Will Trump Leaners Come Home to Biden?

The weirdness of this year's polling gives the President's team hope.

The New Yorker‘s Isaac Chotiner asks, “Is the Biden Campaign Running on False Hope?” The setup:

President Joe Biden trails Donald Trump by approximately one point in national polls, according to FiveThirtyEight. The gap is larger in most of the so-called swing states, including Pennsylvania (2.1 per cent), Arizona (4.3 per cent), Georgia (6.1 per cent), and Nevada (seven per cent). Moreover, in both 2016 and 2020, most polls ended up understating Trump’s support. This year, the head-to-head polls and Biden’s unpopularity have made many Democrats anxious about the coming election, but that feeling does not appear to have pervaded the White House. Axios reported last week that, “in public and private, Biden has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s gaining ground—and is probably up—on Donald Trump in their rematch from 2020.” (The Axios story says this sense of optimism is also shared by his “team.”)

This is followed by a !&A with Simon Rosenberg, “a longtime Party strategist who runs the Substack Hopium Chronicles,” who thinks Team Biden is right to be optimistic:

I think there has been a tendency in recent years among commentators to overestimate the strength of Republicans and to underestimate our strength. And we saw that play out in 2022. The fundamental dynamic of our politics, since the spring of 2022, has been consistent Democratic over-performance and consistent Republican underperformance. We saw it across the country in 2023. We’ve seen the same manifestation in 2024, with Trump struggling, and bleeding some of his votes, and underperforming polls in the primaries. And so, I think there’s just generally a view that, as people get closer to voting and have to go through that process of deciding who they’re going to get behind, Republicans lose ground and Democrats gain ground. And this has been particularly true after Dobbs. The whole political landscape in America changed fundamentally with Dobbs. And so any comparisons to 2016 and 2020, for example, I think are not valid because I think everything changed in 2022.

This is followed by a weird back-and-forth, with Chotiner claiming that the 2022 polls were largely accurate and even had a slight Democratic bias and Rosenberg strenuously objecting. After which, Rosenberg asserts Trump is a much weaker candidate today than he was in 2020 because

his performance on the stump is far more degraded. He’s clearly diminished. He’s far more erratic. He’s making a lot of mistakes that are hurting the campaign when he speaks. Second, his agenda is far more extreme, more dangerous, and will be far easier to exploit by the Democrats.

When Chotiner points to polling showing that 55 percent of Americans currently view Trump’s presidency as a success, Rosenberg thinks the campaign will change their minds:

There are six things now that are true about him that were not true in 2020, that all voters are going to come to know in the following months—they are that he raped E. Jean Carroll in a department-store dressing room [Trump, who has denied the allegations, was found liable for sexual assault in a civil case.]; that he oversaw one of the largest financial frauds in American history, and has been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for that; that he stole American secrets, he lied to the F.B.I., he shared those secrets with other people, it’s the greatest betrayal of our national security by a former President in all of American history; he led an insurrection against the United States, he led an armed attack on the Capitol, and he’s promised to end American democracy for all time if he’s in the White House in 2025; he and his family have corruptly taken more money from foreign governments than any family in American history; and sixth, and this is really important, is that he’s singularly responsible for ending Roe.

This is followed by more weird back-and-forth, with Rosenberg continuously dismissing polling results he dislikes while embracing those that show Biden making up ground.

While Chotiner got the better of the exchange, I think Rosenberg is ultimately right that the current polls are likely not terribly predictive. While one would think that voters would be incredibly familiar with both of these candidates, with both having served as President, and having run multiple presidential campaigns, the fact of the matter is that most people have largely tuned out since November 2020. It’s hard to believe that all of the things that have happened since won’t harm Trump’s standing among persuadable voters.

NYT pollster Nate Cohn (“The Shaky Foundation of Trump’s Lead: Disengaged Voters“) fleshes this out further.

The polls have shown Donald J. Trump with an edge for eight straight months, but there’s one big flashing warning sign suggesting that his advantage might not be quite as stable as it looks.

That warning sign: His narrow lead is built on gains among voters who aren’t paying close attention to politics, who don’t follow traditional news and who don’t regularly vote.

To an extent that hasn’t been true in New York Times/Siena College polling in the last eight years, disengaged voters are driving the overall polling results and the story line about the election.

President Biden has actually led the last three Times/Siena national polls among those who voted in the 2020 election, even as he has trailed among registered voters overall. And looking back over the last few years, almost all of Mr. Trump’s gains have come from these less engaged voters.

That’s not all that surprising when you think about it. Biden got eight million more votes than Trump, so it makes sense that a majority of those folks would back Biden in a rematch.

Importantly, these disengaged low-turnout voters are often from predominantly Democratic constituencies. Many continue to identify as Democratic-leaning and still back Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, but they nonetheless are backing away from Mr. Biden in startling numbers. In our polling, Mr. Biden wins just three-quarters of Democratic-leaning voters who didn’t vote in the 2022 midterm election, even as almost all high-turnout Democratic-leaners continue to support him.

I could preach that either way. It’s quite possible that these folks will, as Rosenberg suggests, come home to Biden once the campaign highlights Trump’s massive defects. It’s also possible, though, that folks who are leaning Democrat for down-ballot races but Trump for President are really angry at Biden.

Mr. Trump’s strength among low-turnout and less engaged voters helps explain a lot of what’s strange about this election. It illustrates the disconnect between Mr. Trump’s lead in the polls and Democratic victories in lower-turnout special elections. And it helps explain Mr. Trump’s gains among young and nonwhite voters, who tend to be among the least engaged. His strength among young voters, in particular, is almost entirely found among those who did not vote in the midterms.

As I’ve noted previously, this realignment flips the script from longstanding mantras of American politics. For as long as I can remember, Republicans overperformed their polling because their demographics were more likely to show up. Now, it’s Trump and his ilk who have to persuade low-information voters to endure that inconvenience.

And here’s a key point:

It’s tempting to believe that less engaged voters are just like demographically similar highly engaged voters with the exception that they’re not paying such close attention. If that were true, Mr. Biden could count on disengaged young, Black and Hispanic voters to flock to his side once they tune into the race.

The Times/Siena data suggests it may not be so simple. Less engaged Democratic-leaning voters have distinct political views, and they get their political information from different sources. Even if the Biden campaign can reach these voters, it is not a given that they will return to the Democratic fold.

In the battleground states, Democratic-leaning irregular voters are far less likely to identify as liberal. They’re much less likely to say abortion and democracy are the most important issues, and instead they’re far likelier to cite the economy. They overwhelmingly say the economy is “poor” or “only fair,” even if they’re still loyal to Mr. Biden, while a majority of high-turnout Democratic-leaning voters say the economy is “good” or “excellent.”

The politically engaged tend to be more educated and affluent than the disengaged, for obvious reasons. And those voters have shifted to the Democrats as working-class voters, especially the White working class, have shifted to the Republican side. But part of Biden’s problem is that the rhetoric and policy proposals that energize the progressive base turns off disengaged folks who are natural Democratic leaners.

To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric turns off a lot of traditional Republicans. But a goodly number of the most engaged have already left the party and are in the same boat as the disaffected Democrats, likely to be turned off by the things that energize the True Believers.

One important factor might be media consumption. While Mr. Biden holds nearly all of his support from voters who consume traditional mainstream media — national newspapers, television networks and the like — the disengaged are far likelier to report getting their news from social media.

With these distinct views, it may not be so easy for Mr. Biden to win these voters back, even if their demographic traits and traditional partisan allegiances still suggest paths for the Biden campaign to do so.

The 2008 Obama campaign famously targeted Twitter and other social spaces. Presumably, Biden can do that as well. But, again, the problem is likely to be the message, not the medium.

The rest of Cohn’s piece focuses on the challenges of polling low-turnout voters, who are not surprisingly also less likely to respond to polls, and of deciphering which people who answer a given poll will actually show up to vote. I have no answer to either of those questions.

If I had to bet now, I’d say that Biden wins again in a race with lower turnout than in 2020 and that he probably loses a couple of states—with Georgia being the most obvious candidate—that he won in 2020. But, even aside from the possibility of cataclysmic events shaking up the landscape, it’s almost impossible to project a race where both candidates are so universally unpopular. There are more truly enthusiastic Trump voters than truly enthusiastic Biden voters. But there are also more people who intensely dislike Trump than intensely dislike Biden.

UPDATE: Longtime polling analyst Charlie Cook chimes in with “Do We Know Who’s Going to Vote This Year?” Short answer: nope. An excerpt from the longer answer:

We know that presidential reelection contests are usually referenda on the incumbent, more than a choice between two people. Voters are asked to determine whether they want to extend that president’s contract for another four years. It is pretty clear that the 2020 election was a referendum on Trump’s presidency, and that he lost that referendum. This year could be a referendum on Biden in the same way. But being the first contest between back-to-back presidents since 1892, it could also be a side-by-side comparison, as voters evaluate both men’s recent records. Trump could come out ahead in either of those scenarios.

But until we know who’s going to show up, it’s hard to tell. The polls show no ambiguity that most voters are unenthusiastic about their choice. “Out of 330 million people, is this the best we can do?” goes a popular refrain.

Think about those with little if any partisan or ideological predisposition. They may have real doubts and concerns about Trump’s character, behavior, values, and perhaps whether he has much respect for institutions and the rule of law. Substantively, only the abortion issue really rises to the surface for many of these people.

Conversely, doubts and concerns about Biden are more about his abilities and his judgment, his priorities and objectives. Most don’t doubt Biden’s morals, values, and intentions, but do wonder whether this has been the cruise they signed up for. Just as abortion is the substantive chink in the armor for Trump, it is age and health for Biden, who looks and acts even older than he is.

We have a group of voters who are not enthusiastic about either candidate, and many may well end up deciding not to decide. In some minds, not casting a ballot is becoming a very real and deliberate option, a way to show their displeasure with their choices and the nominees that the two parties have offered up. They look at the field of independent or third-party candidates and do not see a political knight in shining armor worthy of their support.

We’re basically just guessing at this point.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ptfe says:

    There are more truly enthusiastic Trump voters than truly enthusiastic Biden voters. But there are also more people who intensely dislike Trump than intensely dislike Biden.

    This seems like the crux of the election, just like it was the crux in 2020. Biden isn’t universally beloved, and I think pollsters make a mistake conflating voter preference – a lot of people would prefer neither – with voter action.

    The people who intensely dislike Biden are largely the same people who think Trump should be our new god-king and we should bow to his infinite business wisdom and unparalleled brilliance. These are not serious people, these are deluded people. More importantly, these are people who wouldn’t vote for Biden, but they also wouldn’t vote for anyone else who strapped a (D) next to their name.

    The people who intensely dislike Trump range from those who believe almost every action of his is illegal or immoral (c.f. Kathy) to those who agree with many of his policies but find him personally disgusting (c.f. Romney). This spectrum encompasses a vast swath that will never vote for him unless literally Adolf Hitler comes up against him. And since primary season is essentially done, guess that ship has sailed! (I’ll be here all day, folks)

    I still maintain that Trump’s biggest problem is that he can’t attract voters, he can only convince the ones who are already in his corner to vote. The danger for him is that he can also move people from potential voters to disgusted would-never-vote-for-that-guy. The Trump bombast schtick is old, and it only gets older.

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  2. Scott says:

    How does the fact that both candidates are unpopular affect the polling? Has that ever been studied?

    Biden has an approval rating of around 40% while Trump has an favorability rating of 41.6%.

    Is this just going to be a “hold your nose” election?

    BTW, the pollsters seem to use the terms popularity, favorability, and approval rather interchangeably. Seems to me there is a difference.

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  3. Kathy says:

    @ptfe:

    I resent that. I also think his every action is depraved, stupid, and self-destructive.

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  4. JKB says:

    I’m down by the graveyard and I hear someone whistling as they walk by. But keep up your spirits.

    Meanwhile, Trump is setting his sights to take New York. Possible? Who knows, but it’s best not to underestimate Trump.

    While Biden is having to try to buy the votes of his supposedly best demographic, the college credentialed with student loan debt transfer to working class people of all demographics. Not to mention those who went to college, studied hard things that improved their employability and economic futures.

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  5. Kevin says:

    I may be deluding myself, and I definitely don’t understand people who dislike Biden, but I tend to agree that this is going to be a “Double-Haters” election, except a lot of people actually hate Trump, and most people are just not enthused by Biden, they don’t hate him. Which isn’t a bad thing; politics shouldn’t be a sport. Biden’s quiet and competent. Trump is loud and . . . I don’t want to say incompetent, more like he’s indifferent to competence.

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  6. Kylopod says:

    with Chotiner claiming that the 2022 polls were largely accurate and even had a slight Democratic bias

    Here is how much the RCP avg underestimated the Dems in key Senate and gubernatorial races that year:

    PA gov: D+6.5
    PA sen: D+5.3
    MI gov: D+9.6
    NV gov: D+1.3
    NV sen: D+4.3
    WI gov: D+3.9
    WI sen: D+2.6
    AZ gov: D+4.1
    AZ sen: D+5.2
    GA gov: D+0.8
    GA sen: D+2.3
    NC sen: D+3.0

    You may think I am cherry-picking, but I just listed literally every Senate and gubernatorial race in what are commonly considered the key presidential battleground states for 2024. Literally every single one of those races underestimated the Democrat, sometimes by wide margins well outside the MOE.

    But just to be as fair as possible, I expanded my analysis to include every state where RCP made a polling avg. This is what I found: in the 24 races, 18 of them underestimated the Democrat, by an average of 5.0 points. Only 6 races underestimated Republicans, in the states of NY, FL, TX, and MO, by an average of 3.4. The average of all the races showed an underestimation of Dems by 2.9. Not huge, technically within the MOE, but still pretty consistent.

    There is only one sense in which Chotiner’s claim that “the 2022 polls were largely accurate and even had a slight Democratic bias” is defensible, and that’s the fact that the generic ballot polls slightly underestimated Republicans. RCP had the Republicans leading at 2.5, and they ended up winning by 2.8.

    But since when did our assessment of polling accuracy focus on the national popular vote alone?

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  7. Mister Bluster says:

    Private citizen Donald Trump has stated that he will be a dictator and now has suggested that the United States of America become a “unified reich”.
    No doubt Trump will appoint JKB to lead the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. This will align well with JKB’s current beliefs since the original version was established in 1933.

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  8. EddieInCA says:

    I’ve been very vocal and consistent in saying that I believe Biden will win, and will win easily.

    Trump is a different animal than he was even six months ago. His decline is pronouced. His rallies are getting smaller and smaller, and he’s saying the same shit every day. The more he’s visible, the better Biden’s numbers will be, especially as soon as people start paying attention after Labor Day.

    Meanwhile…

    Inflation is coming down.
    Interest rates will soon be lowered.
    Illegal border crossings are down 54%.
    The economy is humming along.
    Infrastructure jobs are being created daily.
    The GOP continues to mess around with women’s health, with Louisiana voting to make the morning after pill a controlled dangerous substance which could lead to a five year prison sentence for use under some circumstances.
    The GOP is broke, nationwide, due to the Trump crime family’s grift of the RNC.

    Against that backdrop, Biden and Co opened offices all over Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona back in October, focusing on identifying, contacting, and encouraging voters at the precinct level.

    This isn’t 2016. And it’s not 2020. I think Biden’s team is battling against a media fighting the last war, but Biden’s team is looking forward and feeling comfortable about the race.

    I’m sticking to my prediction. It will be Biden, and it won’t be close.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    @Mister Bluster: the “unified reich” comes from an video posted to Truth Social where it appeared in a newsprint backdrop. It also contained phrases like clauses of World War I”, and appeared to be quoting Wikipedia articles.

    I don’t want to minimize the danger of Trump, but I think it’s important to set the record straight on this issue because it’s fucking hilarious. Just half-assed amateur hour shit.

    There’s a really fun article profiling the group that created the video

    https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/c7228wlpe0ko

    Mr Dilley responded to a request for comment with several insults and expletives.

    I suspect it’s just a matter of time before we discover the video was created using an AI that was part of the Deep State. (No human could have chosen a lot of the text in the ad)

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Elections are rigged, why should a Republican vote?

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Meanwhile…

    Inflation is coming down.
    Interest rates will soon be lowered.
    Illegal border crossings are down 54%.
    The economy is humming along.
    Infrastructure jobs are being created daily.

    I’d feel a lot better if I thought that even half of the people who support Trump actually knew any of those facts.

    I’ll say it again — Biden is not unpopular because of Biden, or facts. Biden is unpopular because various power interests want him to be unpopular, and they understand where people get their information from.

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  12. Matt Bernius says:

    The only thing I can add to this conversation is the question: When will people learn to take Dan Drezner’s advice and NOT talk to Isaac Chotiner. Seriously, 9 times out of 10, if he’s calling you’ve done something wrong.

    What’s amazing, unless Chotiner is spiking bad interviews left and right, how consistently the people he’s talking to seem to be convinced that they’re going to be the lucky one and not accidentally sound loony.

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  13. Gavin says:

    I look forward to watching Trump melt on stage in the very debates Trump thinks he’ll “win” in the mind of anyone who hasn’t already decided they’re voting for him.
    Biden is numerically older, but Trump’s mental illness is wildly more advanced than Biden… and no amount of stimulant covers that up.
    Good times.
    My money’s on Trump “waiting for applause” after mentioning the NRA and slurring more words into an incomprehensible pedophilia reference.

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  14. Matt Bernius says:

    @Gavin:

    I look forward to watching Trump melt on stage in the very debates Trump thinks he’ll “win” in the mind of anyone who hasn’t already decided they’re voting for him.
    Biden is numerically older, but Trump’s mental illness is wildly more advanced than Biden… and no amount of stimulant covers that up.

    Ya’ll, don’t lower the bar for Trump. Again, the issue with this is if he doesn’t drool or shit himself–which he won’t do–on stage then he’ll be declared the victor.

    For the record, the same thing happened with Biden in 2020 to some degree.

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  15. Moosebreath says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    “shit himself–which he won’t do”

    How will you know, especially if he is wearing adult diapers?

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  16. Kathy says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Smell.

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  17. wr says:

    @JKB: “Meanwhile, Trump is setting his sights to take New York. Possible? Who knows”

    What’s that the kidz on the internet say these days? Oh yeah — tell me you’ve never been within a hundred miles of New York without telling me you’ve never been within a hundred miles of New York.

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  18. just nutha says:

    @Kathy: Sadly, my Smell-o-vision is broken. 🙁

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  19. Kathy says:

    @wr:

    How long before the wingnuts claim the rally was at Central Park, and drew this crowd.

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  20. Michael Cain says:

    Other than his age, I keep waiting for Democrats to tell me what they don’t like about what Biden has accomplished in 3.5 years. He got the infrastructure bill passed. He got more money to deal with climate change than any one else has, ever. Millions of young people are free of college debt. He, Schumer, Pelosi, and Jeffries have played the Republicans in Congress better than we had any right to expect. He and the Fed have dealt with inflation better than almost anyone in the world.

    Granted, here in my blue state the rent is too damned high. But it’s hard to blame Biden — every where you go in my city of 180,000 there’s housing being built, but they can’t keep up with the influx of people.

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  21. Jen says:

    @JKB:

    Meanwhile, Trump is setting his sights to take New York. Possible?

    Ha. No. Not possible.

    There were what, ~4K people at his “rally” many of whom were protesters, and you think, somehow, he is going to win a state that hasn’t gone Republican since Reagan. Oooookay.

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  22. Andy says:

    My point has long been that there are so many unknowns due to the unique characteristics of this race that make it extremely difficult to make any confident predictions. We have two incumbents who happen to be the two most unpopular candidates in generations and the two oldest major party candidates to ever run for president. All the effects of social media, the continuing slow death of the traditional economic model for journalism, creating a balkanized hyper-niche information space that is difficult to evaluate, much less control or adjust to. Algorithms, AI, and information technology that we barely understand the implications of. The ongoing political realignment as constituencies shift between parties. That’s just to start.

    I don’t really trust anyone who claims with confidence to know what’s going to happen because so much will depend on what happens with a combo of impossible-to-predict factors, such as what all the double haters will do (how many will not vote, go third party and what will the split be on the rest?), who will energize their core and GOTV better, what will happen with things candidates can’t control, etc.

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  23. Moosebreath says:

    @Kathy:

    “Smell”

    My TV set (how I would watch any debates) does not include any olfactory settings. Where did you get yours?

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  24. Kathy says:

    @just nutha:
    @Moosebreath:

    Even without an audience, there will be Biden, the moderator(s), TV personnel, Secret Service contingents, aides, and assorted hangers on. Someone’s bound to say something.

    “Would you like a short break to change your diaper, Mr. Orangefuhrer? It won’t count against your time.”

    He might just do it on purpose. think of the ratnigs!

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  25. just nutha says:

    Really think that representatives for partisans are going to talk about that kind of subject? Or be believed by anyone who’s not a co-partisan? On the other hand, maybe it’s no longer about anything but throwing red meat to the dogs.

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