WPOWERFUL HAT the armor that Donald Trump wears. He’s not shaken by a post-presidential impeachment trial, four underway criminal trials for 91 alleged crimes and all attacks on Republican contenders for the party’s nomination in 2024. Mr. Trump’s hold on his party appears ironclad. His opponents seem fanciful as the first rounds of primary voting, which will take place in Iowa in January, approach. Shy in criticizing the popular former president, his rivals have repeatedly argued that Mr. Trump would be unable to defeat President Joe Biden. The Democrats, who refused to even consider the idea of sidelining the octogenarian president, seemed to share this analysis. Both seriously underestimated Mr. Trump. He has a good chance of being elected president fairly and equitably in a year’s time, on the first Tuesday of November 2024. If the election were held tomorrow, he would even be considered the favorite.
Even among Biden fans, doubt sets in. Over the weekend, the New York Times has released a series of polls conducted with Siena College in the six swing states that will almost certainly decide the outcome of the 2024 elections (see map). For sleepwalking Democrats, who believe Mr. Trump became unelectable after his brazen attempt to overturn the previous election, the results landed like a bucket of cold water in the face.
In Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, they found that Mr. Trump led among registered voters by a margin of at least four points. They only found a lead for Mr. Biden in Wisconsin, by a two-point margin. Under the disappointing guidelines, the crosstabs contained more worrying results. In these critical states, 42% of Hispanic voters and 22% of African-American voters said they would vote for Mr. Trump, which, if true, would mark the collapse of minority support that Democrats have been counting on since decades.
Voters also said they trusted Mr. Trump to do a better job managing the economy (59% to Mr. Biden’s 37%); and on immigration (53% to 41%); and even on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (50% to 39%). Seven in 10 voters said they thought Mr. Biden was too old to be an effective president, including a majority of Democrats. The vote proved so inauspicious that David Axelrod, the prominent Democratic political strategist who helped elect Barack Obama, gently suggested that Mr. Biden consider stepping down.
Should Democrats be in such a panic? They could first try to console themselves by appealing to the vagaries of sampling error. Polling is increasingly difficult because fewer Americans respond to pollsters, making it very difficult to draw a representative sample of voters. This is especially true for measuring sentiment among demographic subgroups, such as African-American or Hispanic voters, for whom sample sizes are even smaller than the few thousand that might be selected in a poll. Yet other direct polls reveal a close fight, suggesting the result is no exception.
The best argument for those defending Mr. Biden is that polls are just a snapshot of time and that public opinion is drifting. As political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Will Jennings found in their study of decades of elections in many countries, direct polls conducted a year in advance are almost useless for predicting the final outcome. U.S. presidential elections are usually close, and polls tighten in the months leading up to the election. “Are we living in a world where we should see an eight-point change? ” said John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, pointing out that Mr. Biden’s five-point loss in Michigan would be far worse than his three-point margin of victory in 2020. “It doesn’t seem plausible to me to assume that “You’re going to see as big a swing as these polls suggest…that’s another reason to be careful.”
Yet this is clearly not where the Biden campaign hoped to be a year before the election. Rather than being fatally flawed, their most likely opponent seems eminently eligible. And the caveat about changing public opinion might apply less since Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are both former presidents. Most Americans have acquired deeply held views about themselves that will resist change. In a memo distributed on November 2, Julie Rodriguez, Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, asserted that “the Biden-Harris team is well prepared to defeat anyone who emerges from the extreme.” MAGA The Republicans’ prime domain,” citing the $91 million in cash the campaign already had on hand. But in the last election, Democrats enjoyed a considerable campaign finance advantage, and it is not at all clear that this advantage was decisive.
Those who eschew predictions based on early polls and instead focus on the fundamentals – like the president’s approval rating and the state of the economy – should also be concerned. Although he benefits from his mandate, Mr. Biden’s net approval rating is -16 points, according to a polling average by FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism firm. This is essentially where Mr. Trump stands at this point in his presidency and is five points behind Barack Obama (see chart).
And despite the administration’s attempt to make Bidenomic rallying cry rather than pejorative, 55% of Americans say the economy is getting worse, according to tracking polls conducted for The Economist by YouGov. “Bidenomics has been a complete failure,” Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, Mr. Trump’s campaign managers, wrote in a memo to supporters released Nov. 5. Their campaign plans to hit the current president on the price of gas, groceries and housing. Due to inflation, real wages have fallen by about 1.4% since Mr. Biden took office in January 2021 (which is why Mr. Biden prefers to talk about wages relative to employment levels). before the pandemic in January 2020).
Another difficulty is age. Mr. Biden, who will soon be 81, naturally has a tired countenance and sometimes distorts his words. Given the direction of time’s arrow outside of Martin Amis’s novels, these will likely become more visible. American voters seem little reassured by the presence of Kamala Harris as vice-president, who generally obtains results as bad, or even worse, than her boss. None of this means Mr. Biden was a bad president: his administration’s approach Israel’s war against Hamas is another reminder of how important it is for the world to have a competent and experienced team in the White House. But come election time, that won’t be enough.
Mr. Biden does not appear to have any plans to step down, and the party does not appear to have any plans to unseat him. So what could he do? Some issues, like human health or the health of the economy, depend on a deity (or probability, depending on your belief). Others, like the strength of Mr. Biden’s campaign, which will be a billion-dollar operation designed to improve his public reputation, are under the man’s control. The president will have to court working-class voters, white and non-white, who are drifting toward the Republican Party. He will need to generate enthusiasm among progressives irritated by the administration’s Israel policies. Young voters will need encouragement to find enthusiasm for their geriatric president. The best turnout promoter for Mr. Biden will be his opponent, who many Americans ignore. The reintroduction of Mr. Trump — including his enthusiasm for berating judges in court — will hopefully cure them of their nostalgia. ■