it ended; It’s just that they care less and less about that than about more recent events.

The second rule is that elections are about the incumbent, even if the challenger was the incumbent not so long ago. Biden is trailing in these polls because he is somewhat unpopular, with an approval rating of almost 40% despite favorable economic conditions. People are dissatisfied with the country, and if they are, they take it out on the incumbent.

Why are they dissatisfied? A recent article in The Economist

found that the way the public views the economy has changed since 2020. The writers looked at the

P

of the past forty years of economic data and concluded that, until recently, American impressions of the economy corresponded very closely with actual economic data. When the economy slows or unemployment rises, voters sense it and generally give a worse impression of the economy. They also knew when things turned around.

But since the COVID pandemic, a large and growing gap has emerged between how the economy behaves and how Americans perceive it. Economic performance has been very strong recently, but Americans continue to say times are bad. Surveys of the economy show that Americans think the economy is in worse shape now than it was during the stagflation of the early 1980s, the deep recession of 1990-91, the Great Recession of 2008 and more.

While although

The precise cause of this difference between public perception and economic indicators is not clear; the collapse of workplaces and a distrust of traditions and institutions, even in a period of low unemployment and strong growth, can all contribute to a strong sense of insecurity and fear.

And because Joe Biden is now president, he bears the brunt of these fears.

If the economy continues to perform well, voters may begin to reassess their positions, although this is a slow process.

The New York Times/Siena College survey may also significantly underestimate Biden’s support and overstate Trump’s. Trump’s supporters are particularly exercised right now because he is under attack from a variety of sources and their first response is always to defend him. Biden, in the midst of his tough calls on Israel, Ukraine and other difficult domestic issues, will invariably upset many people, even within his own coalition. This often looks bad for an incumbent president in a year when there are no elections, but partisans typically return to their parties during an election year when they are reminded of the stakes.

And there are a number of ways that pollsters struggle to pass the smell test. It shows that 22% of Black voters supported Trump as he won 12% of that demographic in 2020

,

with that figure often being below 10% for Republican presidential candidates. The poll shows that voters under 30 favor Biden by just one percentage point; Biden won that group by double digits three years ago.

Is the?

possible

that these Democratic groups have moved so quickly in the Republican direction? It is possible, but not exactly likely, that demographic changes in political support rarely happen so quickly, even considering that some past polls have been relatively accurate a year before the election.

One thing we do know is that presidential election results have been pretty rigid over the past two decades.

Trump received 46% of the vote in 2016 and 47% in 2020; He will probably do much the same in 2024 if he is the Republican nominee. There is a good chance that we would end up with a very close election, with the winner being determined by

a

only tens of thousands of voters in a handful of swing states. This is the way elections run in this era, and we don’t need a poll to know this.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. You can follow his Substack newsletter Tusk, covering the Republican presidential nominating contest, at smotus.substack.com.

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