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Five Reasons Why Biden Might Lose in 2024
Even If His Opponent Is Donald Trump
Biden, to no one’s surprise, just declared for re-election. The general consensus in Democratic circles appears to be that since he is likely to face Trump in a re-match and Trump is toxic among large sections of the electorate, Biden will pull out the win. I personally think it’s too early to assume that Trump will for sure be the nominee and that a non-Trump nominee would be significantly harder to beat.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is Trump. Here are five reasons why Biden might still lose.
1. Biden really is an extraordinarily weak candidate. His approval rating his been in the low 40’s seemingly forever. Right now it stands at a little under 43 percent in the 538 rolling average. Generally, presidents get pretty close to their approval rating in voting support. The last three incumbent presidents (W. Bush, Obama, Trump) got only 1-2 points higher support than their approval rating at the time of the election. This pattern would make Biden dead in the water if his low ‘40s approval rating continues to election day.
Of course, his approval rating might improve by election day; this does happen but in the 2000’s the pattern for incumbents has either been decline or a modest gain from this point in the election cycle. The best performer was Obama, whose approval rating went up a little over 4 points. Even if Biden gets that level of improvement and then a slight bump above his approval rating on election day, he’s still in very dangerous territory. A president who was barely elected with 51 percent of the popular vote would have hard time weathering a decline to 48-49 percent of the vote.
It's also worth noting that NBC polling shows Biden losing by 6 points to a generic (unnamed) Republican party candidate. This is a contrast to Obama who at a similar point in the cycle was leading a generic Republican by 3 points. But it is very similar to Trump’s situation in 2019 when he was also losing to a generic opponent by 7 points—and went on to lose to a real opponent in 2020.
And did I mention he’s a little bit on the old side?
2. Trump may be a stronger opponent than Democrats expect. There’s no question that Trump has a lot of baggage, including his incessant dwelling on the “stolen” 2020 election, that should weaken him as an opponent. But consider some uncomfortable facts. Trump is a point ahead of Biden in the RealClearPolitics rolling average or just a point behind in a polling average reported by Nate Cohn. Yes, it is early but these results are not nothing. We are talking about a candidate who is very, very well-known to the voting public, warts and all. But that is not translating into a big advantage for Biden, quite the contrary.
Certainly, Trump has a low favorability rating—but then again so does Biden. And in some polls, Trump’s favorability rating is slightly higher. Intriguingly, in the latest Wall Street Journal poll, Trump’s retrospective approval rating (48 percent) is actually higher than Biden’s current approval rating (42 percent), indicating surprising residual strength for a third Trump candidacy.
3. Biden and the Democrats have not moved to the center on cultural issues. Biden and the Democrats seem to be operating under the questionable assumption that they don’t need to draw any line whatsoever against the cultural extremists in their own party. This calculation overlooks the fact that voters think Democrats and Republicans are equally too tolerant of extremist groups in their ranks.
That means the Biden campaign will need to contend throughout election season with a burgeoning backlash against lax enforcement on crime and illegal immigration; ideological curricula in schools; the undermining of academic achievement standards; the introduction of mandatory, politically approved vocabulary; proliferating “diversity, equity and inclusion” bureaucracies; and the unvetted mainstreaming of “gender-affirming care.” Republicans are now widely preferred by voters to Democrats on immigration and crime; they have reduced the traditional Democratic advantage on education, and are set to take advantage of a conservative turn among the public on transgender issues.
There is a middle ground in all these areas, but Democrats are clearly resisting it. Witness the fierce intraparty reaction to Biden’s modest attempts to move to the center on crime by supporting an override of the new D.C. law that reduced penalties for carjacking and to his suggestion that he might resume detention of migrant families who enter the United States illegally (this blowback on a slightly tougher immigration policy comes when Title 42 is set to end on May 11, leading almost certainly to a big surge at the southern border).
On current evidence, it is hard to see a decisive move to the center aborning. Therefore, Democrats’ vulnerabilities on these issues will likely persist through the 2024 election.
4. Abortion may not be the silver bullet many Democrats assume it will be in 2024. There is a serious tendency for Democrats to overinterpret the results from 2022 and 2023 and map that overinterpretation onto a high turnout presidential election when many issues will be in play. It may well be a factor in Biden’s favor but the idea that it will override all other issues and deliver certain victory is wishful thinking. Even in 2022, many Democrats underperformed abortion referenda and general pro-choice sentiments, frequently by wide margins, indicating the limits of the issue.
It’s well to remember that American voters, by and large, are moderate on the abortion issue and do not support abortion on demand throughout pregnancy. Newly-released Marist/NPR data (consistent with much other survey data) show two-thirds of voters supporting limiting on-demand abortion to the first three months of pregnancy. Among working-class voters, these sentiments go up to 72 percent.
5. There is a working-class sized hole in Biden’s re-elect strategy. That brings us to perhaps the biggest problem Biden may have matching up with Trump. Biden’s opening video and the general message from his nascent campaign is very heavy on democracy issues, abortion rights, and denouncing “MAGA extremists”. It is fair to say that this message will play best among the college-educated voters the campaign is clearly targeting.
The problem here is that working-class voters are much more numerous than their college-educated counterparts. A reasonable guess is that as a group they will be half again as large as college voters in 2024. That means that slippage in the working-class vote can have on outsize effect on the outcome.
In 2020, Trump carried the overall working class vote by 4 points. In 2022, Republicans carried the nationwide House vote by 13 points. If Trump replicated that 2022 margin in 2024, he would be very hard to beat. Absent a countervailing Democratic improvement in the college vote—which the Democrats already carried by 18 points in 2020—Trump would likely carry Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and even Pennsylvania and Michigan. A counter trend among the smaller college-educated group could still cancel these effects out but to completely do so it would have to be larger than the working-class shift, spiking Biden’s advantage among the college-educated to over 30 points. Possible, but a very heavy lift.
Since Trump is regularly showing double digit advantages among working-class voters in trial heats and has a proven track record in attracting working-class support, the challenge for Biden’s campaign seems clear. They must at all costs prevent the kind of working-class slippage that could put Trump once again in the Oval Office.
Hillary Clinton did not take this threat seriously and she (and the country) paid the price. The Biden campaign should consider whether their strategy could be making the same mistake.