After a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Donald Trump with far more support heading into the 2024 presidential election than Joe Biden, Democrats were quick to start making excuses. “Polls in May 2023 are worth as much as Theranos stock,” said former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. Obama’s pollster, Cornell Belcher, called the poll “trash,” while a White House spokesman said that “President Biden’s average job approval is higher now than in early November when poll-based reporting widely prophesied a supposedly inevitable red wave that never arrived.”
In fact, Biden’s approval rating is only about one percent higher than it was then, with the majority of Americans disapproving of his performance. And while the “red wave” did not, thank God, materialize, Democrats lost their control of Congress. (“Losing by less than expected” is still losing and is not what Democrats should be hoping for in 2024!) And as Nate Cohn of the New York Times explains, while the ABC/WaPo poll is an outlier, “the takeaway from an outlying poll isn’t necessarily a misleading one,” because the poll is not the only one showing that “Mr. Biden is vulnerable and weak among usually reliable Democratic constituencies.”
The ABC/WaPo poll shows Trump with a 6-point lead over Biden. That’s indeed on the extreme end of the recent polls. But it’s certainly not the only one showing Trump beating Biden. Of the 2024 polls FiveThirtyEight currently lists that survey registered or likely voters, one shows Trump beating Biden by 3 points, one shows Trump winning by 7, one shows a toss-up, one shows Trump winning by 6 points, and two show Biden winning by 2 points. (Biden does better against Ron DeSantis.)
And of course, even these numbers understate Biden’s challenge, because the actual general election is decided not by the total number of votes each candidate receives, but by the Electoral College. Biden could be beating Trump in every poll and still lose the election, for the same reason that Hillary Clinton lost the election despite getting nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. What we really need to see is Biden-Trump matchup polls in the swing states: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, etc. Only if Biden is consistently beating Trump in those places in particular can Democrats feel they’re on a path to keeping Trump from returning to the Oval Office.
There are plenty of other bad signs for Joe Biden. The same polls found far more people think Donald Trump is mentally and physically fit than think Joe Biden is, and more people think Donald Trump managed the economy well. And Trump has barely yet begun his propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of his presidency. We already know that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t think Biden should be president again, with even Democrats indicating they’d prefer someone else. There are also bad signs that the Biden campaign is struggling to raise money and not doing much to begin a national organizing operation.
Of course, a lot of Democrats may assume that Biden can, like he has done before, exceed expectations. He was performing abysmally in the 2020 primary, and then he won it. He was considered by many, including me, to be a weak general election candidate against Trump, and then he won that too. Should we conclude he’s just being underestimated again? Personally, I think it’s very dangerous to do so. Biden won against Trump by alarmingly small margins in some of the swing states, so that the election could quite easily have gone the other way, especially if Trump’s bungled management of the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t turned public opinion against him.
If anything, I think Trump is the one we should be cautious about underestimating. Since early 2016, in articles and in Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity (the best existing book about him, in my humble opinion), I have hammered the same point over and over: the fact that Donald Trump is a clown and a buffoon should not make anyone complacent about defeating him. Trump is charismatic, wily, and shameless. He is funny. He is vicious. He is a sociopath who will say absolutely anything in order to gain power. Stopping him will take extraordinary effort.
We could see at the recent CNN town hall event with Trump why it’s important not to underestimate him. The moderator tried and failed to keep Trump from spewing falsehoods. He waved away the recent sexual abuse verdict against him, claiming it had only caused his poll numbers to go up. He made the Republican-leaning audience laugh, cheer, and applaud as he denied every accusation of wrongdoing. One might hope that this reaction would be confined to a minority of voters, with most people being turned off by the casual attitude toward a sexual abuse claim (Trump ranted online that the jury should have been told the name of E. Jean Carroll’s cat, which was “Vagina T. Fireball.”) But we also saw in the town hall Trump’s tendency to try to “run to the left” of Democrats on certain issues in a way that gives him pseudo-populist appeal. Discussing the war in Ukraine, he insisted that he wanted a swift end to the war. “I want everybody to stop dying,” he said, promising to end the war within “24 hours” if elected. It’s unlikely that Trump could end the war within 24 hours as promised, but a population frightened of the possibility of an escalating conflict and hesitant to continue sending arms and financial support for an indefinite conflict might well like the sound of Trump’s “peace” candidacy. Many Democrats have criticized CNN for airing the Trump town hall, and it’s true that just like in 2016, CNN clearly cares far more about ratings than the future of the country. But I don’t think “deplatforming” Trump from CNN would eliminate the threat he poses. He will find other ways to reach people.
There’s an Onion headline from 2015 that has remained consistently relevant for the last eight years: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year.” If the ABC/WaPo poll really is an outlier, a “trash” poll that understates Biden’s support, well, let’s see what the next polls say. But I don’t think anyone should feel confident that we’re not going to see another four years of Trump. Democrats are running a weak and disliked candidate against a man who is utterly ruthless and out for revenge. If he wins, I wonder if Democrats will regret prematurely lining up behind Biden and not holding a competitive primary to find a better candidate.