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Why the 2024 Race is Neck and Neck Right Now
Despite 91 felony charges, Trump is within a point of Biden, here's why
Last week, Donald Trump was arrested and arraigned for being part of a criminal organization that tried to illegally overturn the 2020 election. His mug shot was released and quickly went viral. Trump fumbled the COVID pandemic that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and even more jobs; and he is personally responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade.
On the other side, President Joe Biden conducted his presidency with decency and compassion, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations of what could be achieved with a Republican Party that won’t acknowledge the legitimacy of his electoral victory. Unemployment is under 4%, the economy is growing and inflation has been coming down for months.
Yet somehow — against all common sense — the 2024 election between a competent President and an incompetent criminal — will be incredibly close. The Real Clear Politics polling average has Biden up by only 1.4%. Biden won the popular vote in 2020 by 4.5%. Given the strong Republican lean of the Electoral College, a Biden popular vote win of this size would likely mean that Trump ends up with 270 electoral votes.
Despite awaiting trial on 91 felony counts, Trump is a coin flip away from the presidency. Because of the Electoral College and our highly polarized politics, we should assume that every presidential election will depend on a number of voters smaller than the attendees at a Taylor Swift concert. But even by those standards, the race is closer than it should be. To answer why, I dug into the crosstabs of the recent New York Times/Sienna poll and compared them to Pew Research’s Validated Voter Survey of the 2020 election. Focusing on one poll is risky given the margin of error and general variance, but the New York Times/Sienna has an A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight, and the trends I found in this poll are consistent in other high-quality polling.
It’s easy to look at these numbers and immediately start hyperventilating into a paper bag, but consider these few points. First, my approach to politics since 2016 has been “worry about everything, panic about nothing,” and poll numbers this far out from the election fit into the moderate worry category. Second, President Biden is in better shape politically than President Obama was at this juncture. August of 2011 was the first (and only) time Obama’s approval dropped below 40%, and in our internal polling, he was losing to a generic Republican. Finally, the point of this exercise is not to bemoan Biden’s political standing or find reasons to curl up into the fetal position under our desks. This is a roadmap for how to reconstitute the anti-MAGA majority that delivered the House, Senate and White House from 2018-2022.
1. Trump’s Holding More of His 2020 Voters than Biden
The primary reason for the statistical tie in the race is that Trump is holding onto more of his 2020 vote than Biden. In the NYT poll, 91% of Trump’s 2020 voters are supporting him again while only 87% percent of Biden’s voters plan to vote for him in 2024. Among Biden’s 2020 voters, 2% plan to vote for Trump, 4% claim they won’t if the race is between Biden and Trump, and 5% intend to vote for a candidate other than Biden or Trump. Trump loses 2% to Biden, 3% to another candidate, and 2% say they won’t vote.
Relying on self-reported voter history can be a little noisy, but Biden’s approval rating demonstrates that he has some work to do with his own coalition. Only 77% percent of Democrats in the poll have a favorable opinion of Biden, compared to 80% of Republicans for Trump.
This may seem counterintuitive, but I find these numbers encouraging. Convincing people who already voted for Biden to vote for him again instead of sitting out the election or throwing their vote away on a third party candidate isn’t easy, but it is doable.
2. Work to Do with Young Voters
There is, of course, some overlap with the above group, but young voters are not yet as on board with Biden 2024 as they were the last time around. According to Pew, Biden won voters 18-29 by 24 points in 2020, but he is only winning them by 10 in the NYT poll. Biden won voters 30-44 by 12 points. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the Times poll breaks out the age as 30-44, not 30-49, but Biden is only up three points with that group.
This change is not a bunch of young and young(ish) people deciding to support Trump. They are checking out of the election. — 9% of 18-29 year olds say they won’t vote if Biden and Trump are the nominees, and 16% of 30-44 year olds are either planning to vote for a third-party candidate or not vote at all.
These numbers are probably not a surprise to folks who pay attention. Young voters are a challenge for Biden. He started off the 2020 general election underperforming with that group and ended up generating high levels of turnout and support. It will take a lot of work, but Biden did it before and I am confident he can do it again.
3. What Does It All Mean?
The New York Times poll finds “modest Trump gains among Black, Hispanic, male and low-income voters.” The sample sizes of these subgroups are so small that I hesitate to pay much attention to them — even if other evidence suggests they might be real. Similarly, Biden is doing about four points worse with Independents than he did in 2020, but the universe of voters who refer to themselves as “Independent” is not static. If the past is precedent, the people who say they are “Independent” today are likely more Republican than they were four years ago.
The big takeaways:
Biden (and all of us) must work to reconstitute the coalition that defeated Trump in 2020;
Biden’s (and our) task is more difficult because the anti-MAGA majority is much more diverse generationally, demographically, geographically, and ideologically than the MAGA minority;
Communicating to younger voters Biden’s accomplishments and the stakes of this election are top priorities;
The Biden campaign clearly understands the task ahead, which is why their current flight of ads focuses on Biden, not Trump;
A viable third-party candidate like Larry Hogan or Cornell West is more damaging to Biden than Trump and could be what puts Trump over the top.
Yet another incredibly close race with the fate of democracy on the line is an unsettling and exhausting notion. It’s no fun to reflect on that prospect in the waning weeks of summer. Still, we must understand why the polling looks the way it does and formulate a strategy for how to invest our time and resources as the campaign heats up this fall.