There’s a reason that President Joe Biden’s video announcing his re-election campaign begins with the chaotic scene outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021: the best tool Democrats have to mobilize their voters isn’t the sitting president, but the former president. The anti-Trump coalition has beaten the pro-Trump coalition in key swing states and districts in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Team Biden is convinced it will work again in 2024.
In some ways, the political environment looks similar to the previous eight years. The country remains deeply, but rather evenly, divided.
Despite Trump’s unpopularity in 2018, Republicans managed to pick up seats in the Senate by knocking off Democratic incumbents in states Trump had carried two years earlier, like Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. In 2022, despite President Biden’s unpopularity, Democrats carried every Senate race but one (Wisconsin) in states that Biden had carried two years earlier.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College by just over 78,000 votes cast spread across states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Four years later, Biden’s Electoral College victory was even slimmer, decided by about 43,000 votes cast in Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia.
In 2020, Democrats held control of the House by 31,000 votes. In 2022, Republicans won the House by about 6,000 votes.
The era of the decisive, landslide victory is over. Razor thin results are the new normal.
And, once again, just a handful of states — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin — will decide the winner of the presidential contest.
If you give Biden all the blue-leaning states, he starts the contest with 241 Electoral Votes. If we give the Republican nominee all the red-leaning states, they start with 235 electoral votes.
Under this scenario, there are five different paths for a Republican to win the Electoral College. Four of them go through Pennsylvania.
For Biden and Democrats, there are six different paths to 270, with four going through Georgia and three via Pennsylvania.
Or, another way to say it: as Pennsylvania and Georgia go, so goes the Electoral College.
But here’s what’s different between now and 2020:
In 2020, exit polls found Biden’s favorable rating at 52% compared to 46% who viewed him unfavorably. Today, Biden’s job approval ratings are in the low-to-mid 40’s. The most recent NBC poll found his overall positive rating at 38%, with 48% holding a negative perception of the president.
Even so, Biden’s appeal remains similar today to what it was in 2020: it’s less about who he is than who he isn’t. In 2020, Trump won voters who said they voted “mainly for their candidate” by seven points, while Biden carried the 24% of voters who said their vote was mainly a vote against Trump by 38 points. The 2022 midterms gave us another proof point, as voters who said they “somewhat disapproved” of Biden voting overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. A recent Wall Street poll found Biden leading Trump 54% to 15% among voters who disapprove of how both men have handled the office of the presidency.
Biden’s also older than he was in 2020. The risks involved with being in your 80s, where even a minor fall or illness can have devastating consequences, are significant.
For the last few months, if you asked Democratic insiders their biggest concern for 2024, it was the prospect of a third-party candidate — especially one with the backing of the multi-million dollar No Labels organization — bleeding support from Biden among suburban moderates. That concern has now become more public, with Democratic groups penning an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining the threat of a spoiler candidate. It’s also fair to think that a left-leaning candidate could siphon off the votes of disaffected liberals and young voters.
According to the 2020 Pew validated voters survey, critical to Biden’s victory in 2020 was his success in winning over voters who four years earlier had supported a third-party candidate. Overall, they found, “third-party 2016 voters who turned out in 2020 voted 53%-36% for Biden over Trump, with 10% opting for a third-party candidate.”
However, there’s also an argument that third-party candidates are less relevant the higher the stakes of an election and the stronger the contrasts between the two candidates. Candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein peeled off disaffected voters who didn’t think there’d be much difference between the two candidates or the way they’d run the country. Even as most voters say they are disappointed with the prospect of a Trump versus Biden rematch, most voters would agree that differences between Trump and Biden are significant.
What if you build your campaign around an opponent who ends up… not becoming your opponent? The Wall Street Journal poll shows Biden leading Trump (48% to 45%), but trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (45% to 48%).
Polling taken in swing states by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies (and shared exclusively with the Cook Political Report) finds similar results to the Wall Street Journal survey. In the five states POS surveyed (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin), Trump trails Biden by three points (43% to 46%), while DeSantis leads Biden by three points (45% to 42%).
This assumes, of course, that DeSantis’ brand will be as popular a year from now once he’s weathered a contentious GOP primary and relentless attempts by Democrats to define him as part of the Trump/MAGA brand. In both style and substance, DeSantis is giving Democrats plenty of ammunition.
DeSantis’ lead over Biden in these key battleground states is driven in part by the fact that he’s not as well-known — and, as such, not as polarizing as Trump. In Pennsylvania, for example, DeSantis leads Biden by three points (45% to 42%) despite — or because of — the fact that almost a third of voters (28%) have no real opinion about him. In other words, the Florida governor is getting the benefit of the doubt today that he may not get if he’s the nominee.
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