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Understanding Election 2024 is more than just reading polls

OpinionUnderstanding Election 2024 is more than just reading polls

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For months now, I’ve been deflecting questions about polling of the 2024 general election – which increasingly looks to be a rerun of 2020’s match-up of Trump v. Biden: Don’t ask election analysts who will win … ask an economist or a foreign policy expert. 

For former President Donald Trump, polling right now looks pretty good. So good, in fact, that it’s blunted what looked to be a core argument of Trump’s Republican challengers – “I’ll pursue Trump’s policies – and I’ll win the election.” (“Unlike him” – an unspoken tagline that’s proving ineffective given recent polls.) 

The Democrats respond by trying to camouflage the scratches of panic from their throats – “polls a year away don’t matter” … “the election will change once folks think about the choice” and my all-time favorite “the abortion issue will work (just like in 2022).”  

TRUMP HOLDS LARGE LEAD OVER HALEY 4 DAYS FROM SOUTH CAROLINA GOP PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY

They almost sound like they’ve convinced themselves. (FYI: They haven’t.) 

Joe Biden and Donald Trump

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are likely caught in an unusual battle of incumbents. (Getty Images)

Polls this year are likely to be hard to read and interpret.  

That’s particularly true because – as we wrote earlier – there appear to be essentially two incumbents running – each with their records and personalities that the public can judge. 

The likely GOP candidate is one of the most polarizing figures in modern political history. Whatever folks – supporters and opponents alike – think of Trump today, in December 2023, is unlikely to change between now and November. The only way to paint Trump is to use primary colors.  

President Joe Biden, by contrast, is one of the least colorful national political figures in recent memory, a view completely consistent with his favorite ice cream flavor – vanilla. After he won the South Carolina primary in 2020, Democrats didn’t so much rally to his side as they got in line and breathed a collective sigh of, “Oh, well, OK, Biden’s fine.”  

This year, that gets complicated by the regular occurrence of apparent stumbles in memory or leaving the stage – and, last week, the special counsel’s assessment that Biden would come off as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” 

Especially in the polarized political environment of 2024, at best, it makes it harder for potential Democrat voters to decide to vote for Biden – and makes it easier for reluctant GOP voters to decide that they’d prefer to get back to Trump. 

The two contrasting metaphors were borne out in recent polling.  

While Trump basically holds steady in most polls – in the high 40s, Biden bounces around from poll to poll – more often behind Trump – but sometimes ahead. In all cases, analysts pore over the data looking for an explanation for why the race has changed. 

Mennonite protesters in Capitol

Capitol police make arrests at Mennonite protest calling for Gaza ceasefire in Cannon Rotunda. How Biden handles Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists is one of five key issues this election. (Fox News)

Unlike Trump – whose Republican base has solidified in recent months – Democrats have been hesitant to evince support for their leader – indeed, the biggest variable of Biden’s standing, tends to be young voters or minority voters.  

They remain unenthusiastic – even skeptical – of Biden. One sees that, most clearly, in the most recent Fox polls (Michigan and North Carolina). In each, Trump gets the same percentage vote he got in 2020. Trump’s vote is baked in, but Biden’s vote is in question. 

What are the implications for November? 

Rather than reading polls and looking at the difference between the two – the way the headlines like to shout [Trump leads Biden by 2, no, Biden leads Trump by 1.] – one should focus on each candidate’s number – and each one’s standing with their traditional supporters. Trump is almost always hovering around 47%.  

For Trump – that means looking at both the level of his support – and the enthusiasm of his supporters. In the wake of four indictments, and cases arguing that he should be kept off the ballot in some states, we’ve seen his support strengthen – both the enthusiasm of solid supporters, and apparent growth among voters who liked him and seemed to be considering other candidates.  

The enthusiasm that enabled Trump to outperform polling expectations in both 2016 and 2020 seems to still be there among Republicans. It’s why his number in general election polling still hovers between 45 and 50. To the extent that the election is a referendum on Trump, the vast bulk of his 2016 and 2020 supporters thinks things were just better when he was president. 

The political shape of the electorate is fairly clear – and it’s not moving. About 47% (almost half) of the country supports Trump – and that number doesn’t move. The remaining roughly 53% (a bit more than half) are not supporting him – and there are few if any indications that they could move in his direction.  

Which – importantly – does not mean that they’re ready to support Biden. Indeed, all polls suggest many are very much not ready to vote for Biden. And, voting in America is never an either/or option: Voters can vote for one of the two major party candidates, they can vote for a third-party nominee (there will be a bunch this November), or they can just stay home. 

Hundreds of migrants, predominantly from Venezuela, cross the Rio Grande with the intention of seeking humanitarian asylum by crossing the border between Mexico and the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on December 05, 2023.  (David Peinado/Anadolu via Getty Images)

But Biden is a very different political character from Trump. While Trump voters may think he’s corrupt or unconstitutionally elected – the remaining 53% range from those who are disappointed by inflation, opposed to his policies or somewhat lukewarm to his administration’s accomplishments. 

And that’s underscored by attitudes about his age and his weak on-camera appearances.  

The age issue gets amplified essentially every time one sees him walk to the podium or speak in a way that makes it appear he’s searching for a word. And it was especially newsworthy when Special Counsel Robert Hur explained that at a potential trial, Biden would appear to the jury as a “sympathetic, elderly man with a poor memory.”  

Not exactly the kind of person one would want on a debate stage, let alone facing off against President Xi Jinping of China, or President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Questions about his age make it harder – even for solid Democrats – to articulate a desire to vote for Biden. 

But I’d argue that Biden’s standing – with the 53% of American electorate who might vote for him – depends less on what potential Biden voters think about him personally today (what shows up in polls), and much more sensitive to what they think about the situation facing the U.S. – and his age – looks like in October. 

More than many presidents, Biden’s fingerprints are all over five domestic and global issues: (The issue of border security, Biden’s embrace of Ukraine, his support of Israel, his legislative programs to compete with China (the CHIPs act), and his efforts to stimulate the U.S. economy. Voters’ views of Biden will hinge very much on the outcome of those actions. 

I’m neither an economist nor an international relations expert – but what we’ve seen politically bears that out. The border security issue is turning into a political tug of war over the failure of a bipartisan compromise. Ukraine looks at best a stalemate. The Israel-Hamas war is, right now, ugly. And while inflation seems to be subsiding and the economy doesn’t look headed to a recession, prices, especially grocery prices, are still higher than they were when he took office. And China … well … who knows? 

So, don’t look at the polling, look at a calendar – and consider whether any – or all – of the above are likely to change.  

Which – importantly – does not mean that they’re ready to support Biden. Indeed, all polls suggest many are very much not ready to vote for Biden. And, voting in America is never an either/or option: Voters can vote for one of the two major party candidates, they can vote for a third-party nominee (there will be a bunch this November), or they can just stay home. 

The Gaza war will look very different in six months. The Biden team is mounting a full-court press to get to some kind of resolution. He may show signs of progress – or further signs of ugliness. 

The Ukrainians are currently struggling. In six months, folks who say we’re wasting our money will find their argument more salient – or less – if things go differently. 

Some people say that foreign policy issues rarely affect U.S. elections. True, but note that Biden’s job approval numbers – which started high, actually only turned negative in the wake of the disastrous pullout from Afghanistan. They went south because he lost an aura of competence – and they will either turn around – or firm negative depending on the impact of other foreign events.  

My own view is simple. Yes, the public doesn’t vote based on a president’s foreign policies – but high-profile actions on the world stage do affect whether they think the president is essentially competent – or incompetent. 

Taliban fighters on vehicle in Afghanistan

Biden’s poor handling of the Afghanistan pullout set in motion other criticisms of his leadership. FILE: Taliban fighters patrol on the road during a celebration marking the second anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (AP/Abdul Khaliq)

And then there’s the apparent failure of the border bill, which the Biden people are trying to blame on Trump, while the Republicans say it wasn’t good enough. 

Finally, there’s the economy – typically the most important factor in U.S. elections. There’s been some good economic news – but so far, we’ve seen very little impact on Biden’s anemic polling. That may change – if the economic news continues to be positive, especially on inflation. 

The bottom line for Biden, he should worry less about his poll numbers than making sure the actual results he delivers are welcomed by the electorate. 

That’s especially true given his age. Biden is not the first incumbent to face serious questions about his age and failing memory. Ronald Reagan stumbled in his first 1984 debate when he looked almost to be suffering from aphasia (the inability to find a word).  

It led to a two-week firestorm about Reagan’s age. The popular wisdom is that he defused it with a timely joke in the second debate.  

Was it the joke or was it the reality that voters felt the Reagan administration had achieved real results in the economy and with the U.S. standing in the world?  

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Some folks believe Biden should make himself more “available” for unscripted TV viewers. Given every interview and speech I’ve seen, that’s a recipe for further challenges. Instead, he really needs to seek to ensure that voters conclude that this “well-meaning elderly man” has led an administration that has delivered results that voters can feel.  

The polls today suggest that that’s precisely what they haven’t done. 

The enthusiasm that enabled Trump to outperform polling expectations in both 2016 and 2020 seems to still be there among Republicans. It’s why his number in general election polling still hovers between 45 and 50. To the extent that the election is a referendum on Trump, the vast bulk of his 2016 and 2020 supporters thinks things were just better when he was president. 

Because – waiting in the wings, is a very dynamic, charismatic, former president who knows how to paint in primary colors – and pin failure on a pastel-toned incumbent. Consider the way he explains it: 

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“Biden’s inflation catastrophe is demolishing your savings and ravaging your dreams. His sky-high energy prices, nobody’s ever seen anything like it, are brutalizing your wallets. Our border has been erased. We have no border any longer. Drugs, criminals, gang members and terrorists are pouring into our country. They’re running wild in our Democrat-run cities while Christians and conservatives are persecuted. And thanks to crooked Joe’s breathtaking weakness, he is bad. Worst president in history. The world is going up in flames while you suffer the ravages of inflation and your buying power goes down to levels never seen before.” 

Biden does have a pool of potential voters – but they need to be convinced that he’s delivered for them – or his soft support will vote third party or stay home, and Trump will move back into the White House. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM ARNON MISHKIN

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