Just how dire are President Joe Biden’s poll numbers looking for Democrats?
The president is currently registering a 38.9 percent approval rating on average. He’s trailing Donald Trump in national polls by 2.3 percentage points. And he’s also trailing Trump in five of the six key Electoral College swing states.
If we take all this at face value, the natural conclusion is that Biden’s reelection bid is in deep trouble — indeed, that he is currently on track to lose to likely Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Like nearly every new president, Biden started out with far more Americans approving than disapproving of his job performance, due to what’s known as the “honeymoon” period. But in the latter half of his first year in office, amid the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, rising inflation, and a resurgent Covid pandemic, his approval plunged. In the two years since, it hasn’t recovered.
Indeed, Biden’s numbers have been remarkably stable — since the end of 2021, FiveThirtyEight’s polling average has shown between 38 percent and 43 percent of poll respondents approving. But by the same metric, the recent presidents who won reelection all had approval in the high 40s or above in their election years.
Polls pitting Biden against Trump also look grim for the president right now. RealClearPolitics’ polling averages currently show Biden trailing Trump by 2 points nationally, by about 2 points in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and by 4 to 5 points in Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona. (Biden is only leading one swing state, Wisconsin, by about 1 point.)
In conversations with pollsters and political scientists, I’ve heard three separate theories of how to interpret these numbers.
One theory: Biden is blowing it — the polls are a clear warning sign that the president has unique flaws as a candidate, and another Democrat would likely be doing better.
A second theory: Biden’s facing a tough environment — voters have decided they don’t like the economy or the state of the world, and, fairly or not, he’s taking the brunt of it.
And a third theory: Biden’s bad numbers will get better — voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and as the campaign gears up, the president will bounce back.
Which theory you believe has major implications for Democrats’ strategy next year — and for how comfortable the party should be with Biden running again at all. The stakes of the 2024 election are immense, so it’s worth digging into the arguments about what, exactly, is at the root of Biden’s bad numbers.
Theory 1: Biden is blowing it — and another Democrat wouldn’t be
One notable feature of Biden-era elections, particularly starting in 2022, is that Democrats have done reasonably well even as the president’s numbers have been poor. The party won most key swing states’ governor and Senate races in the midterms, and it did well in this November’s elections, too.
Yet for the past two years, those bad numbers for Biden have been basically constant. Though you can try to blame various events in his first year in office for Biden’s initial popularity drop, little that’s happened since appears to have budged his approval in either direction. It’s as if perceptions of Biden became fixed in amber.
That has led some to conclude that the reason for Biden’s bad numbers is, well, Biden.
As you may have noticed, Biden is rather advanced in years. He’s also never been the most effective communicator, or the most inspiring of politicians. He may have succeeded despite those limitations when so many Americans had the burning desire to get Trump out of office. But now, in the glare of the presidential spotlight, maybe all this has caught up with him.
As Nate Cohn has written, polls currently show Biden performing weakly among less politically engaged and less ideological Americans who don’t frequently vote — many of whom are young. Perhaps these voters are less issue-driven and would be more likely to make up their minds based on Biden’s personal traits, such as age. Perhaps they think Biden simply isn’t inspiring enough to bother voting for.
Could another Democrat do better? Some polls do indeed find that a “generic Democrat” would handily outpoll Trump. The problem there, though, is that generic Democrat can’t run. When actual Democratic alternatives are tested, they don’t tend to do dramatically better than Biden.
Some of those alternatives don’t yet have national name recognition, so perhaps voters are hesitant to support them. But those other Democrats also haven’t yet been subject to months of attacks from Trump and the right-wing media, who will inevitably find negative narratives to push that will make any politician appear less likable. Think of how Hillary Clinton was quite popular when she was secretary of state — but, when she ran for president afterward and became Republicans’ number one target, she became one of the least popular presidential nominees ever.
The age issue, mentioned constantly by voters in polls and focus groups, is particularly glaring. Biden is the oldest president ever. Unfortunately for him, this is a problem he can’t solve. Maybe swing voters just don’t believe such an old candidate could be up to the task. “On the specific question of Biden’s age, voters are sending about as clear a message as they can,” Nate Silver recently wrote. Would a younger Democrat be better positioned to win?
Yet here’s my doubt. In 2021, Biden was also very old — but, for most of that year, he was popular. He’s gotten older since then (as have we all). But it clearly wasn’t the case that voters two and a half years ago were intractably opposed to the concept of an old president. And I’m skeptical that his age has become that much more glaring to the general public in the two years since.
More likely, in my view, is that voters have come to doubt Biden’s competence, and many are attributing that perceived lack of competence to his age. But would simply swapping in another Democrat solve that problem — or is it the results of Democrats’ governance that these poll respondents dislike? If it’s the latter, that would be harder for a new Democratic nominee to shake off. Which brings us to the next theory.
Theory 2: Biden is being hurt by a tough environment for incumbents — and other Democrats would be, too
Biden’s low approval rating seems less like an aberration when we look overseas. Notably, many leaders of developed democracies are wildly unpopular right now, spanning the ideological spectrum — including Justin Trudeau of Canada, Rishi Sunak of the UK, Emmanuel Macron of France, and Olaf Scholz of Germany. (Indeed, Biden is significantly more popular than any of those four, even though they’re all decades younger than him.) This suggests it’s simply a tough time for an incumbent to be in power.
So what if Biden’s unpopularity is driven instead by bigger, broader factors than his own personal traits? What if many voters, in the US and these other countries, are simply pissed off about the state of the world — about how the post-pandemic return to not-quite-normal has gone?
The state of the economy looms large in this theory. In survey after survey, large majorities of respondents say both that the economy is terrible and that Biden is doing a bad job managing it. For months, American economists and policy wonks have expressed puzzlement about these results, pointing to strong GDP growth, low unemployment, the lack of a recession in the US, and cooling inflation rates.
But after a two-year period featuring the highest inflation in decades, prices are still a whole lot higher than they were four years ago — and voters seem not to have forgiven that just yet. (This has been a global phenomenon, worse in Europe than in the US, that could be dragging down many incumbents.) And governments’ chief inflation-fighting tool, high interest rates, may also be painful to many people, making it harder to get credit. Stock markets have stagnated or fallen since early 2022 (after many years of continuous upward expansion in the US). Some Americans could also see their incomes taking a hit due to the expiration of generous pandemic aid.
Another problem that could be dragging down incumbents across the Western world is the perception of a world on fire. Biden’s own approval dropped significantly after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, in the clearest example of a specific real-world event affecting his polls. (Though Americans had regularly said that they wanted to end the Afghanistan war, the actual withdrawal was portrayed in the media, and taken by Americans, as a debacle and humiliation, calling into question Biden’s competence.)
Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which became the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, led to more than 100,000 deaths, and threw the global economy into turmoil (including by sending food and fuel prices surging). Biden’s approval did not significantly drop since the war began — it was already low — but it didn’t rebound, either.
The Israel-Hamas war is the newest global crisis to capture the world’s attention. Like with Ukraine, it does not seem to have driven Biden’s approval lower — per FiveThirtyEight’s average, Biden’s approval was at 39.1 percent the day before Hamas’s October 7 attack and it’s at 38.9 percent now. But it’s an awkward issue that splits Democrats’ political coalition, with younger and progressive voters more likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinians, and could play out electorally and in swing states in an unpredictable fashion. It may reinforce the sense among some voters that the world is falling to pieces, and that Biden hasn’t managed to put those pieces back together.
The theory that Biden’s bad numbers are driven by real-world problems also implies that his numbers would improve if those problems were alleviated. Americans’ economic sentiment has been improving through much of this year, and the latest headlines suggest inflation is cooling and the Fed could start cutting interest rates next year. And today’s foreign crises might be out of the headlines a year from now.
Yet this doesn’t perfectly fit what we know either. Notably, though Americans’ economic perceptions have improved somewhat this year, Biden’s approval has not improved with them. And if Americans are blaming incumbent Democrats for problems in the world, why do Democrats and incumbents keep doing reasonably well in down-ballot elections?
Theory 3: Biden’s polls look bad now — but they’ll get better next year
But there’s another theory about what’s going on, which basically posits that maybe polls about Biden right now just aren’t so useful at predicting how things will go in 2024.
After all, it’s true that, historically, presidential general election polls this far out haven’t matched the final outcome very well. “History’s lesson is clear: Don’t pay attention to general election polls a year before the election,” Harry Enten wrote at FiveThirtyEight in 2015. Part of that may be because voters simply didn’t know that much about prior presidential nominees this early — something that may not hold true this year, with the all-too-familiar Trump expected to be the GOP nominee.
But another reason is that the campaign season, which hasn’t really started yet, matters for framing the choice to voters. Pretty much the entire political world will spend a lot of time next year making arguments for how people should vote in 2024. The media will also shift to covering the election as a choice between two candidates — the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Per this theory, Biden is starting off looking weak in polls because of two groups of voters — disgruntled Democrats and tuned-out independents — who may well come back to Biden as the campaign continues. These voters aren’t yet fully yet grappling with the likely choice between Biden and Trump as the two major nominees. But over the next year, that choice will become clear, and as they’re reminded about how terrible Trump is, many of those voters will likely end up backing Biden.
Because Trump has been playing a relatively minor (for him) role in the news cycle of late, voters may not yet be focused on how plausible it is that he’d return to the White House. Voters who might have rosy memories about how “things were better” in the pre-pandemic Trump years may think twice once they’re exposed to Trump’s bizarre and disturbing behavior again. And he is set to have at least one, and potentially more than one, criminal trial next year that could well make him a convicted felon. Once the nation’s attention is again focused on Trump’s many controversies and weaknesses, he may not seem like such an appealing candidate.
What’s the evidence that this might actually happen? Some point to the 2012 election, where President Barack Obama faced similar mediocre polls and pundit second-guessing for parts of 2011, but recovered the following year. There’s also the 2022 midterms — where voters who were unhappy with Biden often ended up voting for Democratic candidates, particularly in high-profile races with a MAGA Republican nominee.
Still, even if we expect a Biden rebound, we can’t know for sure whether Biden’s numbers will improve by enough to win. Notably, his polls now are worse than Obama’s were in 2011, and they’ve been worse for longer. They’re also far worse than Biden’s own polls against Trump were at this point in 2019.
A presidential recovery during the election year is hardly a guarantee. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, for instance, saw their approval drop precipitously as the election loomed. There’s also the worrying possibility for Democrats that this ebbing support for Biden isn’t just a blip, but rather a realignment. Sometimes “your” voters won’t “come home” — sometimes they stop voting, or decide the other party is the home they now prefer.
So Biden may not be able to take for granted that less engaged young and nonwhite voters will come back to him, rather than staying home or even switching to Trump — he will have to work to win their support.
Which theory is the strongest?
All of these theories have decent arguments in their favor, and we can’t know for sure which is right.
Here’s my view: I do expect Biden’s numbers to recover somewhat from where they are now. But I think how much they recover will depend on events — specifically, on what happens in the economy and in the world over the next year. So I’d subscribe to a kind of combination of theory 2 and theory 3.
I’m skeptical of the idea that Democrats’ problems would be solved by swapping out Biden. I’m not convinced that Biden’s age or lack of charisma are the true root of his polling difficulties. I suspect a more fresh-faced Democrat would face similar challenges as the nominee, once they’ve gotten the demonization that now regularly comes along with being the head of one of the two national parties.
There’s certainly a risk that a health- or age-related crisis could end up derailing Biden’s campaign later. But I think his current polling woes can be explained by a combination of real-world conditions like the economy, plus the fact that the campaign hasn’t really started yet.
If Biden’s governing record is the problem, I don’t think it would be so easy for another Democrat to turn the page. Of course it is possible that a different nominee would do a point or two better than Biden, and that that could make a difference in a close race — but that’s impossible to know with precision. A candidate untested on the national stage could also do worse.
I do expect Biden’s numbers to rebound as the campaign gears up in 2024, and for the race to get close. But again, I don’t know whether Biden will rebound enough. Anyone predicting confidently who would win the 2016 or 2020 elections was, in retrospect, wrong, since both were decided by tiny margins in just a few key states that could have easily shifted.
And here’s my other caveat: If the economy takes a turn for the worse again, or the global situation ends up getting more dire — well, I’d expect Biden to end up like Jimmy Carter, and Americans to learn what havoc a second Trump term will bring.
But I do think it’s too early to say that Biden is doomed. A year is a long time; we had no idea at this point in 2019, for instance, that a global pandemic was about to emerge. All sorts of surprises could lie ahead.