I am an expert on polls. Here’s why they can’t tell you if Biden beats Trump again — or vice versa

Which voters turn out, and who stays home, are likely to determine the election.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has had a rough couple of weeks in polls, adding to Democrats’ concerns about his age, political liabilities, and the possibility of losing a rematch with former President Donald Trump.

Biden’s allies dismiss the bleak talk. They point out that both Presidents Clinton and Obama had poor poll numbers in the fall of their third years but recovered to win reelection. Polls taken a year before an election have little to no predictive power, they add.

They’re correct on both counts — up to a point.

Obama’s standing at this point in his presidency was similar to Biden’s today, and it caused a level of Democratic anxiety that, in retrospect, sounds very familiar. Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, even commissioned a poll to see if Obama would do better if he replaced his vice president, Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a surefire winner, some thought at the time.

However, history never completely repeats itself. Biden is dealing with issues that his predecessors did not. He is one year old. Another source of societal trauma is the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is unknown whether Biden will be able to overcome these obstacles. But we do know how his campaign intends to go about it. His campaign speeches have already revealed his strategy. It has a lot to do with focusing voters on Trump.

The election landscape one year out

The last two presidential elections were close: in 2016, Trump won an electoral college majority by winning just under 80,000 votes in three key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Biden won his three closest states, Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, by a combined 44,000 votes in 2020.

Perhaps 2024 will be different, but it’s a safer bet to assume next year will be similar. The same five states, plus Nevada, will serve as the primary battlegrounds.

It’s also a safe bet that few people who supported Trump or Biden in 2020 will reconsider. Some of the 158 million people who voted will change their minds, but this is uncommon. Who votes and who does not vote is far more likely to determine the outcome of the election.

That is where Biden is vulnerable. Recent polling has revealed a consistent pattern of Democratic groups opposing Biden’s presidency. This includes younger voters, Latino voters, and young Black people, particularly young Black men.

Dissatisfaction on the left with Biden’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas has weakened progressive voters.

Our most recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies/Los Angeles Times poll of California voters revealed this pattern, which is also evident in swing state polls: According to the poll, one in every four voters who said they would vote for Biden in 2020 now have a negative opinion of his job performance. Latino voters, who were evenly divided in a previous poll in May about Biden’s job performance, now disapprove of his work by 14 points, 55% to 41%.

That doesn’t mean that young people or people of color are ready to support Trump. The Berkeley IGS poll found no evidence of a rise in Trump support. It does, however, imply that a sizable proportion of those voters may decide not to vote.

Biden’s goal

A reelection campaign has three main goals: increase the incumbent’s approval rating, direct voters’ attention to the challenger’s flaws, and win over some of the voters who express mild disapproval.

President Reagan’s “Morning in America” reelection campaign is a classic example of achieving the first goal. In January 1983, Gallup polling showed Reagan had 35% approval. It had risen to 61% by Election Day 1984.

But Reagan’s campaign had a strong breeze to fly on: the economy began growing rapidly in early 1982, after emerging from a deep recession. Before the campaign began, there had already been more than a year of growth with low inflation.

Biden’s White House has attempted to highlight positive economic news: administration officials have spent the last year traveling across the country touting historic lows in unemployment, new investments in roads, bridges, rail lines, and other infrastructure, and efforts to boost renewable energy, all under the banner of Bidenomics.

However, most Americans’ real wages have only recently begun to rise, memories of the high inflation of 2022 are still fresh, and the Bidenomics campaign hasn’t accomplished much. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, only 37% of voters approved of Biden’s handling of the economy, while 59% disapproved.

If inflation remains moderate and growth continues, the economy may appear more appealing to voters next year. However, polling analyst Natalie Jackson contends that Biden is being held back by another factor.

“There’s a big reason that the relationships between Americans’ economic attitudes, macroeconomic conditions, and political outcomes don’t look like they used to: It’s the pandemic, stupid,” Jackson wrote in a recent essay. Americans have attempted to put the pandemic behind them, and discussion of it has largely faded from public discourse, but we remain “a society traumatized” by the massive social upheaval it caused, she wrote.

The impact can be seen in higher levels of stress reported by Americans, as well as higher levels of negativity and lower levels of trust. It would be unusual if those factors did not have an impact on politics.

A choice, not a referendum

However, low levels of approval may not translate into votes against the incumbent. Voters who despise Biden will almost certainly vote against him, but a critical share of disapproval isn’t that high. According to Quinnipiac’s poll, roughly 1 in 8 independent voters “somewhat disapprove” of Biden’s job performance.

According to network exit polls, roughly 10% of voters said they “somewhat disapproved” of Biden’s work in the 2022 midterm elections, and Democrats narrowly won a majority of their votes. Winning that group in a midterm election was unusual, but it may be necessary for Biden to do so again.

That will necessitate focusing voters on the opponent, as Obama did in 2012 by focusing voters on the shortcomings of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

Trump, of course, has a slew of negatives to play on — and that’s before the criminal trials, which will likely dominate much of the election year.

The former president spoke for an hour and 45 minutes at a Veterans Day campaign event in New Hampshire, referring to his opponents as “vermin” whom he vowed to “root out,” calling himself a “proud election denier,” and promising to “begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if reelected. Notably, despite the fact that much of what Trump said was impromptu, those lines all appeared to be part of the prepared remarks he read from a TelePrompter.

Biden emphasized those remarks during a campaign speech he gave Tuesday at a San Francisco fundraiser.

“Our very democracy is at stake because the same man who proclaimed himself to be a ‘proud election denier’ … is running on a platform to end democracy as we know it, and he’s not even hiding the ball,” Vice President Joe Biden said. Trump’s remark about vermin, he continued, “echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s.”

Throughout his political career, Trump has performed best when media attention is focused on his opponent, as it was on Clinton in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. He enjoys being in the spotlight, but his presence tends to repel voters. Keeping the focus on Trump may provide a fruitful path to recovery for Biden. A poll taken today cannot predict whether or not that will work.

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