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Where does the US presidential election stand one year out?

Where does the US presidential election stand one year out?
Jess Frampton

A year out, the 2024 election looks like a coin flip.

National polling averages from 538 and RealClearPolitics currently have President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump – the two major parties’ presumptive nominees – in a statistical dead heat. Because of the Electoral College, though, the outcome of US elections is determined not by the national popular vote but by the states – and, increasingly, by a very small number of voters in a handful of swing states. Trump carried most of these in 2016, and Biden flipped most of them in 2020. The former was decided by about 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; the latter, by about 44,000 voters in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia.

The 2024 election is likely to be just as close. Polls consistently show that most Americans dislike both Biden and Trump and would rather not have to choose between them. That both candidates will have a narrow path to victory is guaranteed. The only surprise at this point would be a landslide for either.

Momentum is against Biden

Trump is still just as unpopular as he was in 2020 (if not a bit more), but Biden is significantly weaker than he was then. The president’s approval rating and performance in head-to-head polling against Trump are trending in the wrong direction, driven by growing concerns about Biden’s age and brewing discontent about the direction of the country under his watch.

A New York Times/Siena College poll of registered voters in battleground states released over the weekend found that Biden trails behind Trump in five of the six closest states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada). This is largely driven by a massive – almost implausible – erosion in Biden’s support among young and nonwhite voters, who were core components of the coalition that put him in the White House. While this result (and all individual polls) should be taken with a grain of salt given normal polling errors and the very small samples of less politically engaged minority groups surveyed in each state, Biden’s growing weakness with these demographics – which make up a growing share of the electorate – has been confirmed time and again in multiple surveys.

Interestingly, the poll also shows that Biden the candidate is substantially less popular than Democrats in general. An unnamed, generic Democrat leads Trump by eight points in swing states, whereas Biden trails by five. Meanwhile, the deeply unpopular Vice President Kamala Harris outperforms Biden in horse-race matchups against Trump by two points (!). Democrats’ strong performance in Tuesday night’s off-year, state-level elections seems to confirm that their biggest problem is having Biden at the top of the ticket.

The NYT/Siena poll does suffer from a key flaw in that it did not poll either of the two potential spoiler candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, by name. With both major parties’ candidates deeply unpopular, 2024 will be the most favorable environment for third-party candidates in a generation. Kennedy is currently polling in the teens; West pulls in mid-single digits. While the far-left West will likely siphon off a few Biden supporters, particularly in the wake of the Israel conflict, polling so far suggests that Kennedy will draw significantly more from Trump’s voter base than from Biden’s – and at a larger scale. This could shift margins in closely contested swing states in Biden’s favor.

The election is also a full year away; much can (and will) change between now and then. That’s why early polls have tended to be not very informative, even if they have gotten a bit more predictive in recent, more polarized times. Voters aren’t giving much thought to the election this far in advance, when the general campaign hasn’t even gotten underway. At this point in 2011, President Barack Obama faced a similar polling gap to Biden’s, and he went on to win reelection a year later.

Still, even if the poll overstates the extent of Biden’s troubles, this is all pretty bad news for the president.

Trump’s unpopularity is Biden’s saving grace

Despite his low approval ratings and current polling headwinds, Biden still retains a slight edge over Trump. For starters, Biden is the incumbent president; even weak incumbents like him benefit from being able to drive the national agenda and shape media coverage to their advantage. Moreover, Biden already beat Trump once – and that was before he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection and the conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which made democracy and abortion winning issues for Democrats. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump is a uniquely unfit candidate who will assuredly take the spotlight from Biden over the next year. Let me explain why that will help the president.

Recently, Biden has been driving the news far more than Trump has, and not for good reasons. Although from personal experience I can tell you that mentally he’s still pretty solidly there, Americans (and even Democrats) nearly universally believe Biden is too old for a second term. Although the economy is doing well (yes, really) and most voters report feeling positively about their own financial situation, Americans’ perceptions of the US economy as a whole are extremely negative. And although few Americans actually vote on foreign policy, it has gone from a major strength to a weakness for the president on account of a stalemated and divisive war in Ukraine and an expanding war in the Middle East. These are vulnerabilities the president can do little to nothing about.

If Biden were running against almost any challenger other than Trump, the election would be a referendum on him and his first term. With the current environment as bad as it is, the president would be a significant underdog. Yet Trump’s unrivaled baggage, deep unpopularity with independent voters, and pathological compulsion to make himself the center of attention is Biden’s saving grace. As the campaign gets underway, Trump’s legal troubles, refusal to shy away from his unpopular efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and his own age-related mental decline (underrated in my opinion) will weigh on the former president and make Biden look comparatively better.

Indeed, if there’s a silver lining for Biden in the New York Times/Siena poll, it’s that the young and nonwhite voters who have soured on him since 2020 nonetheless dislike Trump and seem to be fairly open to Democrats other than Biden, maybe even more than they were in 2020. If Biden can win back those traditionally Democratic-leaning voters by reminding them of just how much they dislike Trump, he’ll go a long way toward recreating the coalition that elected him in 2020.

That said, it is far from guaranteed that Biden will be able to pull this off. And it’s not entirely (or even mostly) up to him. An economic slowdown in 2024, further age-related decline for Biden, deeper fractures over Israel among Democrats, or early mistrials or acquittals for Trump would reduce Biden’s slim advantage. Conversely, a soft landing of the US economy (aka no recession), clearer signs of age-related decline for Trump, more abortion overreach from Republicans, or an early criminal conviction in one of Trump’s several trials would tip the scales further in the president’s favor.

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